During Providence’s Christianity and National Security Conference in Washington, DC, in November 2019, Georgetown University professor Nicole Bibbins Sedaca spoke about why Christians should support liberal democracy on the global stage. The following is a transcript of the lecture.

Thank you for having me. I’m delighted to follow my colleague Paul and I’m also delighted to follow someone who was called more provocative. So it can only go up.  

So the world is facing its 13th straight year of democratic recession. After decades, arguably a century, of global progress and of democratization, that trend is reversing. Countries that democratized toward the end of the last century are facing populist leaders that divide societies, raise doubt about their democratic values and institutions. Democracies in Latin America, Asia, and Africa struggle with violence, weak institutions, and public confidence deficits.  

Authoritarian leaders from Russia to China, Saudia Arabia to Venezuela continue to repress their own citizens and have expanded their illiberal reach throughout the globe. And they undermine democratic values at home and now recently abroad. And established democracies are facing significant challenges from populism, extremist political parties, and waning confidence in the democratic institution. I probably don’t have to say here at home, in this town, we are facing significant polarization, strain on our democratic institutions, and the questioning of the very values on which our country was founded. And thank you, Paul for articulating that so well. 

Waning American leadership on supporting democratization is leaving a vacuum that is being filled in part by non-democratic countries. And I thank Travis for putting a very fine point on what happens when democratic countries don’t lead. According to Freedom House, which is one of the leading global non-government organizations working on freedom globally, American democracy has been in decline since 2010, and according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, the decline started even as early as 2006. 

Freedom House gave its overview earlier this year, in which it stated “the overall losses are still shallow compared to the late 20th Century, but the pattern is consistent and ominous. Democracy is in retreat.” So, those of us interested in foreign policy and national security and arguably, I would hope, any American, can have one of two responses to this: Thanks and who cares? These are really not consequential developments as democracy’s really nice but it’s not a necessary element of life and it’s not necessary to the international system… Or, wow that’s really highly concerning. Democracy is the foundation of our country, it’s a foundation of our global system, our security architecture. And democratic regression impacts our security our values, and our political system.  

It is probably no surprise that I fall squarely in the highly concerned camp because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to fill the entirety of the time, right? I fall into that camp and I believe that all of us who are in the international arena need to increase our support for democratic institutions at home and abroad as an essential component to our engagement in the world. Neutral is not an option.  

The reason we need to is both for a more secure and a more prosperous rights-based global community. So let me just define also what I mean when I’m talking about democracy, and I think our speakers have touched on this. I’m speaking of liberal democracy, little “l” liberal democracy, which means the governing system that not only has free and fair elections and democratic institutions but is also characterized by the respect to the rule of law, protection of human rights, and active citizen participation. 

As many of you have probably studied if you’re in a good IR program, democratic peace theory tells us that democracy contributes to a more secure global community. They don’t have to go to war with each other. Democracies are still more likely to follow international norms and practices and to use nonviolent means to solve disagreements. Democracy is not only good for security but is also essential for economic growth. It’s a system that’s accountable to its citizens, that has checks and balances on corrupt and exploitative political and civic leaders, and allows citizen participation that would contribute to public policy that serves the needs of the people, not a minority of those in power. 

A 2019 study at Harvard University shows that when it comes to growth, democracy increases significantly the likelihood of economic development. Countries that have switched to a democratic model experience a 20% increase in GDP over a 25-year period compared to those that remain under authoritarian regimes. But it’s not simply obvious security or economic benefits that make democracy a preferable governing system. It’s also the fact that democratic values including freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom to participate in the government in the way you feel, are best protected under democracy. And the correlation that we’ve seen around the world between atrocities and human rights violations and non-democratic governments are clear and direct.  

But since the title of my remarks is “Christianity and Democracy,” not just to make the case for democracy, I will explain why I believe that Christians should be actively engaged in this process of strengthening democratic institutions in the United States and globally. And again, I would say and say it often. Neutrality is a policy option, and it’s not a policy option in my view that’s a viable one on democracy support.  

In the most recent period the Christian Church, which has been active in so many areas of public policy, has not taken up democracy support as, widely, as a distinct issue. And I posit that there is a domestic and foreign policy… that this is a domestic and foreign policy that Christians should care deeply for for three reasons: historic reasons, Christian values, and calling. 

First, historically, Christians and Christian thought contributed to the development of democracy in the United States and globally and again our speakers have pointed to that. The Founders of the United States, who were strong proponents of religious freedom, were foundational to the creation of our democracy, which protected that space for public engagement, for public… in, um, civic participation and religious worship. I commend to you an article written by Trinity Shaw and Robert Woodbury in 2004 in the Journal of Democracy that looked at Christianity and democracy, particularly looking at Protestant pioneers, as they call them, which has compelling cross-national evidence of the causal relationship between Protestantism and democracy.  

I will highlight a few of their points. The contribution of Christian thought and thinkers, particularly anti-monarchical thinkers to the development of democratic theory and practice, strong engagement in civil society and volunteerism, concepts that underpin Christian action and are necessary to a democratic society. The proliferation of the public sphere and the importance of public engagement in that. Spreading information through the proliferation of ideas, the access to information for a wider segment of society, and the fostering of a public square and debate.  

In this article, they also highlight the important argument made by Alfred Stephan who coined the term “twin tolerations,” which talked about the mutual independence of Church and State, which is the independence of state from religious control and the independence of religion from state control. And just to be clear as I’m following on Paul Miller’s comment, this is not to say that I am advocating in any way for us to fall into that latter category of culturalism. What I am saying is that there is a strong connection that we as Christians cannot deny and that we have to be in the game of promoting the system that is most closely aligned with the values. 

So with that, let me switch to the second argument, which is the one about values, Christian values, of justice, human dignity, and equality are best advanced and protected under a democratic government then there are under any other type of government in the long term. We see that most human rights abuses and injustices occur in countries with an autocratic leadership. We heard earlier today about religious freedom and if you look at the countries that are on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in… is a who’s who of dictatorial countries: China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Syria to name a few. That’s not a list of democratic countries, and it is not a coincidence that those two lists do not overlap.  

And as we think about… as we think about democracy how democracy supports Christian values, we also recognize that democracies do have shortcomings. So I just want to mention that your democracies are not perfect and utopian and I don’t put that forward as a possibility. And they don’t always protect the values of justice, human dignity, and equality perfectly. Our own history and the exclusion of various ethnic, racial, and faith roots certainly bears that out, but compared to other systems, democracy is the system which best protects individuals and groups and their ability to flourish in their society. And importantly, it allows for the challenge of authority when those values are not advanced or protected.  

And this is not an insignificant caveat. But I posit that there are fewer cases in which democracy has not delivered on these values than there are positive cases for Christian values and democratic society. And the solution is not abandoning or disengaging from democracy, but rather to have more engagements internally and externally on the democratization process.  

So. Talked about history, talked about values. Let me talk about the issues or Biblical calling issues that Christians engage on. Christians have been strong and effective advocates for numerous issues for which there is a strong Biblical calling. These certainly include justice and fighting oppression, and particularly religious oppression. Christians have done a remarkable job on engaging globally to respond to these callings. But as we think and unpack these very important callings, each of these is better achieved or more fully realized through a functioning government system that has been built on liberal democratic values. If you care about justice, and those of us who work with the International Justice Mission certainly are among those, you have to inherently care about the structures that deliver justice.  

Justice requires functioning judicial systems, well-trained judges, lawyers, and police forces, effective institutions that respond to the rule of law. We cannot hope to combat corrupt police or unfair sentencing without strong liberal institutions. While institution is extraordinarily not interesting from a, um, from a daily standpoint, the idea that they underpin this important calling to justice is undeniable. If you care about correcting oppression, including religious freedom, freeing of imprisoned pastors around the world, you have to inherently care about the system that does not protect their right to worship freely.  

Advocating for freeing of individual pastors or religious communities is essential and is important work. But a systemic change as well, a democratic change in countries where people of faith are persecuted on a daily basis would allow that persecution to come to an end. Let me be clear that this is not to say that no progress can be made on these issues without democracy. Progress can most certainly be made and is made on a daily basis in countries where there is an authoritarian government. However, the values that underpin… the values that underpin issues such as justice, respect for human rights, and freedom of worship are cornerstones in democracies, and not in authoritarian governments. And likewise, functioning democratic institutions combined with free media and a vocal, active civil society allows these problems to be raised regularly and how redressed when those values are endangered. 

So having out my three points of alignment between Christians, Christianity, and democracy, let me acknowledge that there are other issues – just trying to fend off the questions in advance – there are hard issues, and they’re really hard issues related to democracy at home and abroad and I actually suspect that these are some of the reasons why some Christians have chosen to stay out of this realm of work. 

First one, democracy can lead to non-Christian people or non-Christian ideas winning. Why on earth would I work to strengthen or support a system that would lead to the election of a person with whom I fundamentally disagree or policy positions to which I am opposed? It is really difficult. It is really difficult to accept this… accept the system which ultimately may allow our opponents or people with whom we radically disagree to win.  

I spent the day on Monday with a group of 25 Burmese activists that were invited by the George W. Bush Institute to the United States and trained on leadership. And to have the conversation to say that you have to have hope in a democracy, because when you are in a pluralistic society and when you have to live alongside other people who are extraordinarily different, who have extraordinarily different faiths, that reality becomes very close to home as the only system that will allow such a diverse society to come together.  

So, it is difficult to accept the system that ultimately allows our opponents to win. I would argue that Christians have a role to play in shaping the secular institutions to advance our values and create the space for us to advocate for our values rather than making secular institutions impose our values, or seeking out a system that is reflective only of those values. Likewise, the existence of a fair playing field in which everyone’s rights are productive ensures that our Christian rights are consistently protected and that we are not at the whim of leaders who may disagree with our views. 

So second difficult issue, the process of democratization can hurt some Christians in the short run. The process of democratization is difficult and in no country, ours included, are transitions to democracy something that happens overnight, and in many cases there are significant challenges along the way. There are a few countries in which Christians have fared better under authoritarian leaders in the short term than they have in early days of a democratic transition. And here, I’ve been talking a lot to a Coptic Christian friend from Egypt about the transitions and the difficulties that they face. There are cases where authoritarian leaders in some places have chosen to protect religious minorities including Christians, and elections have brought to power some like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt that have not protected Christian minorities.  

In my view, that’s not a transition to democracy. In my view that is just a different form of authoritarianism and we have to call it as such and it is inconsistent, I would argue, with our Christian values to then support a dictator we like over a different dictator. Rather, we should push that that transition to democratic leadership is full and supported and complete so that there can be a respect for all of the groups in the country.  

Last tough issue. Democracy is inherently political. Christians should not be political. Or, democracy is political and Christians should only be political but just for their party. And I hear both on a regular basis in dissonance in my ears. I’ve heard the argument that they should not be political, that Christians should not be political, and I would argue that Christians should be political to advance Christian values, but not to advance only one party’s agenda. 

So first let me take this idea that Christians should not be political. I sympathize with this position, but it’s ultimately untenable. We are called to engage the world but not be of the world. Christians have already effectively engaged in political processes to shape public policy in alignment with many other moral values with great success and great integrity on human trafficking, poverty, justice, HIV/AIDS, and countless other issues. Engaging on democracy support, on the system that would underpin the values, is similar to engaging on many of the other key issues on which Christians have been excellent advocates.  

On this idea that Christians should be political but not bi-partisan or non-partisan, or open to everyone, I would argue that just as we are called to engage institutions of power, we are not called to become the institutions of power, to be led more by a political ideology than we are by our faith. Supporting democracy creates the space for Christian values to flourish without using these institutions to impose our positions on others.  

Timmy Heller, many of you likely know, the founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, wrote an op-ed last year that I think many read that was entitled “How Do Christians Fit Into the Two-Party System? They Don’t.” He affirms the importance of engaging politically while avoiding single-party alignment. I will quote from his piece: “Christians cannot pretend that they transcend politics and simply preach the Gospel. Those who avoid all political discussions and engagement are essentially casting their votes for the social status quo. To not be political is to be political.” And I would argue that that extends to the international arena, and it’s not simply something that we need to live at home, but our silence about autocrats who are oppressing people around the world is a political statement.  

Heller goes on to warn about the problem of what is called “Package Deal Ethics,” a term that was used by British ethicist James McGregor, and he says increasingly political parties insist that you cannot work on one issue with them if you don’t embrace all of their new positions, and Keller argues that Christians are pushed for two options. One is to withdraw and try to be apolitical, and the second is to assimilate and fully adopt one party’s whole package in order to have your place at the table. Neither of these are valid options. So as democracy is in decline in many places in the world, we can’t be apolitical on an issue that fundamentally creates the space and the process for Christian values to flourish, and for us to advocate for those issues that are central to our faith calling. 

So, as a professor, and I have seen many young people in this room, I have to say what this means practically and launch you out into the world to do something about it. Um, so if I believe that Christians should support liberal democracy at home and abroad, what does that look like? Work. There are countless non-governmental organizations working on supporting democracy in the United States and around the world. These organizations are supporting free and fair elections, fair judicial processes, open media, and other core elements of democracy.  

Vote. We are all voters or close to being voters. Make your representatives aware of the importance of democratic institutions in your community and as part of our foreign policy. Speak out for fair democratic processes in your hometown and the fact that foreign policy… that democratic support is a key component of American foreign policy. Because how, as Paul mentioned, is how we are able to support democratic values overseas, how we are able to strengthen countries that are seeking to be stronger democracies is not only important for their development. It’s important for ours at home as well.  

Engage. We are members of a society. What do you want the members of the society in which we live to think about Christians and how they engage? Our behavior in the public and private square is what is a reflection of how we see democratic openness.  

Speak. Speak out against governments that are not democratic, and speak out against practices that are non-democratic. Speak out regardless whether they are your friends, allies, or business interests, and speak out for the integrity of a system. Not simply for your parties or your sides. Speak out for the integrity of the system that allows there to be space for your side to have a place in society as well.  

Let me leave one thought with you as I close, um, in looking at what we’re called to do from Scripture. Scripture doesn’t actually speak specifically about a foster care system and an orphanage system, but it does… those are the systems, those are the structures, that allow us to fulfill our calling. We are called to protect the orphan. Likewise, it also does not speak about democracy. It does not say somewhere that this is the preferred system, but it is the best system to reach and fulfill our calling for justice and mercy and correcting oppression, which are Biblical callings. 

So, as we continue our conversation today, I hope that you’ll be joining me in this effort of supporting democracy around the world. Thank you. Questions? We have time to answer them all.  


Question: Hello. My name is Jose Amarde, I’m a Dominican student… I’m a Dominican student. I have a question about democracy transition. So I’m a Dominican student, and my first question on the transition. So in my country, uh, Dominican Republic, we have what we call a fake democracy. So something about… well… people in my country have what we call “narconieras,” like government basing of, like, a drug economy. So we have a little bit of economy what is mixing human trafficking, you know, based on, you know, human trafficking and drugs control… and we have been trying for many years, trying to take… take out the government, and in face of our international community, we have what we call democracy but we have been in control of the government for more than 25 years. Same-part control. And, um, we have been trying to change… to change the power, but it will take… it will have a high cost. It will be… we could even end up having, being like… we could have this… we could end up having the same situation as Venezuela if we try to do… to take the same transition from the fake democracy to a real democracy. So my question is how do we go from a fake democracy to a real democracy, taking down the narconiero, and taking down human trafficking in the same party, which is the only party we have right now.  

And how do we… how do we take down all these situations and go into a real democracy as opposed to what we are in right now? And trying to end on the same time with the support of the international community? So how do we do that, um, from the perspective of international… internationally? I’m trying to find a way to explain it better. We just have like a really uncomfortable situation, because we don’t really have the international support, we don’t have the support in our own country, and even if we try to do it, our economy depends on the drug control. And even if we try it… we could end up in a really bad situation. And the democracy that people call democracy, no real democracy, so… 

Answer: Thank you for that example. I think you’re absolutely right.  

Response: So how will we… how will we work on the transition of it without destroying the country? 

Answer: Thank you for that question. I think the Dominican Republic, like many countries, are in what’s called unconsolidated democracy transition, right? And it’s extremely difficult. And I do not want to in any way minimize how difficult the transition to democracy is. I don’t think that the only transition when you push against illiberal leaders is Venezuela. We have seen transitions… Mexico, many years did not have a transition for decades and decades, one-party rule in Mexico. And citizen participation… I think citizen participation, grassroots movements, and external pressure on the government are the best way for there to be pressure on a government that is not moving democratically, that is basically an illiberal democratic leader.  

And so I think that citizen participation, citizen engagement both with others in the… in your own society but also with external actors that then can pressure the government from an outside perspective is important. I do think a key part of this is that… that external pressure comes when the United States, when the Organization for American States, when other countries in the region make democracy a part of their foreign policy. I think you have seen the United States step back from that being a core component of our foreign policy, and I think we’re seeing the ramifications that when the United States does not lead, and others in the region don’t lead, countries and civil society don’t have the support that they need. 

Question: Um, so my question is actually somewhat on the same lines. When you think about democ… not only democratic transition but also getting from illiberal to liberal democracy, most of the IR comparative literature says it takes them a really long time. When you think about particularly American interest in foreign policy, I noticed that there tends to be a short-term result bias. Um, we want to see the election with the purple fingers and then the booming of democracy, right? So how do we not as educators but also as a Christian perspective, get people out of that mindset of short-term and really to understand not only yes, this is necessary, but also sort of the long-term process and we need… we need to stay vigilant working on it? 

Answer: I couldn’t… I couldn’t agree more. I think that we do have a short-term view often, and we tend to think that an election is a sufficient result. I think election is the first and very important step but obviously there’s an extraordinarily long process and as we see in the case of Egypt, you can elect leaders that are not going to govern democratically which is highly destructive to the society and highly destructive also to their confidence in… in democracy.  

I think that, as citizens, we all have the ability to make this a higher priority for our electorate. We have had, well, we’ve seen this transition in Congress, but we’ve also seen this transition over some two administrations at least, is the decrease of this issue in the public perception and in the public conversation. But we have that choice as to how we engage our elected officials to make this a higher priority or not. I think part of that is then having a well-trained and well-educated body of practitioners that go far beyond just looking at elections, but see this as an entirety of the situation.  

I have to think where the United States often makes a mistake from a foreign policy perspective is that we forget that we still have enough leverage that we can pursue our security and economic interests at the same time that we’re pursuing our democracy and human rights interests. And quite often we say that we can’t have that tough conversation with Saudi Arabia because we really, really need them on security issues in the Gulf.  

Truthfully, I think that we’re able to walk and chew gum on a number of these issues, and be able to say we can talk about the fact that you murdered a journalist in another country. We can have a conversation that you are repressing significant portions of your society, and that freedom of religion is a non-existent concept, largely, in your society. And we can have the conversation about security. I do think that there are a number of countries that are much more interested in having a conversation with the United States than we are with them. And so, we are in a position of leverage and we should use that to… to not just our advantage, for our own interests, but for the advantage of the international system, which the more stable it is, the more beneficial it will be for us at home. Thank you.