Breakpoint: Democracy is having a moment

According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, a record 4.2 billion people could vote in elections around the world this year. Ballots will be cast on every continent except Antarctica, and that's only because penguins can't vote.

To be sure, too many of these elections will not be free, fair or secure. And, in too many places, an election could only escalate political tensions and further the loss of freedoms. A couple weeks ago, voters in Taiwan elected a new president from the Democratic Progressive Party, increasing tensions between the independence-minded Taiwanese and the Chinese Communist Party. India's incumbent prime minister, a Hindu nationalist, is expected to easily win a third term this spring, which likely means persecution against Christians and Muslims will intensify there. The election in Bangladesh in January is widely believed to have been a sham, and the upcoming election in Russia will likely have even less credibility.

Some view these failures as proof that democracy doesn't work. LA Times columnist Joe Mathews predicted that after seeing all the "ugliness" on display in so-called democratic elections across the world this year, people might finally start looking for a "better way."

Still, the very fact that so much of the global community recognizes corruption and unfair elections as "ugliness" is itself a testament to the power and durability of democratic ideas. The world wasn't always like this. Before America's founding, representative democracy was far from the norm, and even then, it wasn't expected worldwide. As Christian ideas about universal human value and dignity expanded across the West, so did the notion that all people should have the right to participate in their own governments. These same ideas are why we reject sham elections and authoritarianism. These ideas are why nations aspired to equality and honesty, and why they now seem obvious goods.

Though the ancient Greeks are often credited with "inventing" democracy, women and slaves had no right to vote or participate in government. Often, free men of wealth didn't have the option to participate but were mandated to do so.

In the early 1800s, French philosopher and political historian Alexis de Tocqueville visited the newly independent United States. In his published collection of observations, "Democracy in America," de Tocqueville credited Christianity with giving the world its first real philosophical foundation for real democracy: "Christianity, which has rendered all men equal before God, will not be loath to see all citizens equal before the law."

The idea that humans had inherent dignity and were therefore equal to one another is a uniquely Christian idea, de Tocqueville argued, and fundamentally unlike the utilitarian philosophies that gave rise to the so-called "democracies" of ancient Greece: "It was necessary that Jesus Christ come to Earth to make it understood that all members of the human species are naturally alike and equal."

Obviously, democracy in America at the country's founding also fell disastrously short of this ideal. Slaves, women and even free African Americans were denied the right to vote and, particularly in the case of slavery, were treated as subhuman. The truth held to be "self-evident, that all men were created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights" was an aspiration not met. However, it is because of this aspiration that we recognize our profound moral failures as a nation.

In the same way, the corruption and dishonest elections we will likely witness around the globe this year do not prove that democracy is a bad idea. Rather, they are proof of another biblical description of the human condition. Humans are fallen and are subject to sin's corruption.

The LA Times may be concerned about whether humans can survive democracy. A better question is whether democracy can survive fallen humanity. This was another of Alexis de Tocqueville's observations: That just as Christianity provides the philosophical and moral grounding for democracy, Christian morality is the only system that can keep democracy from devolving into tyranny.

A democracy can only be sustained if informed citizens operate within a moral framework. This, in turn, requires an understanding of the world as it actually is, especially what it means to be human. Elected representatives who can't distinguish good from evil, or "man" from "woman" can hardly be expected to enact policies that allow men and women to seek the good. As John Adams, the second U.S. president, wrote, "our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

God has placed us in this moment, a moment that is really a historical anomaly. Among other things, this implies we have a responsibility to be the moral people upon which democracy depends. Thus, we must commit again to loving one another, to governing our tempers, ambitions, greed and tendency toward selfishness, and to never compromising on the truth of what it means to be human or what it means to seek the good.

From Breakpoint, Jan. 25, 2024; reprinted by permission of the Colson Center, breakpoint.org.

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