One of my favorite quotes from the American Founding comes from Federalist 51. In that essay, James Madison wrote the famous line, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” The quote is powerful, not only because of its eloquence, but because of its clear distillation of two basic truths: IN THIS FALLEN WORLD, Humanity is fallen, and fallen people require governance.
Though I’m not convinced we wouldn’t need government in a world without sin, I am certain that Madison was correct about the necessity of government in a fallen world. In the essay from which that quote is drawn, Madison was commenting on both the nature of government and the nature of human beings. In Federalist 51, he makes the point that since mankind obviously cannot function without some kind of government, it stands to reason that a society should endeavor to create the most just and equitable political arrangements possible.
For nearly 250 years, the government of the United States has been built upon the basis of a political ideology known as liberal democracy. As a political theory, liberal democracy combines the principles of democratic government, where citizens take an active role in the formation and direction of the state, with the principles of classical liberalism, which seeks to maximize the freedom of individuals and limit the authority of the state.
Throughout our nation’s history, the virtues of this political arrangement have been questioned from all sides. And recently, there has been considerable debate among social conservatives in the U.S. over the long-term viability of liberal democracy. Central to that debate is the question of whether or not liberal democracy itself is to blame for the evident and increasing moral decay in American culture. In light of the present controversy, it is fitting to ask again whether democratic liberalism is something worth defending.
Liberal democracy does not exist because of some divine decree. It is simply an approach to government that has developed over time, and as such it is hardly infallible. Still, there are good reasons for Christians to continue to embrace liberal democracy as a helpful approach to government.
The “liberal” (from the Latin word Libertas meaning liberty) part of liberal democracy refers to the tradition of classical lib- eralism that sprung from the political theory of the 17th-century English philosopher John Locke. At the time when Locke was forging his political philosophy in defense of individual liberty, he was doing so against the backdrop of an English monarchy that could rightly be described as tyrannical. And in defending the rights of an individual to exercise a large degree of self-rule and autonomy, one of the most important things Locke was defending was the idea of religious freedom.
Prior to the advent of classical liberalism, defenders of the English monarchy argued that the king’s right to rule had been established by God. And because the power of the crown came by virtue of “divine right,” there were very few checks on its power. The king, wielding the authority of heaven, held the power to tell his subjects not only how they should live but how they should worship. In such an environment, religious freedom was unthinkable. Religious nonconformity posed a significant threat to the power of the state because the king’s power would be diminished if his subjects were to reject the idea that his right to rule came from God.
Classical liberalism sought to limit such intrusions upon the freedom of individuals. It articulated a new vision of government authority, not one based on divine right but one based on natural law and natural rights—a vision of rules and liberties patterned after God’s design of humanity. Instead of the crown granting certain permissions to its citizens, classical liberalism understood freedom and equality to be fundamental (God-given) attributes belonging to every individual. And instead of the uniqueness of the monarch, classical liberalism placed an emphasis on the equal value of all people.
In advancing the concept of limited government, classical liberalism envisions a government that lacks the authority to limit the basic rights and liberties of its citizens to think, speak, live, and worship according to the dictates of conscience. This certainly comports well with the Christian understanding of the individual. Christians believe that every person is made in God’s image and therefore bears an inestimable worth and is fundamentally equal. Moreover, religious freedom is also a deeply Christian—particularly Baptist—conviction; God is not interested in a worship coerced by the state but seeks true worshipers who respond to the gospel in repentance and faith ( John 4:23; Mark 1:15). For nearly three centuries, the rise of Lockean liberalism has represented a positive advancement for religious freedom in the modern West.
The same is true for the “democracy” part of liberal democracy. Democracy at its root, refers to rule by the people. In a democracy, government is formed by the people and is therefore accountable to the people for the way it wields its power. In the United States, we live in a representative democracy—sometimes called a democratic republic.
Keeping with the theme of equality, it is noteworthy that our government is made up entirely of citizens. Those vested with the power of elected office are chosen from among the citizenry, and even those granted lifetime appointments to roles in the judiciary remain citizens. In a healthy democracy, no person is above the law, and the law applies to everyone in equal measure.
Though democracy is not essential to preserving things like liberty and equality, the fact that our government is made up of citizens who are directly affected by the laws they pass, and that those elected to office must face regular elections where their leadership is scrutinized and contested, goes a long way toward preserving those things. A regular cycle of free and fair elections is meant to ensure that those elected to office act in the interest of the people. And since the Founding, our nation’s commitment to democracy has proved a faithful safe- guard against tyranny.
Must we keep it?
On the one hand, Christians need not be overly concerned about the future of liberal democracy. The New Testament prescribes no specific political philosophy or vision of government which Christians must strive to enact or preserve. Indeed, within its pages one finds only the most basic description of the role of government (e.g., to promote justice and punish the evildoer), along with the assurance that the institution of government was established by God.
Yet on the other hand, any serious Bible reader knows that the scriptures have a great deal to say about the value of a person and the nature of human life. Thus, it is obvious that a society’s polit- ical arrangements can substantially help or hinder the pursuit of justice and human flourishing. In this regard, liberal democracy has provided a helpful framework for American government to pursue these ends across multiple centuries.
I am not insensitive to the criticisms levied against liberal democracy by its contemporary critics. I readily concede the point that preferable alternatives to the liberal order may pres- ent themselves or be discovered in due course. But for now, there is no extant political ideology that better accords with the Christian principles of human dignity and religious liberty, more successfully upholds freedom and equality, or more effectively maximizes the potential for justice and human flourishing. In this fallen world, democratic liberalism might not be essential, but it is certainly worth defending.
This article originally appeared in LIGHT magazine.