Democracy’s Concept Is Accepted By All
The Definition Is Not
Democracy is one of those words that every American owns. We love it, embrace it, and repeat it ad nasueam but I question whether it is truly understood.
The definition is simple:
Democracy is a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.
On the surface, we get that. The people (you, me, and everyone else) are ultimately in charge but there is a downside. When we say the people are in charge, we are talking about all the people. Not the wealthiest, the smartest, the most attractive, the morally normative, or any other high profile group.
The people refers to all the people and as the culture becomes more diverse so too do the democratically legislated laws. The body of elected officials who legislate laws take into consideration the entire constituency when writing those laws.
Everyone has a say. Every group is represented equally and that is the Christian approach to governance. Democracy is a very comfortable form of government when everyone in the country agrees with you. As differences begin to accumulate and the laws expand accordingly, discomfort rises among the more religiously rigid.
Admittedly, my thoughts about democracy have moderated over the years. I’ve always considered it a Christian concept and it is, but how far can you extrapolate that idea?
Are Christianity and Democracy equal? Is one exactly the same as the other? Is Democracy the word we apply to government so we can make it seem like a religion? I would say no, no, and probably.
There are underlying Christian principles in a democratic form of government but democracy is neither sectarian nor religious. It can’t be because then it ceases to be a government of the people, for the people, by the people. Democracy is Christian but not in the way many Christians think. Democracy gives expression to those aspects of Christian doctrine that most Christians love to ignore.
Jesus taught us to love our neighbors. Not some of our neighbors. Not the neighbors we think are the right class or look like we do or agree with our personal beliefs. We are to love our neighbors period. Even if we consider them enemies, we are to find a way to love them.
Jesus said that too, but it’s not easy to do mostly because it runs contrary to our natural responses. How can we love our neighbors if we don’t allow for their differences, distasteful though they may be?
With a community as large and broad as the USA, you’re bound to find people you disagree with, lifestyles you could never accept personally, and personal choices you aren’t comfortable with. But that is the nature of community.
It’s logical. The larger the community, the more pronounced and widespread the differences.
You Can’t Treat Government Like A Church
Church democracies have more restrictive boundaries than governments.
Churches qualify their members. You must meet the requirements to become a member and keep the rules to stay in. If you break the rule of one church, you’re kicked out and have to find another, if another one can be found.
I came across a church in Mississippi that kept a written history of all their business meetings and events for over a hundred years. I scanned through some of the material and discovered that several people were excluded from membership because they were caught dancing.
Governments don’t have that option. If you break the laws of the land (which are far less restrictive than church), you’re penalized. You pay a fine, do community service, or spend time in jail but you are still a citizen. Exile isn’t an option.
Christian churches all claim to believe the Bible, love Jesus, and worship God and members are usually very adamant about their commitment to truth, but they don’t all agree. Even when they do agree on some particular issue, they don’t agree on how infractions are to be handled.
Take divorce for example. There is a broad range of responses to people who get divorced. Some churches exclude the divorced from membership and threaten them with hell. Other churches are very forgiving and supportive when divorce happens. There are a variety of responses between those two extremes.
Who’s right? Good question but not an important one. The issue is avoided by sectarianism. Historically, church groups were spawned through the conflicts over the issues. If your situation offends one church, no problem. Find one more accepting or start a completely new church.
But that’s church. What about government?
Moderation Is Key
Religious beliefs don’t change. They’re inspired. It’s heretical to even consider changing any of God’s truths but the problem with that is obvious. Not every religious person agrees with every other religious person on the specifics. Friction arising from the differences is a historical fact. Everyone agrees that God’s truth is inspired and, like God, is immutable but that’s where the agreement ends and the disagreements begin.
That’s why there are so many different Christian churches. There are several churches that believe baptism is essential to salvation. The oddity is, many of these churches will accept only baptisms administered within their group.
I understand and accept the idea of inspiration but while God’s truth never changes (even if we can’t agree on what it is exactly), government policies and regulations can and should. Churches don’t change but government policies do.
Not everyone in the community is accepted as a member of a church but every member of the community is a citizen and is to be represented when creating legislation.
That’s the rub. Members of westernized, Christian-influenced cultures like the United States may feel threatened when outsiders find harbor here. Newcomers bring culinary differences, lifestyle differences, different looks, different languages, or speak English poorly. They also bring in different religions or different views on common religions.
It can be stressful. The easiest approach is to reject any new people and relegate existing immigrants to low-cast-out-of-the-way places. To some, that may seem like the correct response. There are certainly many religious groups making arguments to support the idea but it is neither Christian nor Democratic.
Democracy Is The Way To Love Neighbors You Disagree With
In a church, you never debate the issues. You learn them, accept them, and apply them. In a limited way, you can apply that to government but there is a difference. Governments are constantly writing laws. The process never ends, it applies to everyone, and vigorous debate drives new legislation.
Vigorous debate is inconvenient and human nature is such that we gravitate toward people who agree with us.
It’s important to understand, though, that loving a neighbor and agreeing with them are two different things. These are NOT zero-sum concepts. One doesn’t cancel out the other. They can happen simultaneously. You can love your neighbor and disagree with your neighbor at the same time.
It’s also possible to agree with a neighbor on a particular issue but not on how to manage it. Some neighbors are disagreeable even when you agree. Deomcracy is, to be sure, the method for managing disagreements. It’s how we get along when we can’t agree on the issue.
For example, I don’t like alcoholic beverages. Alcohol ruined my family and my youth. No one told me not to like alcohol. My distaste was a natural response to the destruction it had on my family life. But I have many friends who enjoy their beverages. They do no harm and even though we know from experience that alcohol is still the root cause of many ills in society (and the cause of death in many cases), we also know that prohibiting the production and sale of alcohol creates business opportunities for criminals, leads to more bloodshed and abuse, and ultimately encourages more drinking.
Regulating the production and sell of alcohol and taxing it to death is a better option even if it is not perfect. And that is the point of democracy.
A democratic society will never be made absolutely Christian but democracy is the Christian approach to governance in a society of sinners.
Taking that thought a little further, accepting your neighbor and allowing room for their differences in spite of the disagreement is an expression of love. That is Christian and democratic. Once you grasp the true nature of democracy, it is easy to understand why it is often redefined in ways that make it nothing more than a synonym of Christianity. What is happening among Christians today is the opposite of what it should be. Instead of allowing for differences within our democratically managed community, they attack those ideas and the people who hold them.
I’m not suggesting that the personal values Christians hold aren’t the right values. What I’m saying is that every person has the right to accept or reject those values without persecution as long as they aren’t abusing the rights of others, within reason.
History Tells The Story
The effort required to love your neighbors, which includes your enemies too, along with the history of democracy should give us an idea of just how difficult democracy can be to live with.
America has been a democratic nation since its inception but it wasn’t easily established. The decision to declare America’s independence from England involved vigorous debate over many years. Not everyone agreed. The topic was visited and revisited pointedly for more than ten years. That process became the procedural foundation stone to democracy as we know it today.
What we learn from this bit of history is that democracy is hard work and it involves wading through loads of disagreement to reach common ground on any issue.
The most significant principle emerging from the democratic process was the idea that each individual is afforded equal rights. Equality is a given, not a privilege and each person is free to do as they wish as long as it doesn’t impinge unduly on the rights of others. The words of the Declaration of Independence are pertinent. One of the first stated arguments for independence was:
All men are created equal…
All men are not created right. They are created equal. Every person has the responsibility to be right but each is to determine what that is for him or herself.
There are many things allowed in our democracy that are considered wrong or at least questionable: smoking, drinking, adultery, overeating, overspending, laziness, gambling and even suicide is now legal.
The point of this post is not to argue for or against any of these excesses. The point is, every person within this democracy has the right to decide how they relate to any of these issues.
Not every person is right but within a democracy every person has rights. Each one can choose the right thing or the wrong thing. They also have the option to argue that the wrong thing is the right thing. That’s how a democracy works. Any person can do as they wish with their life. They can adopt a style that suits them but only as long as that style doesn’t infringe on the rights of others.
If one person chooses to eat themselves into an early grave, that is their right. If they smoke or drink themselves into a diseased state, have at it. It’s a choice. We react only when those rights impinge on the rights of others or, at least that’s the idea. Drunken parents may not physically abuse their children, but abusive drinking produces emotional and material neglect. As far as I know, we don’t write laws against that.
Smoking is bad for you. It clogs your airways and makes you vulnerable to disease but the law allows it partly because it was a big contributor to the early American economy. It is also heavily regulated and taxed. That doesn’t make it right. It is still harmful to those who indulge but regulations have reduced the ill effects of secondary smoke. Anyone of adult age can legally smoke but they are restricted as to where they smoke.
That doesn’t mean smoking no longer has hurtful effects on others. Pregnant mothers who smoke predispose the fetus to smoking later in life and to other potential ill effects on growth and development. The same applies to children living in a home with smokers.
This is a reality we’ve come to live with. Democracy allows us to limit the damage one person does to another, it can never remove it entirely.
You might call that the live and let live principle.
Democracy Is Not A Synonym For Religion
If you find certain things in the American community disagreeable with your religion, that’s normal. I’ve often found things in other religions I considered disagreeable so, yes, the same will be true for the country as a whole. But the word you need to understand is regulation.
If religious people can’t agree on which religion is right, how will they ever find a way to turn a democracy into a religion.