Is Democracy a Christian Virtue?

Three years ago I was asked to write a curriculum for YMCA/YWCA in Iceland based on a list of virtues chosen by The People’s Meeting (isl. Þjóðfundurinn), a initiative created to find and reaffirm the real values of the Icelandic population in the aftermath of the financial collapse in Iceland.

The meeting was an interesting attempt, the twelve-hundred participants were randomly selected from the national registry, and various methods in group collaborations were used to find the common values.

YMCA/YWCA in Iceland is a Christian organization and every year it publishes a curriculum for its youth groups, and there was a notion that the common virtues from the meeting could be a socially relevant take on the gospel message. My task was to figure out how.

The virtues or maybe rather concepts I had to work with were the following: Honesty, equality, respect, justice, love, responsibility, freedom, sustainability, democracy, family, parity, and trust.

Some of them were simpler than others, but when it came to the lesson plan for Christian or Biblical justification for democracy I decided to skip it. Leaving a comment in the introduction saying (my translation):

[E]ven though YMCA/YWCA in Iceland is a democratic organization. Christian tradition understands democracy only as a tool to create a more just society, but not a virtue in and of itself.

It was therefore interesting when I finally got to read through John H. Yoder’s article, The Christian Case for Democracy.

In his article Yoder mentions as a possible argument for democracy, what he calls

claim of the Augustinians, for whom democracy is the necessary corollary of a pessimistic doctrine of sin: we need democracy because no ruler is trustworthy enough to be left alone with important decisions.

He also mentions as a basis for democracy, the believe that enlightened human being is going to do the right thing, when all facts are known. The argument for democracy is therefore valid, whether we see human beings first and foremost as a sinners or saints.

To ask, “What is the best form of government?” is itself a post-Constantinian question. It is representative of an already established social posture. It assumes that the paradigmatic person, the model ethical agent, is in a position of such power (…) that it falls to him to evaluate alternative worlds and and to prefer the one in which he himself (…) shares the rule.

Yoder recognizes that this might not seem correct, as we all know examples of dreams of overturned governments by the oppressed, but surely that is more a question about a new ruler than a different form.

Yoder also points out that Jesus himself does not seem to have an alternative for the current political structures of his time, or seems to have any real interest in it.

[Jesus] admits the fact of dominion among the nations.
But Jesus does not glorify or ratify this fact. … Jesus neither says that dominion is good nor that it is bad.

It is important to come back to the fact that post-Constantinian, our understanding of the dominion of the emperor and the dominion of God have become interweaved in a way that might be unjustified.

This mixes the descriptive and the prescriptive, interweaving the language which justifies coercion with that which guides voluntary discipleship. Since Constantine, when talking about government, we have assumed (as Jesus could not have) that we are talking about government of Christians and by Christians. We have thus not had the distance which Jesus maintained between his realism about power and his messianic liberty in servanthood.

Yoder seems to assume that this post-Constantinian era is gone, the era Christendom is no more when he says:

We should be more relaxed and less compulsive about running the world if we made our peace with our minority situation, seeing this neither as a dirty trick of destiny nor as some great new progress but simply as the unveiling of the myth of Christendom which wasn’t true even when it was believed.

Yoder’s understanding seems to be that only those he calls “voluntarily committed Christians” are (real) Christians. Yoder therefore, claims that in fact, christians are a minority.

He goes on to explain that democracy is in fact just the least oppressive form of oligarchy

because it provides the strongest language of justification and therefore of critique which the subjects may use to mitigate its oppressiveness. But it does not make of democracy, and especially it does not make of most regimes which today claim to be democracies, a fundamentally new kind of sociological structures.

Yoder’s understanding seems therefore similar to the one I mentioned in the introduction to the YMCA/YWCA curriculum. Democracy is a tool to create a more just society, not a virtue in and of itself.

Yoder concludes, by warning against any social order, that claims to be the righteous one, in its glorification of God.

This overview of John H. Yoder’s article The Christian Case for Democracy is only meant as an overview of influential ideas in theology. Looking at Yoder’s writing does not indicate any acceptance of Yoder’s harassment against women for decades which should have been dealt with at the time and are a stain on all those who protected and excused him during his lifetime.

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