American Democracy Is in Trouble. No, Not Like That.

The GOP’s presidential primary is functionally finished, even before Super Tuesday arrives this week, and the 2024 general election is all but underway. Christian voters are once again faced with a pressing question of how to “vote our values” in an increasingly secular and hostile public square.

Unfortunately, many prominent Christian voices offer little help. Their focus tends to be an ill-defined Christian nationalism and/or narrow policy issues. They sound uncertain, if not obtuse, about what Christian political action in America should look like. Sometimes they even seem to suggest—maybe inadvertently—that Christian political engagement itself, not just Christian nationalism, is a threat to our country, or that there’s no necessary relationship between Christianity and democracy.

These pundits and public intellectuals may have good intentions. But their advice doesn’t answer the questions of people in the pews who are viscerally experiencing a decline of Christian influence in America. Rather, the overarching message to evangelical voters is that they’re wrong about their political theology and there’s little to nothing to worry about in American democracy—or, at least, nothing Christian engagement with politics could improve.

We are evangelical political scientists at Biola University, and we believe such misguided thinking insults lay evangelicals’ intelligence and fails to address their real and important concerns. In fact, the average evangelical voter’s intuition is correct: American democracy is in trouble; it does need an engaged Christian church to correct course; and there is ample evidence to support that claim.

To be clear: We are not advocating for an established church, a government directed by the institutional church, or any encroachment on non-Christians’ religious liberty. But we do believe, consonant with the best episodes in American history, that a vibrant and culturally influential Christianity is vital to preserving the United States as a free and democratic society.

Our constitutional system and political culture would not exist without Christian ideas, nor will they be intelligible or sustainable in the long run if meaningful, orthodox Christian influence disappears. Christianity provided the vision of creation, knowledge, and humanity that made liberal democracy possible. Indeed, any society in which democracy flourishes is drawing water from wells that Christianity dug.

Our history tells us as much. There were many profound disagreements among the Founding Fathers, but they nearly all agreed that a virtuous citizenry was essential to a well-functioning democracy—and that a virtuous citizenry required religion, which in that context meant Christianity. “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People,” wrote John Adams in perhaps the best-known quote to this effect. “It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Mere procedural democracy is certainly attainable without such a religious grounding, as demonstrated by European countries that have maintained democratic processes even as they secularized, or through constitutional design influenced by other, more Christian societies (e.g., Japan).

But at its best, America has boasted more than procedural democracy. Indeed, mere proceduralism—as Abraham Lincoln argued in his debates with Stephen Douglas over slavery and the nature of human rights—saps the moral legitimacy of a true democracy. That is, a society that votes for a representative government but has no deeper grounding in Christianity-derived ideas about liberty and individual rights may technically be democratic, but it will not have the culture of freedom, congeniality, and open debate to which we’ve historically aspired in America.

It is Christianity that provided a secure moral foundation for these cultural elements of American democracy, and our polity continues to need Christianity to secure these principles, constitutional structures, and social norms. So well understood was the Christianity-democracy connection in the founding era that French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville called religion America’s first political institution because “it does not give [Americans] a taste for freedom [but] singularly facilitates their use of it.”

As our culture secularizes, then, the vitality and viability of American democracy are anything but guaranteed. Plenty of secular scholars affirm human dignity and rights, but when they do so from premises inconsistent with Christianity or the transcendent moral grounds it provides, the logic becomes shaky and often incoherent. Beyond that bellwether in academia, it is by no means a settled question whether a society charging toward secular horizons can maintain a healthy democratic order long-term.

Evangelical voters may not be precisely articulating this question as the source of their concern. But we believe this is the uncertainty in the minds and hearts of our brothers and sisters that too much writing on Christian political action fails to address—and that it is a legitimate concern. We believe a good or true democracy needs Christianity, and that a strong symbiotic relationship between the two is beneficial to the common good.

There is ample evidence for this belief. Empirically, the widely used Freedom House rankings of governments worldwide show democracy and Christianity are not always found together. But the rankings also suggest that democracy is most robust, classically liberal, and durable in predominantly Christian societies. The non-Christian democracies of today too often become the authoritarian dictatorships and illiberal democracies of tomorrow. India and Turkey are excellent current examples of such “democratic backsliding.”

The historical record is more complicated: Democracy originated in pre-Christian Greece; Christianity predated the post-Enlightenment era in which democratic governance became the Western norm; and many pre-Reformation Christians were skeptical of democracy as a valid form of government. In a strictly chronological sense, then, it’s true that at least procedural democracy can exist without a Christian context—though it’s also true that modern democracy grew out of the uniquely Christian culture of Western Europe, and that Protestant missionary efforts greatly, if indirectly, contributed to democracy’s spread across the globe.

But the theological case for Christianity’s unique value to democracy is ancient and compelling. Great minds of Christianity from Peter and Augustine to Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin all believed that a people faithful to the revealed will of God were critical to the peaceful stability and flourishing of any society. This should not be controversial for Christians: If we believe that God created and ordered the morality of our world, then we should understand that following God’s commands will generally foster domestic tranquility and peaceful relations between neighbors and nations.

While many civic virtues conducive to a free society are also discussed in Islamic, Chinese, and classical Western philosophy, as Christians, we of course believe God’s moral law is found in its fullest sense in the Christian tradition. (Even many skeptics and atheists will concede Christianity literally remade the world, and in its flowering seeded modern democracy.) Here in the States, the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” as the Declaration of Independence so eloquently says, fundamentally inform the American political order. Respecting them will be essential to sustaining that order in years to come.

A Christian foundation for democracy is never more vital than in moments, like ours, of enormous societal upheaval and intense political animosity. Christianity provides a transcendent moral framework. It makes claims—about the nature of humanity, our world, and our responsibilities to God and neighbor—that supersede the authority of the state and so limit it to certain legitimate ends. It is this moral transcendence that establishes a critical foundation for a healthy democracy that effectively limits the totalitarian impulses of factions of which James Madison famously warned.

Without anything like a state church, Christianity’s influence can shape a government’s institutions and practices. It can provide an enduring basis for human rights, dignity, and freedom that does not rely on the mercurial and capricious dictates of human rule. In this sense, Christianity serves as a critical check on the ever-present tendency of the state to expand its power at the expense of human liberty.

This is not only true on the grand scale—in academic philosophy or in some abstract sense. It is the institution of the local church, animated by an ethos of servant leadership and brotherly love, that lays this critical foundation. The local church is (or should be) the cornerstone of civil society, publicly and vocally holding citizens and state alike to a transcendent moral standard.

For American evangelicals who feel the risk to democracy that our post-Christian culture entails, this role of the local church is good news. If you intuit, rightly, that the soul of America is not well because its moral foundation is dangerously eroded and that this poses a significant threat to American democracy, the local church is where the work of rebuilding that foundation starts.

And it must be rebuilt, if the broader structure of democracy is to endure in the United States. A substantive Christian presence is necessary for a democracy worthy of the name—a society free in practice, not only on paper. Society is more than the state, and it is churches that can hold the polity together by providing transcendent support and limits for democracy itself.

As it is, we are not sanguine about our democracy’s future if churches and Christian leaders neglect (or undermine) their civic role, and that future is not abstract for us. It is the future into which we send our students. It is the future we are raising our children to inherit. It is the future that, should the Lord tarry, it is our Christian duty to steward well—one in which “we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (2 Tim. 2:2).

Now and in that future, Christianity doesn’t need democracy, but a good and just democracy most certainly needs Christianity.

Scott Waller, Darren Patrick Guerra, and Tim Milosch all teach in the political science department at Biola University.

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