Today the Western world is experiencing attacks on two of the main bastions of its cultural citadel. On the one hand, Christianity, which has underlain the whole development of Western civilization for the past fifteen hundred to two thousand years, is now under heavy fire from within the Western world itself. This attack has developed gradually for over a century, and it now seems to have reached a climax with the God-is-dead movement and the “God-might-just-as-well-be-dead” attitude of many others within the professing Christian Church. Likewise, the second typical Western phenomenon, democracy, increasingly suffers denigration and even positive assault, often by those who claim to be its staunchest supporters. Recent events in Czechoslovakia, a good many of the happenings during the American presidential elections, the activities of the New Left on campus and on main street, all indicate that democracy, like Christianity, is facing agencies that want to destroy it.
A question that forces itself upon us is this: Is there any relation between these two crises? Are Christianity and democracy so intimately linked that they rise and fall together? The Marxist replies with the stock answer that since Christianity and Western democracy are both the products of a bourgeois capitalistic society, they are certainly part of the same movement. Therefore if one goes down the other must soon follow. Some Christians, however, deny this interpretation. Numerous statements made in various Christian writings recently seem to reject democracy as non-if not anti-Christian, almost classifying it with Communism. They seem to place Christianity and democracy in antithetical positions.
In attempting to determine the truth of the matter, one might begin by examining how the Christian faith and democracy have been related in the past. The two appear linked together at various points, particularly at times of the Church’s revival and reformation.
Although the whole pattern of society at the time of the early Church was authoritarian and dictatorial, Christian believers adopted a democratic approach to ecclesiastical government. The Book of Acts, particularly chapters one and fifteen, shows that the early Church believed that Christ governed his Church through the Holy Spirit’s working in the entire Church as his body. The people as a whole, or their representatives, expressed their views by casting their votes.
After apostolic times this procedure was followed in the election of bishops and choice of pastors. But once the Church had become linked to the empire, things began to change. The emperor, and later in the West the Bishop of Rome, began to appoint bishops on their own authority. At the same time, the doctrine of apostolic succession became generally accepted; this placed in the hands of either the Eastern emperor in Constantinople or the pope in Rome ultimate and absolute ecclesiastical power.
With the fall of the Empire in the west and the ensuing barbarian invasions, a sort of primitive tribal democracy existed for a time, but this largely disappeared in the chaos of the “Dark Ages” (500–750). At the same time, the last vestiges of democracy within the Church vanished with the acceptance of the doctrine of papal sovereignty over all society, supported from the thirteenth century onward by the Aristotelian hierarchical view of all reality. Although at times popular democratic movements arose in both church and state, they had little or no lasting effect and only served to underline the fact that democracy in almost every sphere had all but disappeared.
Renaissance humanism, with its implicit anti-Christian and anti-democratic bias carried on the medieval ideas. Although accepting in general the idea that the individual was unique and therefore capable of great things, the humanists believed this possible for only a few, the elite. As Pico della Mirandolla put it, by the use of his reason the true virtuoso could lift himself to a position that would make him almost divine. Castiglione in The Courtier sought to show how this might be accomplished by a noble, and Machiavelli in The Prince advised rulers how they could attain this goal by becoming absolute in their domains. By 1520 the rule, rather than the exception, was despotism.
With the coming of the Reformation the situation changed. The return to the Bible, and the resulting rejection of Aristotle’s influence and the Renaissance humanists’ irresponsible individualism, brought into vogue in Protestant circles a different concept of man and his position in the world. Luther, Calvin, and the other Protestant leaders laid great stress upon the individual, but the individual as responsible for the whole of his life to God. This meant that the prince was not autonomous; he was liable to the judgment of God for abuse of his position. Likewise, the individual had a duty to the “commonwealth,” of which he was to be, as Knox put it, “a profitable member.”
This meant that no human power was absolute, and that both sovereign and subject were under the rule of Jesus Christ, who is Lord over all. Similarly, since Christ governs his Church through his Word and Spirit, working within the body of believers as a whole, the Church is neither an autocracy nor a despotism but fundamentally a kingdom of which Christ is the ruler. Calvin, who worked this concept out most fully in the organization of the Genevan church, also laid it down as the basic principle for all civil government.
One cannot fail to notice that in the seventeenth century democracy developed only where Protestantism, and especially Calvinism, held sway. England, Scotland, Holland, and the New England colonies all established what were, for those days, radically democratic governments. The English Puritans and the Scottish Covenanters put up a long fight to achieve their concept of parliamentary government, and eventually they won. The French Huguenots tried the same thing but by 1685 had suffered total defeat. The ground-motive of these struggles to establish democracy was fundamentally Christian, based upon the idea of Christ ruling over the state by his Word and Spirit through the people.
Yet, though the early democratic ideals were inspired by the teaching of the Protestant Reformers, with the rise of rationalism and deism in the latter part of the seventeenth century democracy soon came to be regarded as a purely human concoction. The idea of Christ’s kingship over the state disappeared. According to the American revolutionaries, democracy was one of the inalienable rights of all Englishmen, and according to the French revolutionaries, it was one of the undisputed prerogatives of all men. Democracy, now regarded as purely human in origin, was not considered to have any relation to religion, except that religion, since it was all basically the same, demonstrated that all men are equal. But the rejection of the Christian ground-motive led to democracy’s domination by a mob as in the French Revolution and then by a dictator such as Napoleon. This has been the constantly repeated story of humanistic democratic movements.
While rationalistic humanism spread and gained adherents, such movements as the Great Awakening in New England, the Evangelical Revival in Britain, and the Afscheiding in Holland were taking place. With the revival of the doctrines of the priesthood of believers and the Lordship of Christ over state and society, Christian thinking began to reassert itself. For a time during the nineteenth century there was a growth of Christian influence in politics and in society as a whole. The names of men such as Shaftesbury, Gladstone, Kuiper, and others point directly to the Christian influence that went along with a revival of democracy in that century. At the same time, however, anti-democratic and anti-Christian forces were gathering strength: Hegel, Marx and Engels, and Nietszche were declaring democracy to be weak and evil. Christian views of democracy faced the threat and opposition of materialistic unbelief, which favored the dictatorship of the elite, whether proletarian or intellectual.
The first two-thirds of the twentieth century have seen the growing success of anti-Christian, anti-democratic forces. As men have increasingly turned away from the Christian Gospel, they have more and more come to accept the universe as an accidental thing in an irrational world. In such a situation democracy has little to offer. Elitism and despotism seem to provide the only solution to the problem of how men can live upon this earth. The result has been Communism, Nazism, or the New Left, with a constant threat of mob violence. Only a dictator or an oligarchy, we are often told, can really control things in the face of absolute, ultimate chance.
With the rejection of Christianity by so many, even the old Christian “virtues” have now been cast overboard. To many people, moral principles no longer have any validity. The result is demonstrations for or against anything and everything, increasing difficulty and weakness of law enforcement, and threats of turmoil on every hand. In such situations the cry then goes out to hand over the country to someone who will restore “law and order.” This was the ground of Hitler’s election, and has increasingly become the electoral basis in other Western lands. The result could be dictatorship, the police state, while democracy disappears and Christianity also suffers persecution and retreats underground.
The world today does not need more dictatorship—ask any Czech or Slovak refugee! Nor does it need amoral, humanistic democracy. It needs to have the Church once again call men back to repentance for their sins. Men must recognize that they are under God’s judgment for their rebellion in thinking they can run their own lives without reference to him who is the Lord of Life. At the same time, they must hear the call to reconciliation through faith in Jesus Christ. When they take this to heart and recognize that he is Lord even over political government, the truly democratic way of thinking will be restored. If this does not happen, democracy will disappear, and with it the freedoms that down through the ages have meant so much to Christians.
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