Democracy on skid row?

National | It's winning here and there, but losing its sustaining culture

Issue: "Brownback's Senate fight," July 20, 1996

In a swiftly passing half century the relationship of evangelicals to American culture has undergone colossal change.

My The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947) lamented the withdrawal of religious conservatives from the cultural arena, then powerfully dominated by modernist ideology. Failure of evangelicals to engage the culture on biblical premise, I warned, could only abandon society to expectations shaped by Darwin and Marx, and yield the political climate to liberal optimism.

One would think that the collapse of illusionary communism would stimulate resounding praise for political democracy since the defeat of Marxism was a decisive moral victory over totalitarianism. Instead, doubts about the superiority of democracy seem to run deeper in much of the Free World than at any time during the Cold War.

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The adequacy of political democracy is being questioned somewhere on almost all continents and, most surprising, America itself now reflects a distressing disaffection over various aspects of the democratic process. Representative democracy and the culture it sustains is today in trouble.

Contributory factors are multiple. Latin American liberation theologians insist (quite apart from their Marxist propensities) that democracy is too slow a catalyst to promote social change. Singapore critics think political freedom stifles government authority by exaggerating individual rights.

Some Russian leaders wonder whether a democracy can cope successfully with high inflation and steep unemployment in a post-Marxist era. Many Americans are now skeptical of executive, legislative, and judicial personnel or procedures, of the jury system, and of the educational merit of a free press, and they forfeit voting privileges in distressing numbers.

The deepest threat to democracy lies in its elevation of economic and political factors to priority and its failure to respect the precedency of spiritual and moral concerns. All political action presupposes ethical and religious assumptions. Those who argue that religious and moral imperatives have no place in a pluralistic society merely conceal their own naturalistic worldview. If democracy neglects theological and ethical realities, it is headed for chaos or for totalitarianism.

To be sure, democracy's survival does not require an express cultural commitment to the Christian worldview. But not any and every worldview will escape inevitable deterioration. If democracy's patron saint becomes the devil, it is hell-bound. Democracy functions best in a culture permeated by the biblical emphasis on the universal Creator and Judge of mankind and on the regeneration of human character.

But such books as my Twilight of a Great Civilization, Chuck Colson's Against the Night: Living in the New Dark Ages, and Alan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind are nonetheless appropriate.

The forfeiture of democracy need not be a forfeiture of Christianity, but if we are going to let democracy disintegrate by neglect, we had better look closely at the alternatives. Evangelicals should realize that democracy is not self-sustaining, and we should probe possibilities of walking alongside those who seek to sustain it.


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