What comes after Democracy?
The rise in populism in the west at times leads me to wonder whether the democratic system has run its course. At its best, democracy safeguards against extremism as elected officials presumably represent the majority centre of a given state. Unfortunately, we are seeing increasing polarization in many places resulting in election results that are not representing some sort of middle ground, but where the pendulum necessarily has to swing to one extreme or the other. Such outcomes necessarily leave those on the margins more vulnerable. When such populism has a Christian flavour, often motivated by a desire to resurrect a fading Christendom, the integrity of the Church is compromised. Nick Spencer, Senior Fellow at the British think tank Theos and Visiting Research Fellow at the Faiths and Civil Society Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London and a Fellow of the International Society for Science and Religion comments in his book The Evolution of the West: How Christianity has Shaped our Values:
Christian populism is a weaponized religion. Christian identity minus Christian theology allows you to speak of Christian people or Christian nation without properly scrutinizing either of those terms. It allows you to speak of Christian values without realizing how similar they are to your natural or national values. It allows you to defend Christendom without paying due attention to the problematic nature of that phenomenon. It allows you to say “no” to the other without thinking through how you might also say “yes.” Ultimately, it turns Christianity into a tool for political ends, rather than making politics a tool for Christian ends.
It is this final statement that is particularly telling. When faithfulness to Christ is no longer the ends, then both faith and politics in the hands of the Christian become corrupt. What we are witnessing then is the inherent risk of Christian democracy. Faith is no longer the basis for a national morality but merely the best marketing tool as the collective nostalgia for biblical authority colours political rhetoric.
Populism also becomes attractive as a response to rising individualism. As the practice of community continues to erode, a vacuum is created for a sense of belonging. Reaching for what once consolidated national identity in the form of particular religious ideologies absolves the individual from the work of being an active citizen in the current setting.This is why populism draws on the support of cultural Christians rather than practicing Christians. Religious identity becomes tied up with an idealized history rather than an existent practice.
While particular church demographics may initially celebrate what they see as a ‘return to Christendom’, in allowing such polarization to flourish, secularism then rises as a genuine rather than constructed threat. “Secularists may seize on this trend and use it to further their cause of removing religion from the public square.” This has been evident in Quebec in the proposition of Bill 21 (the Secularization Bill). Charles Taylor co-authored a report recommending some minimal restriction to the wearing of religious symbols in a small sector for people with judicial authority. However in a populist climate, this report has been used to support the ban on visible religious symbols on all public sectors. As was the case in the many places Spencer cited Christianity’s contribution to the development of democracy, our efforts to protect the church can have unanticipated consequences. Where Taylor would not have seen secularism and faith in competition, politically motivated individuals can mobilize the secular agenda as readily as others use the Christian agenda.
Spencer’s observation is that there is a second place where Christian influence is decreasing. “Inequality is real. It is growing. It will not be solved by the market. It will not naturally disappear. But nor is it natural. It is not inevitable. It is not predestined. Rather, it is a political issue, and it is amenable to political solutions.” A key hallmark of the early church was that the economic disparities between people were lessened in Christian contexts as sacrificial living was embraced for the benefit of the community. A core value of Christianity is to diminish rather than increase inequality. Thus while Biblical rhetoric may be on the rise, evidence of core Christian values is declining.
So where might we go from here? While democracy flourished in North America when there was a clear majority to be represented, the increase of diversity in a context of social and religious pluralism has yielded what those in favour of globalization might name as a political regression. The pendulum is swinging, but as has long been the case, efforts to live in the past are destructive. We are better to ask what a healthy move forward looks like. Regardless of how the political landscape evolves, it is useful to remember that “Christianity can bring liberation to every culture; that is, it can enable the culture’s best self to flourish as its people find Christ in their midst, living, teaching and finding goodness in their culture. However, missiologists also affirm that religions, including Christianity, can be prisoners of culture—defying Christ and his way and succumbing to the gravitational pulls that in every culture lead to injustice, violence and oppression.” While democracy has yielded (in theory) voting equality, “[p]eople still want more than just freedom and choice. They want to belong, they want community rooted in something shared and they want to find meaning beyond themselves.” They are hungry for a transcendence that politics simply can not provide. It is a reminder that “democracies are made up of people, and people are naturally theological—they are, in Christian Smith’s memorable formulation, “moral, believing animals.” They ask profound questions about their identity, their purpose, their destiny. They are ethically conscious; they want to live good lives. They belong; they are communal, group-based, tribal.” Where Christian values nurtured our current understandings of personhood, human rights and democracy, perhaps it is time to mine our roots for the values that hold these individuals together in common practice, collective responsibility and a rewritten understanding of flourishing.
 Nick Spencer, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity has Shaped our Values. (Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018) Loc 3033.
 Jacques Boissinot and Christinne Muschi, “Bill 21 Hearings: ‘We Were Very Naive’ about Impact of Report, Charles Taylor Says,” Montreal Gazette, May 8, 2019, https://montrealgazette.com/news/quebec/expect-sparks-to-fly-as-bill-21-hearings-are-launched-tuesday)
 Charles Taylor and Glenn Smith, “Entrevue Avec Charles Taylor- Interview with Charles Taylor,” Vimeo (Direction Chretienne, McGill University , August 2015), Accessed January 16, 2020.
 Nick Spencer, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity has Shaped our Values. (Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018) Kindle Loc 2723.
 Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire. (Michigan: Baker Academic, 2016) 97.
 “The Search Goes On,” The Economist (The Economist Newspaper), accessed January 30, 2020, https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2016/11/05/the-search-goes-on)
4 responses to “What comes after Democracy?”
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Excellent post, Jenn. This stood out to me, “our efforts to protect the church can have unanticipated consequences.” The U.S. is watching this happen daily in the political sphere. I continue to be baffled by the church’s sense that it needs to protect itself when Jesus said, “I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Could it be that we are protecting the church we’ve built instead of the one He is building? It does not seem, from His statement, that His Church needs our protection. Important questions we all need to ask ourselves in representing His Church.
Great post Jenn. The news of today has caused me to slip into a deep space of lament . . . and your post has helped me look toward a future that is more full of hope. Thank you, and here’s to a rewritten understanding of flourishing.
As usual, very thoughtful and well researched. To Spencer’s point about inequality, “Rather, it is a political issue, and it is amenable to political solutions.” What do you think is the Church’s role in this political solution?
Hi Jenn. Good stuff. You asked “So where might we go from here?” Short answer: the church must step in and demonstrate in word and deed that Jesus is the only way to human flourishing.
I believe that’s pretty much the same thing you wrote in the end. Yours just sounded more eloquently. 🙂