The midterms election season is not the easiest time to feel good about American democracy.
We’re inundated with negative campaign ads that often distort the records of opposing candidates and portray them in the worst possible light. Each side warns that the election of the other party means disaster for the United States on an apocalyptic scale.
Can Christians really defend a democracy like this? Yes. We can and we should. And there’s no better time to do it than now.
Democracy is currently facing an unprecedented crisis, both in the United States and around the world. According to V-Dem Institute, the world’s leading research group for tracking democratic progress, there are only 34 liberal democracies in the world, the fewest since the mid-1990s. And only 13 percent of the world’s population lives in one of those countries—down from 18 percent 10 years ago. (V-Dem ranks the United States No. 29 in the list of liberal democracies, and its score is rapidly falling.)
Democracy allows for journalistic independence, free and fair elections, and peaceful transfer of power, but those attributes are fragile and easily lost. It’s currently much more common for a democratic country to become autocratic than for an autocratic country to become a democracy.
Some countries that lose their democratic status fully autocratize and become military dictatorships. But V-Dem’s recently released 2022 report suggests that the much more potent threat to democracy is not dictatorship but rather what the institute calls “electoral autocracy.”
Under that system, elections continue to be held, but the government rigs the political process by controlling the media, harassing critical journalists, and unconstitutionally expanding executive power.
Forty-four percent of the world’s population currently lives in an electoral autocracy, according to V-Dem. Countries that are in this category (or are rapidly moving toward it) include Brazil, India, Hungary, Poland, and Turkey, among many others.
Here’s the scary thing for Christians who take their faith seriously: In every country I just mentioned, religious conservatives are some of the main supporters of autocratization. In majority-Christian countries, those religious conservatives are Christians. In Brazil, many of them are even evangelicals.
Why would voters—including, in many cases, Christian voters—elect politicians who limit the freedom of the press and remove some of the legal checks and balances that have traditionally protected democracy?
According to V-Dem Institute’s exhaustive study of more than 200 countries, the main reason is partisan polarization. If voters’ fears of an opposing party become strong enough, they will often welcome whatever measures keep that party out of power, even if that means the loss of certain constitutional freedoms.
This dynamic seems to be playing out in the United States. The more we fear the opposing party, the more likely we are to excuse antidemocratic measures that might be needed to keep that party out of power. To put it another way: The more we believe in the rightness of our cause, the less likely we are to care about the process needed to achieve our political goals. We’ll act as though the end justifies the means.
This might explain why American evangelicals have sometimes been attracted to antidemocratic movements.
In the United States , evangelicals have often been more interested in fighting for particular political issues than in preserving the democratic process itself. And when they believe strongly enough in the righteousness of their cause, some of them demonize their opponents to the point where they’re willing to use antidemocratic measures to keep their preferred party in power.
For the past 200 years, American evangelical political campaigns have often focused on using the vote to fight evil. There’s a lot of merit to this view. Scripture does portray government as an agent of justice. Romans 6 and numerous passages in the Old Testament make that clear.
But if we focus only on the government’s role in bringing about a righteous order, we might miss an insight that many mainline Protestant Americans have historically held: The preservation of the democratic process is just as important as the creation of just laws, because it allows us to make sure that each person is treated as a divine image-bearer whose voice matters.
In other words, the democratic process can be a way for us to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Harvard historian James Kloppenberg, author of Toward Democracy, argued that democracy in the US will succeed only if parties on both sides are “willing to allow their worst enemies to govern if they win an election.”
This willingness to sacrifice one’s own interests, he writes, has often stemmed from a “Judeo-Christian tradition” that is willing to “see the call to love others for their own sake” as an opportunity for “self-reflection and self-transcendence.”
According to Kloppenberg, there is intrinsic value in allowing someone with whom we vehemently disagree to exercise political power, even when we believe they’re using it for horrific ends.
This self-denial, he believes, has to be rooted in something larger than ourselves, which is why democracies are so fragile. Most collapse entirely or, at the very least, become mere electoral autocracies where elections are held but few trust the results and even fewer dare to openly criticize those in power.
To sustain a democracy, we must value the process even more than the political causes we favor. We must love our neighbor more than we love our own interests. That means being willing to accept election results even when we dislike them and being willing to do whatever we can to defend the freedom of critical journalists with whom we might disagree.
But it also means that, when we’re the ones in power, we have an obligation to listen to our political opponents and make them feel valued. The winners of an election must model what Abraham Lincoln advocated for in his second inaugural address—“malice toward none” and “charity for all.”
Evangelical Christians have the theological tools to embrace this vision. We of all people should know that our vision is clouded by sin and self-interest and that our own political causes are sometimes based on mistaken interpretations of God’s truth. Not every evangelical political cause seems as noble in hindsight as it did at the time. An awareness of our own fallibility gives us the humility to listen to others even while respectfully arguing for our own position.
The kingdom we ultimately seek is God’s kingdom—not the victory of a particular political party and not even the advancement of the United States of America. That knowledge enables us to entrust the government to people we think might be deeply wrong. We know that Jesus will continue to be the king, even when earthly rulers fail us.
With this realization, we have the freedom to use our vote to love our neighbor. Although of course we’ll try to use our vote to advance righteous causes, those causes themselves are not our ultimate goal. Instead, our measure of success is the advancement of God’s kingdom, which relies on weakness, humility, and Christlike love for others.
As some around us resort to partisan attacks, we can instead use this election season as an opportunity to listen to other voters and show genuine concern for the things they care about. Instead of seeking to protect our own interests, we’ll seek to love others. And if we do that, we can use this election season as a chance to magnify the love of Jesus, regardless of whether our preferred party wins at the polls.
God did not ordain democracy or the American electoral process as the only acceptable mode of government. But nevertheless, preserving democracy may be a duty for Christian voters. We do so not because there’s inherent virtue in casting a ballot but because democracy is a way for us to show preference toward others and to practice humility and self-denial.
Those virtues are definitely worth preserving.
Daniel K. Williams is a professor of history at the University of West Georgia and the author of Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade.
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