[In depth] Christians have to pay attention to this crisis of democracy

michael kellahan
[In depth] Christians have to pay attention to this crisis of democracy image

Democracy in Australia is broken

It was supposed to be a holiday from politics. A getaway from the rough and tumble of a tumultuous parliamentary year, which ended with a bitter debate and parliamentary stalemate on schools and religious freedom. A year that many labelled as politically chaotic and dysfunctional.

So, we were taking a quick breather in Melbourne before returning for what would be a busy election year. A chance to see the laneways. Drink coffee. See more laneways. Don’t think about politics or religious freedom.

And so, to Christmas Day. We googled to find a nearby church. Christmas morning. A warm welcome. Coffee before church. Brilliant kids’ spot. And then the sermon. It was going so well. Then the preacher said these words: “Democracy in Australia is broken”. It wasn’t his main point – that was, happily, about Jesus coming into the world to save people from sin.

And yet, that throwaway line! I think he said the words because he felt they needed to be said. It was a way of connecting with the fears and concerns of the congregation. It should have been a shocking statement, even if taking preacher’s hyperbole into account. But nobody blinked. They were with him. Democracy broken? Of course.

We have lost the ability to negotiate 

There is a weary resignation that politics is dysfunctional and democracy is broken. We no longer find it easy to do life together, to negotiate differences, to chart a course into the future with confidence and hope. Everywhere we see chaos, confusion and polarisation.

That sense of frustration and despair is not just in Australia but throughout Western liberal democracies. At the time of writing Paris and Brussels were burning. Yellow-vested protestors battle the police. Europe is seeing the rise of anti-Semitism, nationalist strong-man politics and a very real debate about what it means to be European. The UK is torn over Brexit. The US government is in partial shutdown and there are calls to impeach the President.

Nazis are marching on the beach in St Kilda. Twitter is a vile cesspit of influencers, trolls and echo chambers. Everywhere politics feels more polarised and bitter. And the speed of all this is disorientating. There is a plethora of books, blogs and journals trying to make sense of the same chaos.

The problems with tuning out

Some Christians will not be interested in all this. They will say God’s kingdom is not of this world; we will simply live for that kingdom and not be distracted by the politics of this age. Kingdoms will rise, kingdoms will fall – that is not to be our concern. In tumultuous times, these Christians will feel vindicated that their hope is not in earthly rulers.

There are a few problems, though, with this approach.

  • From Babel in Genesis to Babylon and the coming kingdom of God in Revelation the Scriptures have much to say about politics. Why would ignore these riches? Yes, there are pitfalls of reading our own prejudices into the text, and it may be hard to move from the Scriptures to contemporary application. But this is an argument for more careful reading.
  •  Ignoring politics often produces a version of Christianity that is only private and personal. This is a capitulation to secular rules and an abandonment of public Christianity. Genuine Christianity is public. How else can our neighbour be loved or gospel proclamation take place?
  •  Christians are not free to ignore politics even if they want to. To paraphrase Lenin, it is not about whether you are interested in the revolution – it is about whether the revolution is interested in you. The debates around religious freedom since the plebiscite demonstrate this.
  •  We are called to pray for rulers so “we may live peaceful and godly lives” (1 Tim 2). The “godly” life here is the same word used for public religion. It is a prayer for freedom to publicly live out the faith. The rationale for that prayer is so “all people might be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth”. Public faith is linked to public proclamation. Yes, the gospel can be declared and the church can grow in a North Korean prison, but we are to pray for freedomto live out the faith. The gospel does not always thrive under persecution. Those who have fled persecution are the strongest champions of maintaining our freedoms here.
  • Democracy and Western civilisation have done a remarkably good job of providing freedom to live out the faith. Christianity is far bigger than Western civilisation and the two must not be confused. And the West is not without its faults – rampant materialism and greed come to mind. But we ignore the freedom we have received under democracy at our peril. It is largely from the West that the gospel has gone to “the rest”. This alone should give us cause to be thankful and not dismissive of this legacy.

The crisis in democracy has taken place at the same time that Christians in the West have faced increasing pressure from growing secularism. That is no coincidence. Democracy in the West largely grew out of shared and predominantly Christian convictions that there were great truths binding us together. Democracy came with the rule of law, freedoms of belief, speech and association, and the separation of powers – wonderful things that we rarely think about. Achieving democracy and freedom was costly for other Western countries but largely a gift for us.

The dismantling of long-held shared beliefs is the biggest change in the post-Christian 21stt century world. The centuries-long Enlightenment project of European humanism has crowned the individual alone as the king. Independent of any law above him or legacy before him the citizen is autonomous. Life together will no longer be done according to agreed belief in what is good or sacred. There is no common belief that binds us. Free of the authority of churches and dogma we can decide for ourselves how we are to do life together.

Interestingly, we have not seen a wholesale abandonment of the truths of the past. Even the most progressive politicians claim a central belief in the dignity of human beings as the basis for human rights.  

This claim to maintain human rights while simultaneously jettisoning so many Christian beliefs about what it means to be human will likely be the cause of much future conflict. The marriage debate is but one example of that – marriage was reformed in the name of freedom, equality and individual choice. Political conflict over gender identity, euthanasia and abortion are symptomatic of this deeper conflict about what it means to be human and have human rights.

What then, is the Christian response to the crisis of democracy?