Democracy, Christianity, and other faiths

by Tom Tredway

One of the conceits of the 20th century – and the early 21st as well – has been the belief that we have found the best political-social order in history, a way of setting up and organizing human life that optimizes each person’s potential, protecting and advancing the finest of which all people are capable. This order depends upon people themselves taking an active role in selecting their leaders and in monitoring their work. It is, of course, liberal democracy.

It is the social-governmental system preferred on both sides of the North Atlantic. And, if you believe what leading minds in Western Europe and North America tell us, this system should be instituted everywhere on earth, even though, as the history of the last two centuries demonstrates, everybody in the rest of the world doesn’t always want western liberal democracy. Of late, it is troubling to see that in nations as varied as Poland, Sweden, or the United States, significant portions of the population do not seem as convinced of its value as once they were.

In any case, the liberal democratic order depends on an educated and informed population, charged with electing its own leaders. So excellent schools and a free press are essential. Political structures and institutions need to be set up to make certain that the will of the educated and informed electorate is carried out. These structures normally include an executive, a parliament or legislature, and a court system. The people holding positions within these structures must respect and observe the rules or laws by which they are instituted and function.

While this liberal democracy came into its own across Western Europe and North America in the 19th century, it was especially in the 20th that it began to be seen as a way of government that should be spread through the entire world. Of course, the roots of the ideology lie in the 18th century Enlightenment, especially in France. First embodied in an actual government in America after the revolution against the British crown, liberal democracy inspired the United States’ founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The truth of the values behind the system was believed, as the Declaration said, to be “self evident.”

As this set of ideals and institutions matured in the 20th century, liberal democracy often came to be associated with a certain secularism. That is, it was assumed that the structures of government were part of a worldly or temporal order that was not formally religious, indeed that sought to avoid a binding linkage with organized religion. In the United States the founders wrote the separation of church and state into their system, and in Europe the influence of churches in government and society steadily waned. While this tilt toward secularism did not of necessity mean that democratic ideology is inimical to a Christian worldview, another development in its character did, at least when that development was seen as essential.

By the mid-20th century, secular liberal democracy was frequently tied to a sort of philosophical materialism, not a desire for faster and more costly cars or private swimming pools, but a world view that assumed that ultimately matter (what the Germans nicely call stoff – stuff) constituted final reality. The mental or the spiritual was understood to be based on the functioning of matter; mind was based in the brain. In Europe and even in America, religion and its institutions began to be seen as irrelevant to a liberal and democratic society. In fact, it was held against religion that it had often resisted the rise of science and had at points opposed liberal democracy, as did Pope Pius IX in the 1864 Syllabus of Errors.

But by now the belief in liberal democracy, a secular social order, and a materialist philosophy seem to be the accepted worldview of the elites who stay home Sunday mornings to read the Times (whether in London or New York), whose eyes roll while invocations are prayed, and who regard college religion courses as exercises in indoctrination that might better be turned into a subfield of anthropology. One does not need vested bishops at university graduations or windy prayers at governors’ inaugurations, except perhaps as window dressing, to satisfy the shrinking segment of the population that does still, with whatever regularity, attend church.

Now, what should recently appear in my mailbox from Amazon but a 2018 book: Seven Types of Atheism, by John Gray. Gray is an emeritus Oxford philosopher who in retirement has taken to writing books intended not for the professional philosophical establishment with its exotic vocabulary and arcane imperatives, but for the general educated reading public. I was intrigued by every one of the seven types of atheism. But what particularly struck me was Gray’s observation that the dominant modern secular humanism (a fraternal, if not an identical twin of what I’ve called democratic liberalism), far from being based in cool scientific reason, is itself a kind of faith, just as surely built upon arbitrarily accepted assumptions as are, say, Christianity, or Marxism, or Fascism.

In my days as a theological student we spoke of “self-authenticating revelation,” often in connection with the theology of Karl Barth. The idea was that when the Christian message came to an individual, it came with its own capacity to convince that person, not depending on proofs or arguments from the natural or the social worlds. It simply elicited faith, just by being heard. The same idea is present in the Protestant Reformers who spoke of faith as a gift which some people received and others did not. That was the mystery of divine election.

There is a kind of parallel in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” The American Founders were convinced 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.” Anybody who thought about it would see this was true.

But many persons in the late 18th century – monarchists or autocrats for example – were not persuaded that the Americans’ truths were self-evident. The liberal democratic ideals upon which the American and the French Revolutions were based did not by any means convince all educated and informed persons of their unarguable truth. The process by which these ideals did win over Western elites and eventually wider publics was a gradual one, perhaps a century and a half long.

Gray argues that the idea of history progressing to fulfillment through liberal democracy is in reality a reworking of the Christian idea of history as dominated by two great events: the first and the second comings of Jesus Christ. “When in eighteenth-century Europe religion began to be replaced by secular creeds, the Christian myth of history as a redemptive drama was not abandoned but renewed in another guise. A story of redemption through divine providence was replaced by one of progress through the collective efforts of humanity.” Modern political religion, writes Gray, “is a mutant version of the Christian belief that human salvation is found in history.” He thinks that not only is democratic liberalism descended from faith, but is itself a faith-based worldview.

The Ancients and many contemporary non-Western cultures saw/see human life as one of endless cycles. In contrast, both Christianity and its modern secular descendants understand history to be heading somewhere. One thinks of the Martin Luther King aphorism, one which Barack Obama had woven into a rug for the Oval Office: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

Perhaps of even more direct interest to missionsvänner is a 2015 book by David Thurfjell, Det gudlösa folket: De postkristna svenskarna och religionen (‘The People without God: The Post-Christian Swedes and Religion’). That book traces the direct lineage between contemporary Swedish secular social and political ideals and the nation’s Christian heritage. The author notes that ironically Swedes, the world’s self-proclaimed most secular people, continue to celebrate Christmas, Easter, and other Christian holidays, baptize their children with Judeo-Christian names, and hold firmly to values inherited from their religious past, thinking nevertheless that these values are entirely secular.

And, adds Thurfjell, Swedes also believe that their land and culture have a mission to defend and advance their “egalitarianism, human rights, secularism, democracy, welfare system...that the rest of the world so greatly needs.” That sense of mission, he writes, is directly inherited from Sweden’s Christian Lutheran past. One concludes from Thurfjell’s work that the present Swedish worldview, secular democratic liberalism with a vengeance, is as much a kind of faith as was the country’s earlier Folk-Lutheranism.

So both English and Swedish academics suggest that the modern secular faith in liberal democracy must take its place with the other faith systems that have prevailed and in some quarters still do: Christianity, Islam, Marxism, etc. It is as surely based upon undemonstrated assumptions as are these others. The idea is that any claim to offer a full and satisfying understanding of the universe and humanity’s place in it is in the end built on faith. What should a Christian make of that assertion?

Well, if you ever took a “Western Civ” course, you may recall that there was a time when Christianity dominated social, political, intellectual, and cultural life in the West, when it was assumed that this was the only viable and rational way that things could be explained and organized. Further, those who deviated from this dominant worldview were removed from society. One recalls the Spanish physician Michael Servetus, burned at the stake in 16th century Calvinist Geneva for his Unitarian views, or the Italian polymath Galileo Galilei, judged guilty by the seventeenth century Inquisition of heliocentrism and, lucky to escape with his life, condemned to house arrest for his remaining three decades.

Ten minutes spent with the New York Times or CNN – or maybe just a visit to Sweden – will remind you that Christianity is not a dominant worldview any longer. What intellectuals like Gray or Thurfjell remind us is that the materialist and secular democratic liberalism that does seem to be the worldview of most western elites is also a faith system. There is, I think, a sort of spectrum of such worldview-faith systems.

At one end lies the simple materialism that holds that life has no ultimate meaning, that the universe came from and is heading nowhere; it is simply the result of matter interacting with matter. In the middle of the spectrum lies the kind of humanism that maintains that human beings themselves can make real meaning out of life and that though there is no assurance of the final triumph of this effort, it is a noble one just in itself. The liberal democratic ideology I have been writing about lies here on the spectrum. At the other end are those worldviews, such as Christianity, which believe that the universe itself has a built-in purpose and that the best in human life is finally derived from the source that made and sustains all things.

I’m interested in what this range of options means for those who remain convinced of the truth of historic Christianity. I think that it puts the Christian understanding of life and the universe on a sort of equal footing with other faith systems – like the materialist and secular democratic liberalism I have been writing about here or like Marxism – at least as regards the irrefutable, rational, demonstrable validity of any of them. A Christian worldview is tenable and is in fact held by many of us. But we need to remember that it is rooted in faith.

We might like it better if we could argue, as medieval Christians did, that rationally theirs is the only right way to view reality. But today the effort to organize social and political life on a Christian basis might be characterized as “minimalist,” at least in comparison with Christianity’s position in Western culture a millennium ago. The Christian faith is one among many conflicting modern claims to understand the human condition, hardly enjoying the imperial status it held in the first half of the second millennium. Pietists, both German and Scandinavian, were not troubled by this. They maintained that many compromises with the pure Gospel had to be made when Christianity became the dominant religion of the West, forcefully supported by earthly governments.

Presently those who hold a Christian worldview, especially one in the Lutheran-Pietist tradition, have to be content to see it, as St. Paul, Martin Luther, and Karl Barth did, as based upon faith alone, sola fide. Other competing ideas about the final truth concerning human life and history are also faith systems. It may be of some consolation to recall that the place that a Christian view now holds within society is not unlike that which characterized the first decades and centuries after Christ.

In a 2004 book Jag har inte sanningen, jag söker den (‘I don’t have the truth; I’m seeking it’) K. G. Hammar, archbishop from 1997 to 2006, when the Church of Sweden was formally separated from the state, said that the position of Lutheranism as one of many religious and worldviews held by Swedes was now closer to what Christianity had been in its earliest days than it was when his church was the official religious institution of the land. Indeed, in the Roman Empire Christianity was one among many of the ways that people sought to understand their place in the universe. The world in which the New Testament was written was filled with competing religions and ideologies.

Two millennia later, that degree of pluralism again characterizes society. The secular and materialist democratic liberalism I have discussed here seems to be the current ideology of choice among educated and informed elites. If you doubt its present dominance, buy a New York Review of Books or a ticket to Stockholm. But when you encounter it, remember: it too is based on faith. So is our Christian worldview. It’s as though we were back in the first century – maybe even New Testament times.