Christianity Was Never About Democracy, Anyway

Christianity Was Never About Democracy, Anyway November 5, 2021

cross and crownChristianity, it turns out, has never been interested in democracy.

People used to tell me it is, and I’m sure those people are still out there, feeding the same old narratives to an ever-dwindling and increasingly rural audience. But no one who has been paying attention to what’s happening in America could still say that with a straight face.

Prior to the birth of America–the first country founded primarily as a business venture–the Christian church had always been hierarchical in structure. All grace was extended and all important decisions were made from the top down, starting with the original apostles and then preserved and passed along by a massive bureaucracy that continues to dictate the decisions of billions of people to this day.

After the church expanded into the North American continent, however, it adapted to accommodate the Great Experiment, ultimately producing franchises like the Southern Baptist Convention, who insist that they make all their decisions from the bottom up. Their denominational structure mimics the organization of the American government, finalizing all important decisions by annual votes cast by representatives sent from each state and locality around the country.

Baptists will tell you their denominational decisions aren’t binding on their churches, but watch and see what happens to a church who decides they want a woman to be their pastor–or even worse, a gay man. It won’t be long before they receive what we call the right foot of Christian fellowship. So much for decisions being nonbinding.

Taking Too Much Credit

Growing up I was taught that democracy itself owes its ideological roots to the Christian faith (Narrator: It doesn’t). They insisted the idea for the separation of powers into three co-equal branches came from the Christian conviction that all men are sinful and fall short of the perfections of God, so no single person or entity should ever be afforded too much power over the lives of others. They would use it to advance their own personal interests instead working for the good of the people. Imagine how awful that would be.

They also explained that all important decisions of the early church were made by a kind of collective vote. Of course they used different words to describe it (“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us”), but the central idea was that God could exercise his authority in the church even through “the least of these,” even those without the requisite qualifications for leadership. Come to think of it, that explains a lot of their electoral choices, doesn’t it?

The Enlightenment itself was a product of Christianity, or so I was told. If God made everything, then our scientists and engineers and artists could approach each of their crafts with confidence because they knew that order and beauty must be there in the universe since it was intelligently designed (Narrator: It wasn’t). Anyone who denies the existence of God undermines the very worldview upon which all learning and exploration depends.

That’s a nice story, and it may be coincidentally true that as long as Christianity was the established religion of the Northern hemisphere, most famous scientists and explorers identified as such. But it’s also true that no single entity has opposed scientific innovation and discovery more than the church itself. They once imprisoned a guy for saying the earth isn’t stationary, and to this day the Catholic church remains the greatest hindrance to stem cell research because it conflicts with their theology.

In America they disliked the idea of evolution so much, they pulled their kids out of school to insure they will never be taught it. Those people eventually grew up to become legislators and governors who disbelieve scientists because clearly those people haven’t read their Bibles enough. It says we came from dirt, not from monkeys. I wonder, though: if we came from dirt, then why is there still dirt?

American Christians still pay lip service to the idea of democracy, but they have never been great at showing that they know what it means. The overwhelming majority of them today pledge their exclusive political allegiance to the party that’s trying to reduce the number of people who can vote, and they seem happiest when the leaders they choose make unilateral decisions, pulling rank and strong-arming their opponents into submission. Compromise may lie at the heart of all democracy, but in the church it’s a weakness and should be avoided at all costs.

No Other Gods

Abrahamic faiths have an authoritarian streak in them because they are all revealed faiths–they believe God spoke to a handful of people a long time ago and whatever they said became Truth with a capital T.

According to the Hebrew Bible, one of the first things Yahweh commanded his people to do was invade a region already inhabited by members of other religions and cultures, killing or enslaving every man, woman, and child unwilling to convert to the Hebrew faith. I tend to say the only good thing I can report about that story is that it never actually happened. Unless I’m mistaken, the source material for Islam also contains passages with strong imperialistic fervor about spreading their faith until it covers the whole earth.

Christianity itself went through a violent phase during the Crusades, but the rise of democracy and the industrial revolution seem to have sublimated that colonial mentality into evangelism–sharing the gospel with everyone whether they want to hear it or not. With smiles that indicate they’ve insufficiently examined what they’re saying, Christians insist that anyone who doesn’t subscribe to their faith will be tortured forever after they die (or else be sent to permanent Time Out). So the authoritarianism and the violence are both still there, but they’ve been repackaged into a narrative about posthumous rewards and punishments. It’s still an offer you cannot refuse.

Lately their cultural imperialism has shown up in the resurgence of Christian nationalism–the belief that God wants to make America into the New Israel, a modern theocracy to show the world what it looks like to do things the way God really wants them done. The more they get their way, the more the Venn diagram of their politicians and clergymen becomes a circle. They believe the Christian faith should be the only one that’s approved and protected by the government–freedom for me, but not for thee.

The thing is…they’re not really wrong. Pluralism may be essential for democracy, but the God of the Bible says that you should have “no other gods before” him. It’s the very first commandment. Contrast that with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which says that “congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Those are ideological opposites, and a great many of our current culture wars have arisen from this single rivalry.

You wouldn’t think a faith born among impoverished people in the margins of the Roman empire would inspire the seizure of thrones, but in a way that’s precisely what the Christian faith promises. They’ve been promised a coming kingdom, not a democracy, and it’s supposed to be on its way here. Some believe it won’t happen until after Jesus comes back to burn everything to the ground and start over again. Others feel it’s their calling to acquire that power in the here-and-now, and some of those people are getting antsy about it.

Since being a representative democracy means that people get to decide for themselves who’s in charge, the church can be a powerful player in government so long as its people are willing to move as a single unit (They are). Church trains you for nothing if not for following someone else’s lead. Also, it’s a lot easier to render unto Caesar when you get to be Caesar.

A Fallen Electorate

Christianity teaches that one day “every knee shall bow” to the Christian faith alone. If that sounds undemocratic to you, it’s because it is. The only way to make everyone in a population do the same thing is to somehow dispense with anyone who is unwilling to get with the program. I know it sounds harsh when I put it that way, but with enough practice you can become an expert at blame shifting, reassuring yourself that all those people who will be punished for choosing either the wrong faith or none at all are only doing it to themselves.

Related: “Absolving God From Hell

It also teaches that every human ever born is afflicted with an evil spirit so that we cannot know what is best for us or choose it properly without an act of divine condescension. Grace like this is called “amazing” because it would take the greatest measure of forgiveness imaginable for good things to come to creatures as wretched as you and me. Why would you want to give filthy rags a voice in how they are governed?

Do you see the problem? Far from being the underlying basis for democracy, Christianity contradicts this method of government at the most fundamental level. Believers are taught to anticipate a coming kingdom–a monarchy, not a democracy. Despite all the learned rhetoric about the importance of freedom, they keep choosing leaders with strong authoritarian streaks, and that shouldn’t really surprise us.

No wonder the sedition caucus is doing so well among rural whites in America. They’ve been taught to believe that governments other than the kingdom of God are expendable, so at some point they must each be toppled. They know there’s a war at the end of the Bible, so why not form a militia and stockpile weapons now, before the Bogeyman appears to drink everybody’s blood or whatever it is that demons do?

It’s unfortunate that so many of the “well regulated militias” can’t tell the difference between violently overthrowing a monarchy and violently overthrowing democratically elected representatives with whom they disagree. Convince them the elections were invalid and they’ll spend their weekends larping as modern revolutionaries prepping for the army of God to forcefully seize control of a government they don’t understand and don’t want anyway.

The good news is that Y’all Qaeda hasn’t been training for very long, and I’m not sure they’ve run a whole mile since one of the Bushes was president. If and when they do rebel, nobody has to lay siege to their compounds. Just threaten to withhold their blood pressure medicine and that should do the trick. It shouldn’t be long before they start crowdfunding snacks.

The bad news is they aren’t the only ones whose ignorance has been weaponized against them. Once you convince millions of people that their government is being run by the devil himself, they will have no problem electing people whose only purpose is to burn the whole thing down, dismantling it from the inside. Who cares about the people whose lives depend on the services it provides? Evidently not the church in America.

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About Neil Carter
Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture. You can read more about the author here.

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