Christianity Is Essential For Democracy. Isn’t it?
A recent Pew Research report suggested that American Christians could become a minority of the population in less than 50 years. And for some, this has led to a fear that the decline of cultural Christianity in America could spell bad news for the prospects for democracy here.
Because, while many people today are talking about how Christianity (especially when combined with nationalism) might be a threat to democracy, it is still more common to think that Christianity is overall good for democracy. In fact, many conservative evangelicals believe Christianity is necessary for a free society.
After recently publishing a book on Christian nationalism, I’ve given numerous talks, interviews, and podcasts and have had countless conversations with friends and colleagues in evangelical circles on the subject. And I have found that there is a possessive, proprietary attitude toward America and democracy—along with an insistence that a Christian culture is practically a prerequisite for democracy to survive.
The conversation goes something like this: Whenever I argue that it’s a mistake to look to the government to sustain a Christian culture, they counter that the government should have an interest in promoting Christianity because it is essential to sustain our democratic society.
For example, Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said at the National Conservatism Conference in September, “I am thankful to live in a society that is the inheritance of a Judeo-Christian civilization because it has established the very freedoms that we know.” So far, so good. Mohler is right that Christianity played an important role in shaping America and inspiring some of our founding principles.
But then he said, “Where else do we have access to any stable notion of human dignity? Where else do we have any access to the notion and defense of human rights in any substantial form?”
I can point out several examples of non-Christian (or fairly new Christian) societies that are, in fact, democracies: for instance, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Ghana, Mauritius, São Tomé and Príncipe, Samoa, the Seychelles, Mongolia, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, Nauru, Tuvalu, Kiribati, and Timor-Leste. These African, Asian, and Oceanic societies are all democracies that Freedom House ranked as “free” in 2022 for their recognition and protection of human rights.
The ranking also includes a much longer list of “partly free” countries across Africa and Asia, including India, Senegal, Comoros, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Tunisia, Bhutan, Madagascar, Liberia, Benin, Indonesia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Kenya, and more—countries where human dignity and human rights are at least partly recognized and respected.
Most of the countries on the “free” list and a handful of those on the “partly free” list have Christian majorities (including Malawi, Madagascar, Liberia, the Philippines, and Kenya). But their Christianity is a relatively recent import, dating back one or two centuries at most, and not the sort of institutional roots I take Mohler to be referring to.
The same can be said of the dozen or so democracies in the Caribbean, mostly made of up Christian majorities but with strong cultural influences from indigenous religion and animism.
The point is that American freedom is not especially rare anymore and is certainly not limited to America, to the “West,” or to European Judeo-Christian societies. This should demonstrate that Christianity and democracy are indeed separable, but my arguments fall on deaf ears—many of my friends and colleagues still insist that Christianity and democracy are inextricably linked.
Why do so many people insist on the connection between Christianity and democracy? Why is it so important to affirm not only that Christianity helped shape America in the past but also that it must continue to do so if we are to remain a free society?