Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Public Theology and Democracy’s Future

Public Theology and Democracy’s Future

The 9th Annual Templeton Lecture On Religion and World Affairs

The defeat of fascism, the victory of anti-colonial movements, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 20th century made it appear possible that democracy would spread worldwide, accompanied by a fuller realization of human rights, a global economy that benefits more of the world’s people, and a reduction of military threats to the world’s security. That “end of history” view may yet prove to be the most probable global direction — some 120 nations adopted democratically oriented constitutions for the first time in the last half century. But there are many reasons to be concerned about the character of a democratic future. Some of the newly independent nations have become one-party states hovering on failure. Some Islamists have repudiated democracy altogether and advocate a return to Caliphate governance under sharia. Russia sometimes seems bound to resume a czarist model of centralized political control; and China is adamant in resisting democratic movements.

Moreover, some oppose the idea of human rights, one of the pillars of democracy, claiming that its implicit assumption — that humanity consists of autonomous individuals — is a modern secularist invention. Still others protest the currently emerging global economy, viewing it as a threat to sovereignty and a design of the rich to exploit the poor. And many fear endless attacks by shadowy, stateless terrorist networks or by ethnic factions, both of which challenge democratic prospects by inducing such a preoccupation with security that democratic freedoms are eroded.

In this situation, the world’s most dynamic democracy and only superpower is expected to be not only the world’s policeman, but also its godfather, bringing peace, prosperity, and democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq and solving every other problem that appears on the horizon, from Haiti to global warming to the AIDS crisis in subsaharan Africa. This charge could tempt the nation into a new imperialism. Even as the United States is criticized for not engaging the problems of the world, it is condemned for intervening everywhere and seducing the world’s youth away from their own cultures.

The deeper difficulty is that Americans do not have a clear moral or spiritual view of what we are about, of why we believe what we believe and do what we do. How can, should, or may we use our power, and why? And what is the source of that power?

Suppose that the U.S. succeeds in planting democracy throughout the world. One might see this as either cultural imperialism or a justifiable conversion of an unholy tyranny to a just system that corresponds to the deepest levels of human nature and the highest discernible sense of divine intent. That sense might of course simply be the reigning consensus among the currently powerful nations. Does that consensus have, or need, a deeper grounding, an ultimate source and norm of truth and justice that can guide how humanity ought to live?

Historically, advocates of democracy believed that it did. The late medieval “conciliarists” who displaced popes and overrode emperors thought so, as did the Reformers and the Puritans. We know that the deists and theists who advocated the Bill of Rights thought so. And the U.S. didn’t hesitate to establish democratic regimes in Cuba and the Philippines at the end of the Spanish-American War, in Germany and Japan at the end of World War II, and in South Korea after the conflict there.

Is there in fact a basis for democracy that is deeper than the fact that it has apparently mostly worked better than other forms, at least in the West? How can we make the case for it today, especially with globalized media, technology, economy, culture, and religions that are beyond the control of any one government?

Critics regularly charge that America is an imperialist nation bent on ruling the world, ready to override other societies with its massive multinational corporations. No doubt some Americans have such interests, but most see their nation as rooted in “that order which we call freedom,” with a mission to help others form open societies, adopt democratic values, and establish human rights in a flourishing economy. We have sometimes failed in this mission, but most agree on the mission.

However, religious leaders, theologians, political leaders, and commentators have failed to enunciate the basis for our mission, or identify ways to reform it when it goes wrong. Can we justly clarify what it is that makes us ready to send our young men and women to kill and die for democracy?

No civilization has yet endured that did not have a religious vision at its core. History is littered with the rubble of empires that fell as much by spiritual emptiness as by economic and military weakness or external pressure. But the enduring civilizations have had religious cores that touch the hearts and minds of the people, becoming the moral architecture to guide the leaders and evoke sacrificial commitments. These enable the societies’ continual renewal. It is not that everyone agrees with the religious vision, or has to, but that there is a framework within which debate takes place.

One cannot imagine trying to understand the politics of China or India without reference to Confucianism or Hinduism, or the systems of government in Southeast Asia or the Middle East without understanding Buddhism or Islam, or what is going on in the EU without reference to the legacy of traditional Christendom (even if the EU’s current advocates resist any reference to religion in its new constitution). Nor can we understand the U.S. without an awareness of Protestantism’s historic influence — or of the failure of its mainline traditions to define the urgent social issues — and of the rise of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, on the one hand, and post-Vatican II Catholicism, on the other, as they seek to offer other perspectives on the ultimate issues. It is not the duty of religious organizations to make public policy, as some try to do; but it is their responsibility to seek to influence people’s consciences so that their political decisions will be informed by moral and spiritual convictions.

Harvard professor Samuel Huntington has pointed out that many have tried to interpret the world as if religion were not central to societies and politics. But he argues that life cannot be understood exclusive of religious ideas, as they are incarnate in the dominant values of the culture. Indeed, Huntington speaks of the irrelevance of purely secular thought to contemporary politics, holding that politics is and must be religious:

During the twentieth century, a secular century, Lenin, Ataturk, Nehru, Ben Gurion, and the Shah (for instance) all defined the identity of their countries in the secular century’s terms. That has changed, the Shah is gone, the Soviet Union is gone, and in its place is a Russia that in public statements identifies itself quite explicitly with Russian Orthodoxy. In Turkey, India, and Israel, major political movements are challenging the secular definition of identity. Politicians in many societies have found that religion either is crucial to maintaining their legitimacy as rulers or must be suppressed because it presents a challenge to that legitimacy.1

Societies do tend to have common features in the sense that we can study them comparatively and see how they similarly adapt to similar conditions and interests. Yet, societies develop differently because they are bent in different directions by distinctive religions; regulating convictions have become woven into cultural values.

Some of the regulating convictions that shape democracy become clear when we speak of human rights, which are affirmed by the vision behind democracy, notwithstanding our horrible record with regard to slavery and women’s rights, and the betrayal of our own principles in wartime, from the early struggles with Native Americans to Abu Ghraib in 2004. Still, the conviction that humans have rights has prevailed again and again. Indeed, even in dark moments, prophetic voices have drawn on Biblical roots to demand the recognition that each person is made in the image of God and thus has inalienable rights — even the criminal, the enemy, the heretic, the prisoner, and the terrorist.

As Michael Perry, one of the nation’s leading authorities on law and morality, has put it, “some things should never be done to anyone; and some things should be done for everyone.”2 That is why the authors of America’s Declaration of Independence and the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights could appeal to Biblical principles to advocate rights. They are “self-evident truths” that shape consciences, civilizations, and history. When one appeals to human rights in the face of tyranny, torture, servitude, arbitrary arrest, extortion, discrimination, or religious persecution, one has played a valid moral trump, and the people have the basis to demand a law code and to form judicial process as a recourse and remedy. The awareness of such principles gives hope for democratic vitality under just law.

A second feature of society that gives hope for democracy has to do with economic life. Capitalism is the most efficient and productive economic system yet to be devised, and it is sweeping the world. It improves the well-being of most people, including the poor. Not only parts of South America and the “little tigers” of East Asia, but also the two most populous nations of the world, India and China, have turned to versions of capitalism, making it likely that the World Bank and UN millennium goal of halving world poverty within ten years can be met. However, these same trends will also increase inequality. A great many are raised a little, and a substantial number are raised a good bit, but only a few are raised a great deal, widening the gap between the wealthy and the still struggling. A free society does not demand enforced equality of economic status, but it must work to equalize opportunity.

The formation of new middle classes and the rising aspirations of those who have grasped the lower rungs of the ladder increase the prospects for democracy. People with some financial means and even relative security are better able to educate their children, adopt new technologies, develop more stable lifestyles, and migrate out of dependency. They gain some command over their destinies, demand their freedom from restrictive constraints, and become more concerned about developing excellence in various areas of their lives — professional, educational, environmental, and institutional. They deal with others with greater integrity and seek to provide goods or services that make them contributing members of society.

But the formation of new middle classes does not guarantee democracy’s development. Only some parts of the middle classes begin to extend economic opportunities, form communities of commitment, and exercise citizen participation. The prospect that the new middle classes will seek to extend democratic possibilities depends on their “calling.” It is one thing to have a job and a career, it is quite another to see what one does in all the daily rounds of life as being under the scrutiny of a God who cares how we live and has purposes for our lives. Max Weber probably had it about right when he argued that this doctrine of vocation in the world played a distinctive role in bringing about the asceticism that generated the modern middle classes and its quest for excellence and professionalism.

Today’s massive conversions to Pentecostalism in Latin America and Africa, and to Evangelicalism in Asia replicate the earlier Reformation dynamics, though usually without the same doctrinal apparatus. This is also the case with the growth of parallel movements in America, in the “mega- churches” that puzzle the mainline churches that are declining in membership. Those given the opportunity to move toward the middle classes are questing for a new ordering of their lives, and these movements are drawing people into bonds of discipline and are often less tolerant of libertine lifestyles, that are having a notable political impact.

There are two key doctrinal points here that support democratic prospects: first, that humans are made in the image of God, and second, that God calls each person to live a godly life that is manifest in the development of excellence in all areas of worldly life. These doctrinal points are incarnate in the now public dynamics that are globalizing our world, one working through the attempt to articulate principles of justice, the other appearing in the forms of increased productivity and disciplined lifestyles. One aids democratic prospects from above, one from below. Both form a new middle.

I believe democracy does have a theological base, but a less direct one. It usually depends on a basically mechanical and statistical procedure whereby each person votes to determine leadership or policy. That procedure involves only two agents — individual votes, cumulatively tabulated, and the state, the organized body that manages the election and accepts its results. The Terrors of the French Revolution and of the Red Guard’s Cultural Revolution remind us of the perils of the mobocracy into which mere populism can degenerate, while the fact that both Hitler and Stalin both claimed to be elected reminds us of what statism can become.

If a democracy is to have an inner moral fiber, it must have several other things besides voters and the state, an independent legal system that recognizes the voters’ human rights and civil liberties, and a free economic system. It must also have:

  • schools that teach critical thinking;
  • media that provides information and inspiration from a range of perspectives;
  • stable families that nurture responsible persons and inculcate moral habits and spiritual insight;
  • political parties that voice the needs and hopes of the people and form the “loyal opposition” when they are not in power;
  • voluntary associations that take up causes or perform services that need attention but are not the obvious duty of the government; and
  • above all, independent religious communities able to treat both the political and social aspects of life from a transcendent point of view.

In short, a viable democracy depends on a division of powers not only within the government, but among the institutions outside state control in a viable civil society. This demands a separation of church and state, with the religious organizations providing an organized moral and spiritual center of loyalty that does not allow interests to be the only basis of politics.

Civil society is strongest where multiple religious institutions are well developed. Democracy as a political design was first mentioned in ancient Greece, but it did not flourish there: it fell every time it was tried to tyranny, mobocracy, plutocracy, or imperialism, for the character of ancient Greece religion could not sustain a moral core. Democracy only flourished after the church became a center of loyalty and began to form schools, hospitals, guilds, parties, and associations for fellowship and service, in what was a long and slow, but providential, process.

Other forms of democracy, most notably deriving from the French Revolution and influencing in various ways the German Enlightenment, the Russian Revolution, and the secular democrats of the Americas, renounced the idea that religion was a necessary part of democracy. Secular democrats attempted to establish a state-guided democracy based on what Rousseau called the “general will.” Religion would be removed from public discourse, even prohibited from public display (as we have seen in the recent banning of the wearing of headscarves by Muslims and nuns, in schools and government offices).

This development was partly understandable, for there are forms of religious dogma that do not defend human rights and that inhibit economic development. And there are movements claiming roots in the Christian church that are anti- intellectual and sectarian. These groups hate pluralism and engender enclaves of self-righteous piety that worship a God who only condemns the world.

But their critique of bad religion banishes too much. The French Revolution yielded Napoleon, Germany’s enlightened philosophers easily succumbed to fascism, the Soviet “people’s democracy” fell to Bolshevism, and the secular populists of the Americas became prey of liberationist ideologies. As they say now in Latin America, the church opted for the oppressed, and the poor opted for Evangelicalism. Not only must religion be taken seriously, but also the kind of theology that is willing and able to touch the heart and address public issues must be seen as necessary for the future of democracy. A profound theology will press us toward a democracy ordered in a way that accords with God’s law and purposes. That poses the critical issues.

All of us have a personal faith, a theology, a set of personal convictions about ultimate reality; and millions of people belong to some organized wing of their religious tradition. Each tradition has a distinctive way of defining the ideal political order. Some are more capable of supporting the conditions under which democracy flourishes than others. Most have some national or international religious body, or chief representatives, who periodically issue statements that have direct political implications — ethical issues framed by a theological tradition tend not to stay under the steeple.

Today, the debate about the morality of the Iraq war is very alive, with theological convictions about “just war” doctrines just below the surface. The question has arisen whether human rights are being compromised for the sake of security and national defense. The issue of the extent to which government should control corporations’ ecological or outsourcing practices is also on the agenda, as well as the propriety of limiting abortion or stem-cell research. An open debate about these theologically laden issues is vital to democracy.

Public theology has the task of engaging in public dialogue on such ethical issues. The Judeo-Christian tradition offers two deeply rooted Biblical themes that undergird the “principled pluralism” that presses society toward the kind of democracy that is the necessary supplement to the idea of the image of God, on which human rights rest, and to the idea of vocation, on which professional integrity rests. These are the recognition of sin and the possibility of covenant.

Recognizing sinfulness implies awareness that humans and their societies are all imperfect. Thus, every idealistic quest for harmony of all the parts will lead to pride and totalitarianism. The consolidation of power in the hands of the few tempts humanity to an arrogance that corrupts the powerful and either exploits or makes passive the rest. Accordingly, power must be distributed and thereby limited. If each sphere of civil society is well developed, the various spheres can correct one another or cooperate to reform the whole.

That cooperation invites the possibility of forming covenantal relationships. Daniel Elazar, one of the great scholarly gems of the last century, traced this idea through the West’s history and documented how, from its roots in ancient Judaism, it was adopted and adapted by certain strands of Christianity and found resonance in many cultures, engendered a passion for a pluralistic democracy, and opposed both the hierarchical authoritarianism found in most classical cultures and the balkanizing atomism of modernity. The idea of covenant is based on the formation of communities of commitment for purposes that include but transcend our human material interests.

Christianity contributed to this concept the idea of love as the inner spirit of covenantal bonding. That is what forms character and reforms society in this life, even though perfection is impossible and forgiveness is necessary. Christians believe that this is what Christ manifest and what is working among us in all the spheres of common life. It is what gives us faith that, in spite of sin, evil will not prevail. Being realistic about sin and confident in the possibility of love allows Christians to believe that there is a moral and spiritual heart of a democratic society and political order.

If these theological motifs are, as I believe, already present deep within democratic life, they need to be made conscious for democracy to flourish and spread. A serious public theology will have to engage the great world religions to find out whether they have comparable concepts and prospects and where they may be able to adjust such motifs for the emerging global civil society. This is another area, for many the newest one, where our theology must be public.


1. “Religion, Culture, and International Conflict After September 11,” Ethics and Public Policy Center Conversations, June 17, 2002,

2. The Idea of Human Rights, Oxford, 1998, p. 35.