Can Religion Bolster Democracy Without Being Swallowed Up by It?

Jim Denison | Denison Forum | Updated: Jul 07, 2023
Can Religion Bolster Democracy Without Being Swallowed Up by It?

Can Religion Bolster Democracy Without Being Swallowed Up by It?


Today marks two months since the Allen Premium Outlets mass shooting left eight people dead and seven injured. Since Allen is just north of Dallas, the shooting felt even more personal to me, not to mention those who live there and are still grieving. This tragic anniversary follows a tragic 2023 Fourth of July during which sixteen mass shootings killed fifteen people and injured nearly a hundred more across thirteen states and Washington, DC.

Such heartbreaking news on our nation’s birthday calls to mind C. S. Lewis’s perceptive comment regarding democracy:

You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice. That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy. On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows. That I believe to be the true ground of democracy.

As we continue our Independence Day focus on America, let’s think together about the “true ground of democracy” in light of a question I believe every believer in our country should consider.

The foundational issue of our day

Jacob Wolf, a government professor at Regent University who formerly taught at Princeton, writes in Public Discourse that democracy “has become a secular religion, complete with its own dogmas, practices, clerics, and eschatology.” In this worldview, “progress replaces providence, humanitarianism replaces charity, and mind (or reason) replaces God himself.”

The more Christianity declines in our culture, the more this secular religion which he identifies as “democratism” is rising to replace it.

Wolf rightly responds:

Democracy, like many good things, is destroyed if it is elevated above all else. Democracy is valuable to the extent that it is placed in its proper position and context—bounded and balanced by other elements. As Edmund Burke wisely noted, one does not obtain liberty, equality, and self-government by merely letting go of the reins; these things require a complex system of incentives, punishments, and checks and balances that parallel the complexities of human nature. Our Founders understood this far better than do the democratists.

He concludes that “democracy is ineradicably religious; the question that remains is whether religion can bolster democracy without being swallowed up by it.”

I consider this question to be the foundational issue of our time.

"The nation that will not serve you shall perish"

As I have often written, the American democratic experiment was built on a consensual morality that was itself dependent on the Judeo-Christian worldview. John Adams’ often-quoted warning is just one of the scores of statements by the Founders I could cite: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Over the last two centuries, however, much has happened to shake this foundation. For example:

  • Darwinian evolution undermined belief in the historical accuracy of Scripture.
  • The Civil War, two World Wars, global pandemics, the Great Depression, and the rise of global terrorism persuaded many that God (if he exists) cannot be all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful.
  • Freudian analysis taught our culture that God is a fantasy based on the infantile need for a dominant father figure.
  • Postmodern relativism convinced us that all truth claims (including those of the Bible) are personal and subjective with no normative authority over our lives and society.
  • The sexual revolution and escalating LGBTQ activism are persuading many that biblical morality is outdated, irrelevant, and even dangerous to society.

All the while, our democratic form of governance has persisted but without its moral or cultural foundations. It was perhaps inevitable, given our fallen “will to power” and innate drive to “be like God” (Genesis 3:5), that we would use democracy to replace biblical religion with a secular religion in which, to repeat Wolf’s description, “progress replaces providence, humanitarianism replaces charity, and mind (or reason) replaces God himself.”

This secular religion, if unchecked, will be our undoing as a nation. It will continue to replace truth with tolerance, leading millions into unbiblical immorality that is destructive to themselves and those they influence. It will lead us away from our only Source of abundant (John 10:10) and eternal life (John 3:16) into a Christless darkness in this world and the next.

And it will provoke God’s righteous judgment on our rejection of his word and will, as the prophet testified to him: “The nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste” (Isaiah 60:12).

Now you can see why I consider Wolf’s question “whether religion can bolster democracy without being swallowed up by it” to be so urgent.

Words I pray every day

Our most practical response begins with ourselves:

  • Do you serve God so that he will serve you or so you can glorify him in gratitude for his grace (1 Corinthians 10:31)?
  • Do you read his word, pray, worship, read content like this article, and engage in other spiritual activities as a means to your ends or so you can more effectively advance God’s purposes for your life and world (Matthew 6:33)?
  • Is the Holy Spirit one of your life resources or the strength of your soul (Ephesians 5:18)?

I struggle with these issues as well. As a result, I find it necessary to say these words from the Book of Common Prayer every day:

To my humble supplication Lord,

give ear and acceptation.

Save thy servant, that hath none

Help nor hope but Thee alone.

Will you pray them with me today?

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Publication date: July 6, 2023

Photo courtesy: Thomas Kelley/Unsplash

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.

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Can Religion Bolster Democracy Without Being Swallowed Up by It?