A recent Pew Research report suggested that American Christians could become a minority of the population in less than 50 years. And for some, this has led to a fear that the decline of cultural Christianity in America could spell bad news for the prospects for democracy here.
Because, while many people today are talking about how Christianity (especially when combined with nationalism) might be a threat to democracy, it is still more common to think that Christianity is overall good for democracy. In fact, many conservative evangelicals believe Christianity is necessary for a free society.
After recently publishing a book on Christian nationalism, I’ve given numerous talks, interviews, and podcasts and have had countless conversations with friends and colleagues in evangelical circles on the subject. And I have found that there is a possessive, proprietary attitude toward America and democracy—along with an insistence that a Christian culture is practically a prerequisite for democracy to survive.
The conversation goes something like this: Whenever I argue that it’s a mistake to look to the government to sustain a Christian culture, they counter that the government should have an interest in promoting Christianity because it is essential to sustain our democratic society.
For example, Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said at the National Conservatism Conference in September, “I am thankful to live in a society that is the inheritance of a Judeo-Christian civilization because it has established the very freedoms that we know.” So far, so good. Mohler is right that Christianity played an important role in shaping America and inspiring some of our founding principles.
But then he said, “Where else do we have access to any stable notion of human dignity? Where else do we have any access to the notion and defense of human rights in any substantial form?”
I can point out several examples of non-Christian (or fairly new Christian) societies that are, in fact, democracies: for instance, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Ghana, Mauritius, São Tomé and Príncipe, Samoa, the Seychelles, Mongolia, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, Nauru, Tuvalu, Kiribati, and Timor-Leste. These African, Asian, and Oceanic societies are all democracies that Freedom House ranked as “free” in 2022 for their recognition and protection of human rights.
The ranking also includes a much longer list of “partly free” countries across Africa and Asia, including India, Senegal, Comoros, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Tunisia, Bhutan, Madagascar, Liberia, Benin, Indonesia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Kenya, and more—countries where human dignity and human rights are at least partly recognized and respected.
Most of the countries on the “free” list and a handful of those on the “partly free” list have Christian majorities (including Malawi, Madagascar, Liberia, the Philippines, and Kenya). But their Christianity is a relatively recent import, dating back one or two centuries at most, and not the sort of institutional roots I take Mohler to be referring to.
The same can be said of the dozen or so democracies in the Caribbean, mostly made of up Christian majorities but with strong cultural influences from indigenous religion and animism.
The point is that American freedom is not especially rare anymore and is certainly not limited to America, to the “West,” or to European Judeo-Christian societies. This should demonstrate that Christianity and democracy are indeed separable, but my arguments fall on deaf ears—many of my friends and colleagues still insist that Christianity and democracy are inextricably linked.
Why do so many people insist on the connection between Christianity and democracy? Why is it so important to affirm not only that Christianity helped shape America in the past but also that it must continue to do so if we are to remain a free society?
The strange thing is, prior generations of Christians would be baffled by the idea that our faith is important to sustain a democratic society. Most Christians were probably monarchists of some ilk or other from the Roman Empire straight through the Wars of Religion in the 17th century.
To the extent that theologians thought about the relationship between Christianity and democracy or republicanism at all, they generally argued the two were in conflict, not that they went together. Christianity supposedly stressed otherworldly piety, while self-government required this-worldly virtues, such as public-spiritedness, vigilance against self-dealing, and the ability to put public interest above private gain.
The British and American republicans of the 17th and 18th centuries were essentially the first generation of Christians to argue that Christianity and self-government were compatible. As it happens, I think they were right—but it would not threaten my faith if they were wrong.
Supporting democracy is not the point of Christianity.
It may be a happy side effect—after all, godliness “has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:8)—and so it is entirely plausible that Christianity has positive, unintended consequences that makes sustaining democracy easier. But Jesus did not become incarnate to make possible the First Amendment or inspire the US Constitution.
Civic virtue is essential to sustaining an open society. But civic virtue is not the same thing as Christian belief, and Christianity is not the only source of it.
Again, Christianity is probably good for democracy—social scientists have argued that the Protestant emphasis on individual conscience, the priesthood of all believers, and universal literacy were contributing factors to the rise of democracy in the past two centuries. But God’s common grace allowed non-Christians (like pagan Greeks) to discover and practice the principles of political freedom long before we did.
If it turned out that Christianity actually didn’t go well together with democracy, what then? Would that somehow disprove Christianity or shake my faith? Would it show that Christians have nothing to contribute to the world? Of course not. If anything, it would show that Christianity has an important role in speaking against the prevailing assumptions of our age.
Insisting that Christianity and democracy must go together seems to give some people a sense of validation and relevance. It affirms us in the terms most cherished by the standards of our contemporary culture: We helped the cause of freedom, we tell ourselves, and thus Free societies need us to survive.
There’s a grain of truth in the claim, of course: It honors our tribe by highlighting an important historical contribution of our faith. But it is also a self-serving argument because it just so happens to conclude that our tribe needs to remain culturally predominant for the sake of our nation’s well-being and future.
It cloaks an agenda of tribal prerogative in the language of selfless service. It is easy to convince ourselves that our power is intrinsically righteous if it turns out that our faith is the key pillar upholding America’s constitutional order.
And so, we keep telling ourselves that democracy will not survive without Christianity—because it is the myth behind every compromise we make to get or keep cultural or political power. To be clear, it is not wrong to seek or use political power; we do so every time we cast a vote. But Christians are sometimes faced with a choice between maintaining our principles and maintaining our power.
The myth tells us that the choice is illusory: that our power is inherently principled, that the survival of America itself is at stake, that our country will not survive unless we remain in charge, which compels us to do whatever is necessary to keep power.
It might be a comforting myth, but a myth it remains.
Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University, a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. His most recent book is The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism.
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