To what extent can Christians embrace American style classically liberal democracy?
Southern Baptist thinker Andrew Walker very sagely analyzed the recent debate on this question between evangelical David French and Catholic Sohrab Ahmari. The latter argues for an aggressive reordering of our politics and governance toward ultimate principles rooted in natural law and the church’s ethical teachings. The former warns against any hints of theocratic aspiration and asserts that rights-based democratic pluralism is the best protection for Christians and other traditionalists.
Walker inclines toward French’s view but is less celebrative of liberal democracy:
I can’t, as of right now, see a better vehicle for living together with deep disagreements without resorting to violence. That’s not to say that I think liberal democracy is a good unto itself; it’s not. But it sets minimal procedural norms that allow discussion to exist, even if persuasion never occurs. I think Christians should champion this—not because we believe the world will be persuaded, but because we’re commanded in Scripture to conduct ourselves peaceably.
And Walker warns against Ahmari’s more ambitious hopes for a rightly ordered society:
But let me say that, with Ahmari, I think things are bad for religious conservatives and bound only to get worse. The issue for me, however, is that the problems religious conservatives face aren’t because of liberal democracy’s flawed design; they’re because of a flawed humanity that rebels against both God and nature. Were we to have any other political system in place—and let’s imagine it’s one that some stripe of Catholic Integralism wants—I still think we’d end up with the same inevitability: a humanity bent on rebelling against God and nature. The difference for me, as a Baptist, is that I’m not willing to trade the Christian gospel for an amorphous “Christian culture” beset with its own problems, using Christianity as a prop for some greater purpose.
So let me add my somewhat more optimistic Methodist/Mainline Protestant perspective to this debate. I disagree with Walker that liberal democracy, if understood as the Anglo-American political/constitutional tradition, is not a “good unto itself.” Fervently I believe this tradition has been not just a positive good but a unique and tremendous contribution to the uplift of humanity, politically, materially, intellectually and spiritually.
The Anglo-American political tradition ultimately is based on a Christian anthropology about the God-ordained dignity of each person. Its Protestant and especially Calvinist-influenced realism about human nature and society constructed safeguards against supreme trust in any individuals or institutions.
This Anglo Protestant tradition’s animus against centralized power has generated constitutional monarchies and republics of unparalleled endurance and stability. Its protections of private property and intellectual rights have generated unequaled wealth, ingenuity and beneficence. Its premise that each person carries the political image of God, irrespective of caste or class, has been the most democratizing and egalitarian force in human history.
These regimes and their egalitarian principles have, for all their warts, offered relative liberty and protection to hundreds of millions across time and culture, including of course persons and groups outside the Anglo-Protestant tradition. And these regimes remain inspirations, consciously or implicitly, for billions globally who live outside their rule. These regimes of British Protestant origin also are the primary bulwarks against authoritarian alternatives.
We who are Anglo-American Protestants should be especially protective of this political tradition of ordered liberty since it is we who were its primary crafters and have been its main cultural stewards across four centuries. The tradition was brewed during the struggles between Protestant established churches and Protestant dissenters in Britain of the 1600s.
The now much demonized John Locke, an alleged founder of autonomous individualism, who was exiled for his opposition to royal supremacy, emerged from this maelstrom articulating a regime of religious toleration and based on lawful consent of the governed. The late evangelical thinker Francis Schaeffer called Locke the political translator of the Protestant Reformation for, through the revolutions of 1688 and 1776, replacing arbitrary royalism with limited government.
America’s Mainline Protestant denominations have been among the spiritual pillars of this political tradition, and their demise facilitated the post-Protestant hyper individualism that now plagues our culture. Evangelicals and Catholics have sometimes awkwardly tried to fill the void. Understandably exasperated by profound challenges from aggressive secularists who assert sweeping rights without underlying moral premises, many Evangelicals and traditional Catholics are increasingly despairing of our democracy.
Some Evangelicals and Catholics are attracted to Benedict Option style political withdrawal. Some find solace in Patrick Deneen’s sweeping rejection of America’s political founding principles. Some Catholics increasingly flirt with mild forms of semi-theocratic Integralism. Perhaps some Evangelicals will resurrect parallel forms of Calvinist Reconstructionism. More commonly, Evangelicals increasingly look upon American democracy with aloof detachment, as perhaps morally neutral, maybe superior to available alternatives, but very distinct from the church’s chief concerns.
Such detachment, much less disdain, is unwise and unmerited. American democracy, including government by consent, legal equality, and individual rights, is an extraordinary gift, achieved and sustained via the sacrifices, tears, prayers and spiritual insights of countless providential heroes across centuries. Many of these sacrificial heroes were saints, but they shrewdly built a realistic political order that assumed all are sinners.
In sync with Sohrab Ahmari, the founders and chief pillars of the Anglo-American political tradition did believe society should ideally point toward the ultimate good, i.e. God and His laws. But as Protestant and often Calvinist realists, they knew even societies full of faith would never be comprehensively saintly.
These Protestant realists trusted, as does David French, that the free exchange of thought, sustained by faith, would at least protect the impulse towards constant reform and self-correction. As Andrew Walker warns, and as our tradition’s architects thoroughly knew, no political order, no matter how faith-infused, will introduce the eschaton. At very best, an approximately just society only faintly foreshadows the glory of God’s completed Kingdom.
Yet American democracy, as part of the Anglo Protestant political tradition, is an approximately just society, relative to most others, built on transcendent Hebraic principles that even secularists unconsciously claim. Our society is corrupt with all human civilization yet it is also precious and, at times, admirable. It merits defense by all realists who believe in pursuit of justice and human dignity.
But we American Protestants, because of our historical role as creators and sustainers of our democratic order, have a very special providential duty to steward and defend it. And as Christian Realists, we should warn against the sin of despair and the egotism that exaggerates the evils of our own age relative to all other times. “There is no new thing under the sun.”