I understand that Christianity does not enforce any way of governing. And that democracy was invented by the Greeks before Jesus. But my question is this: Does Christianity teach the values for democracy to work?

As an example, the United States Declaration of Independence states that all humans have rights because they were created equal by God :

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. (source)

The idea of religious liberty has been defended from Calvin onwards.

Also the book of Acts contains examples that could be understood as democracy at work in the church. Acts 13 presents the whole church sending Paul and Barnabas.

Therefore are Christian values the reason democracy became a viable way of governing?


7 Answers 7


I tend to agree with Marc Gravell's answer on this, but I would like to add that I don't think that any religious influence or moral framework could make a true democracy work. True democracy, history has shown, always degenerates into what Lord Acton described as "the tyranny of the majority" in which the rights of the minority get trampled by the opinion of the majority.

I'd also like to point out that the quote that you used was not intended by the founding fathers of the United States to support a democracy. It was used to state that they felt that the government of Britain had trampled certain rights.

The idea of unalienable rights was an important part of providing the form of government that was eventually established here - not a democracy, but a Constitutional Republic with some democratic elements: A form of government in which the Constitution is the rule of law, and the protection of freedoms established in the Constitution were designed, specifically, to limit what the government is able to do, and thereby protect the country from the pitfalls of a true Democracy.

As Marc pointed out, The U.S. is now fractured and divided among many lines, which is, in my opinion, a result of the fact that we've lost sight of the fact that we're not a democracy.

People on all sides seem to have forgotten the fact that we're not a democracy, that might (whether in strength, or in numbers) doesn't make right, and that there's a reason we are supposed to have a limited government. The fact that we've forgotten the idea of unalienable rights is allowing us to slip into the "tyranny of the Majority" and it's only the fact that both sides have approximately equal support that we're not there already.

Also agreeing with other's sentiments, Christianity itself is split among too many lines. This site is a small representation of Christianity as a whole, but even among the Christians here we're split. Even on this site, there is a concern about the tyranny of the majority, and I think it's a valid concern.

So, in summary, I believe the answer is "no". Christianity might be able to provide some good moral foundations, and certain teachings that coincide with what's best in us, but no religion can form as the basis of a government. I personally believe that the idea of unalienable rights, endowed by our Creator is a very good starting point, but that's something that could have come from other sources than Christianity.

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    Speaking as a Wisconsinite with a popularly elected governor facing a recall for doing what he thought he was elected to do while everyone opposing him chants, "This is what democracy looks like", you're exactly right.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Jan 17, 2012 at 14:47
  • I profoundly disagree! (I'm not down-voting, as your post is clear, well argued - as far as it goes - and supported) You are recognising the problems inherent in a democracy, but the emphasis on the US as a constitutional republic tends at some level to down-play the problem that is not fundamentally solved by a constitution, only partially mitigated. I don't think you've come to grips with the profound tools that 'the faith delivered to the saints' do actually give us to make democracy (in different forms) and in fact any form of government more workable than it otherwise would be. Commented Sep 22, 2014 at 13:33

There are a few problems with this approach; firstly, democracy cannot make sense if there is something with a super-vote; if we ignore the Christian hot-points, and say that (silly example) there's a religious law that says "chairs must be blue". At this point, it doesn't matter if 95%+ of the population wants to use different colour chairs - they are trumped by religious law. Thus, true democracy does not exist while there is somebody with an absolute trump.

The second issue is that what you say is not specifically a Christian value (rather: it is applied much wider than that by many cultures and people - I had a discussion here about the definition of "Christian values", but never articulated it as a site question), and indeed it is not even strictly applied as a Christian value by all; there are various sections of Christianity that have (both past and present) shown significant issues with gender roles, and the worth/righteousness of individuals acting entirely within the law of the land (starts with "h"...). While this is true of all society, religion tends to slow-moving on issues like this, since changes here (or anywhere) challenge doctrine and dogma.

The third issue is that Christianity hasn't exactly done a good job of showing a working democracy; instead, every time there's a difference of opinion it has fragmented into different factions, schisms and sects. Showing this level of inability to work as a cohesive democratic body on policy in the Christian domain does not bode well as an example for setting policy outside core Christian arenas.

  • I agreed with you on different levels. First your super-vote example is good and fair. The second argument, is lacking in showing that the values that I presented in the question are borned out of Christianity. And thirdly, all arenas of though (Islam, Atheist, Hindus ...) brings with it his faction, sects. Commented Jan 17, 2012 at 12:26
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    @David re the second, all you have to do is look at the Greek democracy that pre-dates Christianity; for the 3rd - absolutely! but it is easier to reach a rational concensus without the overtone of things like religious edicts and absolutes (which are born from dogma, rather than empirical data, with the result that it is hard to debate them pragmatically and evaluate their validity and impact, or indeed to reach compromise) Commented Jan 17, 2012 at 12:37
  • Your first paragraph seems to be a rather silly straw man - the case you outline is not a democracy in any sense let alone a 'true democracy' - what is the point you're trying to make here that does not parse as "A Christian non-democracy is not a democracy."? With regard to values, the majority will always have some values, could you strengthen your case that "unalienable rights" and "religious liberty" can be derived and sustained from other sources? Regarding fragmentation versus cohesion - absolute monarchies are far more 'cohesive' than democracies in general - what is your point here? Commented Sep 22, 2014 at 14:15

The term "democracy" comes from ancient Greece, where what is generally considered the first democracy was established in Athens in 507 BCE. Democracy thus predates Christianity by a significant margin.

As for "Christian values" having an influence on the success of democracies, note that many of these democracies, especially in Europe, were created by overthrowing monarchies which often had close ties to the Church.

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    Just don't forget the following: 1. most of those monarchies, were not absolutists, but had a Parliament before they turned into democracies. 2. Town officials were elected by the people. 3. Nearly all of the European monarchies transformed into democracies peacefully. 4. If there were no correlation between Christian values and the success of Western democracies, then why didn't all, non-Christian monarchies turn into democracies (or democratic monarchies, where the monarch is left only for ceremonial roles)?
    – vsz
    Commented Jan 17, 2012 at 16:03

Read Rodney Stark's The Victory of Reason. His entire book is an argument that says the answer is yes. From respect for humanity's images dei to an understanding of property rights being grounded by a common transcendent God, he makes the argument you're looking for.

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    There are mixed reviews though - here's one that suggests the book is not quite an even representation. I haven't read it personally, so I can't say more. Commented Jan 17, 2012 at 12:32
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    I was about to recommend this book myself. I think a little more detail on this thesis would be good. Commented Jan 17, 2012 at 14:59
  • I agree with DJClayworth - expanding your answer here a little more is warranted. Commented Sep 22, 2014 at 13:54

Christianity, or at least Catholicism, teaches us to honor and respect our traditions. It is a corporal work of mercy to bury the dead and a spiritual work to pray for them and tradition, as G.K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy is the "Democracy of the Dead". Tobit was ruined because he persevered in burying the dead.

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of their birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy - Chapter 4

This is our faith, being continually built upon by men with good ideas and others who accept them. The heresies pass away, not because they're not popular, but because they're wrong and right thinking men and women come to find them distasteful. So too with bad laws, and that is the point of democracy.

Catholicism provides sacraments, sacred oaths, which bind adherents to the Church with public disgrace, and private shame as the penalties for breaking them. When the Church was first forming, Pliny the Younger used the word Sacramentum to describe the oaths which the followers of the Way took to avoid bad behavior and to provide for the needs of the group. Sacramentum is also the word used for the oath that Roman soldiers would take when enlisting themselves. It's just a few words that actually change your status.

So, to answer the question, in a democracy, all men are the king, in baptism, we are baptized into Christ's Kingship. In a democracy, everyone must be informed, in baptism, we are baptized into Christ's role as prophet - giving us direct access to the Holy Spirit. In a democracy, all men and women need to be prepared to sacrifice themselves for the good of all, in baptism we are baptized into Christ's priesthood and His sacrifice and ours ought to be the underpinnings of a just society that reflects the glory of Heaven as best it can given our limited means and fallen nature.

(More on "Sacramentum", Scott Hahn, Swear to God)

  • Nice answer and great quote, although I think the way you segue from tradition to talking about the particularly Christian (Catholic) perspective leaves a little to be desired: "This is our faith,..." - there are many forms of tradition outside of Catholicism and if you just take Chesterton's quote at face value, they would all be equally valid! But this is emphatically not the case. The effect of this part of your post is to portray Catholicism as being in essence Tradition - I think you do your faith a dis-service to make that it's defining characteristic. Commented Sep 22, 2014 at 13:52

Does Christianity teach the values for democracy to work?

The idea of democracy was first posited as a way to assure that the rights of wealthy slave owners would be least impinged by each other in Greece.

The freedom of democracy comes at a price. It requires a great deal of self-restraint.

Japan is probably the only culture (maybe Germany as well) where the people have enough natural self- restraint to practice democracy without it being a disaster. The only other way democracy can work is if it is layered on top of a Christian culture. When the Holy Spirit produces the fruit of self-control in a large percentage of a population, democracy can appear functional.

Christianity is not about "taught values". It is about a changed heart.

After the civil war in the US many Christians were abandoning Christianity for political progressivism called liberalism. They assumed that the peace and prosperity of the US was a natural result of democracy and rejected the idea that it had any relationship to Jesus.

As a result, we tried to make the world safe for democracy (WWI). We pressured European countries to give their colonies the freedom of democracy. We even gave democracy to Iraq, the result was 200,000 dead Iraqis.

At the end of history before every tear is wiped away and the former things are not remembered, we will be able to look back over the whole of human history and we will see every possible type of human government. While today we keep searching for the best form of government, what we will know then is that they are all complete failures because they are not of the Lord.

  • I really appreciate your insights here, and even though I would strongly recommend you add citations to strengthen your case and remove the sense that this is just your personal opinion, I've upvoted already as I think you're making a valid and valuable contribution. Commented Sep 22, 2014 at 13:13

To answer the OP's question, it is important to recognize that legally, the U.S.A. was not established as a Christian nation. It was instead based on innovative, seventeenth-century ideals of Deism and freethought. The founding documents of the United States, namely the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation (no longer in effect) and the U.S. Constitution do not invoke Jesus Christ (or His Father, for trinitarians keeping score) as the reigning deity, or reference Christianity as the civic religion of the newly independent republic. And this was not implicit, either; those documents were written in an age when the English Parliamenters were required to give their oath of office "on the true faith of a Christian", and explicit declarations of faith in political documents were common, and expected.

Instead, we see that the Declaration invokes a generic, unnamed Creator as the author of human rights and the inspiration of our moral insights. It tells us also that this Creator gives us leave to violently overthrow any civil authority that is not established by "the consent of the governed"; a notion that certainly is not promulgated in the Sermon on the Mount or the Epistles of Paul. These Revolutionaries audaciously invoked Divine Command Theory to justify a revolution against a divine-rights monarchy, at a time when the orthodoxy of established religious sects would have no toleration for such a notion. They did this, not as a clever rhetorical trick, but because they earnestly believed in Deism--in a monotheistic Creator deity who reveals himself exclusively through the built-in reasoning faculties and moral conscience of everyday individuals, and not through the miracles and preachings of larger-than-life messiahs, priests, prophets, and kings.

We can see more of this Deistic approach in the writings of Paine and Jefferson. Paine wrote his Age of Reason after the Revolution. Jefferson snipped out all of the miraculous out of the New Testament Gospels and pasted the remainder into a literary piece he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth; an endeavor he described as recovering diamonds from a dunghill. And Paine was even less forgiving in his descriptions of the Christian faith.

The New Testament gives very little practical advice on handling political power or administering a state ("my kingdom is not of this world", etc.). Thus, Christian rulers have borrowed extensively from the Old Testament ethos, perhaps out of political expedience rather than theological wisdom. Perhaps it was inevitable that popular sovereignty and freedom of expression would not exist until a secular, Enlightenment-era regime took over. It is certainly established history that countries under Catholic rule stifled religious and scientific insights, but those under Protestant rule fared little better. John Calvin, for example, ordered a theologian executed for publishing a treatise On the Errors of the Trinity.

On the other hand, one could argue (and many have argued) that the relative success of the American project is due to its Christian population (and the same has been said about many other prosperous countries as well). This is not inconsistent with Scripture, and could well be true. One could also argue that an environment where there is no temporal power associated with religious institutions encourages true piety, and is therefore more favored by G-d. A reading the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom gives a sympathetic view to this argument.

Christianity and democracy both are subjects one could study individually for an entire lifetime. It's a complicated question, and one that can't really be answered without a lot of opinion and guesswork.

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