Christians and Illiberal Democracy

When someone says they are acting to defend democracy, query what they mean by democracy. Christians using the term these days provide sufficient reason to ask. Polarized Christian camps are putting radically different versions of “the democracy we need” on display.

White evangelical Christianity has provided the base of the president’s base of support since they held their noses and voted for him the first time. Survey research from Public Religion Research Institute indicates they did not hold their noses the second time. They are the base of the 74 million people who voted for him a month ago. They and their representatives in Congress, cheer-led by the biggest names in the broadcast and social media fields of the Christian Right, back and promote the claims of election fraud and illegitimate voting.

The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, led by Drs. William Barber and Liz Theoharis, is a Christian-led, interfaith, multi-pronged effort to reform the nation’s (as well as many states’) economic system in the direction of more equality and social justice. They and many other Christians at the grassroots organized voter registration campaigns. In some places, these campaigns were factors in the election of a new president.

Democracy can be illiberal or liberal.*

Among some Christians, the meaning of “democracy” is on the “illiberal” side of the measure. Illiberal democrats favor one voting group over another or use the word democracy as a foil for claiming power for themselves. In recent months, one federal office holder opined, in effect, “You can have too much democracy,” when asked about popular voting.

There is an old, officially abandoned Catholic teaching that “error has no rights.” The Christian Right has reincarnated this teaching.

The yearning for more illiberal democracy is NOT a new position in the U.S. You’ve heard the claim (or, as in my case, the following has been used to scold my alleged ignorance), “The U.S. is a republic, not a democracy.” That is like saying, “This ice cream is white, not vanilla.” “Republic” simply means “not a monarchy; power is shared in some way.” Republics can be democratic republics, such as the U.S. is. For the time being.

In local government or a movement (e.g., Occupy), there may be simple democracy where everyone votes on everything. In a large nation, we elect representatives in popular elections who then vote on matters for us—until the next election. Thus, a representative democracy.

But some people still prefer the limited liberal, somewhat illiberal democracy from America’s founding. The election of the president by the Electoral College is one residual of “original illiberal intent.” Elections excluding landless white men, all persons of African descent, white women, and Indigenous persons were baked into that original constitution, too. The enfranchisement of each originally-excluded demographic liberalized our democracy.

After the Constitution was fundamentally changed post-Civil War with the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, white Christians in the South led the charge to nullify the changes through Black Codes, then Jim Crow, and acts of domestic terrorism. For those Christians, inequality was God’s will: men over women, white over Black, white over Red, Protestant over Catholic and Jew.

They did not favor more liberal democracy, characterized by freedom and equality for all.

They do not favor more democracy, characterized by freedom and equality for all.

One kind of Christian, fearful of being outvoted and then vulnerable to social changes they abhor, is working hard to keep their version of hell from coming. They’re drawing from the toolbox of illiberal democracy. Power should reside in the hands of the more deserving group. Elections should include only persons who vote as the party wants them to vote. The system is corrupt and run by elites. Order, unjust or not, is to be preserved. Freedom is for white people. Words like “equality” and “justice” derive from socialism. Those in error have no rights.

Another kind of Christian is working hard for the nation to move forward from the hell of a limited franchise which is reanimated in U.S. history more often than the villain in a horror movie. Find ways for every enfranchised adult to vote and to ensure that every vote counts. Freedom must be married to equality in order for freedom to be real. “Equality” and “justice” are societal expressions of love, rooted in the God-given dignity of each person.

I am reading the late Dr. James Cone’s profound book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Cone details the silence of white Christians, including one of my theological heroes, Reinhold Niebuhr, on the subject of lynching. About 5,000 extrajudicial lynchings have been documented, mostly in the South, between 1880 and 1940.

Cone tells the story, again and again, of white Christian leaders who believed in an illiberal democracy controlled by white voters and where Black people “stayed in their places,” as determined by white leaders. Anyone “out of place,” for whatever reason, might be lynched, dismembered, tortured, and burnt. The crowd, which could number over 10,000 white people who set up as if the event was a church picnic, watched and took photos for postcards to be sent to relatives. Lynchings were often organized and executed by white Christian community leaders.

Voting was one of the instances for which a Black person might be lynched.

I am embarrassed, I am ashamed, that the name “Christian” is so closely tied these days—as it has been for so much of the nation’s history—with illiberal democracy. Those of us who affirm efforts such as the Poor People’s Campaign need to get both louder and more effective—for the sake of the nation, of our own souls, and of the name of the religion associated with Jesus of Nazareth.

*The phrase “liberal democracy” has nothing to do with the conservative-liberal political spectrum regarding the size of purpose of government. Liberal democracy means democracy characterized by popular voting that translates into policy, individual rights, and the protection of political minorities. Illiberal democracies dispense with any of these practices and values, if they interfere with the agenda those in power want to accomplish.


Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

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Democracy In Turmoil & Election Stress | New Hampshire Public Radio

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