Fifteen years ago this month, in October 1981, the Washington-based Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) adopted the following statement, entitled "Christianity and Democracy." IRD had been launched that spring by a small group of evangelicals, Roman Catholics, and oldline Protestants who were concerned about the ambiguous witness of the churches on the cause of human freedom. At that time the Cold War was the dominant fact in international affairs and largely shaped domestic politics. Numerous Christian leaders and some churches associated with the National Council of Churches (NCC) advocated a "moral symmetry" between the Soviet Union and the United States, agitated for unilateral disarmament, and condemned anticommunism as a moral failing and even a theological heresy. In its declaration, written by Richard John Neuhaus, IRD intended to set forth the Christian case for, and stake in, the liberal democratic order. The IRD initiative occasioned enormous controversy at the time. While sympathetic treatment of the IRD argument by popular media such as 60 Minutes and Reader's Digest provoked vigorous counterattacks against IRD by the officialdoms of oldline churches and the NCC, some historians date the precipitous decline of the public influence of liberal religion from this conflict. IRD, it should be noted, continues as a vibrant catalyst of renewal movements within oldline churches, especially the United Methodist, Presbyterian (U.S.A.), and Episcopal. We republish the original text of "Christianity and Democracy" because of its historical interest and because of its pertinence to the perennial struggle between the totalitarian impulse and the democratic alternative. (That the threat to democracy indeed continues, also in the U.S., is underscored by a sobering symposium coming in the November issue of First Things on the imperial judiciary and its usurpation of politics.)Jesus Christ is Lord. That is the first and final assertion Christians make about all of reality, including politics. Believers now assert by faith what one day will be manifest to the sight of all: every earthly sovereignty is subordinate to the sovereignty of Jesus Christ.
- The Editors
The Church, the community of believers, is the bearer of that claim. Because the Church is pledged to the Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus, it must maintain a critical distance from all the kingdoms of the world, whether actual or proposed. Christians betray their Lord if, in theory or practice, they equate the Kingdom of God with any political, social, or economic order of this passing time. At best, such orders permit the proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom and approximate, in small part, the freedom, peace, and justice for which we hope. At worst, such orders attempt to suppress the good news of the Kingdom and oppress human beings who are the object of divine love and promise.
While our first allegiance is to the community of faith and its mission in the world, Christians do not withdraw from participation in other communities. To the contrary, we are called to be leaven and light in movements of cultural, political, and economic change. History is the arena in which Christians exercise their discipleship. Because our hope is eternal and transcendent, Christians can participate in society without despair or delusion. We do not despair of the meaning of history, nor do we delude ourselves that our efforts are to be equated with establishing the Kingdom of God. The fulfillment of history's travail is the promised Rule of God, not the establishment of our human programs and designs.
Within our several churches disagreement about the meaning of social justice should not merely be tolerated; it should be cherished. We are pledged to the goal that our churches be open churches. An open church engages sympathetically the diversity of Christian views both within and outside denominational structures. An open church welcomes dissent for the strengthening of truth and the correction of error. An open church makes decisions in the light of day, not in the shadowed corners of bureaucratic power. An open church has leaders who are not afraid but eager to engage in the fullest consultation with all its members. An open church addresses social issues not so much to advance a particular position as to inform and empower people to make their own decisions responsibly. An open church understands that the church speaks most effectively when the people who are the church do the speaking, and leaders speak most believably when they speak with the informed consent of those whom they would lead. Sometimes leaders can and should disagree with the views of the majority. To disagree, however, is not to disregard the views of others. Leadership in an open church is marked by candor and never by contempt for the convictions of those with whom we differ. In these ways, an open church becomes a zone of truth-telling in a world of mendacity.
The religious term for political monism or totalitarianism is idolatry. The party-state declares itself to be absolute, and therefore not accountable to any transcendent judgment. Regimes that subscribe to this dogma assert that they themselves embody the final meaning of history and are therefore not answerable to any higher authority or morality. Totalitarianism takes either leftist or rightist forms. Our century is shrouded by the specter of Hitler's Third Reich. Today, however, the only global ideology that is committed to the monistic denial of freedom is Marxism-Leninism. That this revolutionary movement denies what we understand by freedom is not a charge lodged by its critics but a tenet consistently proclaimed by the movement itself.
There are significant differences between Marxist-Leninist regimes. In some places their total control is partially checked by religious, cultural, ethnic, and economic forces which restlessly press toward freedom. In other places these forces have been ruthlessly destroyed, even at the price of genocide. The brutal denial of freedom by Communist states is not accidental. It is inherent in and essential to the doctrine by which such regimes would legitimate their power. Although the totalitarian intent is not actualized with the same consistency or brutality in every Marxist-Leninist regime, every such regime and every such revolutionary movement subscribes to the totalitarian intent. To the extent the intent has been actualized, millions have died, millions more have been imprisoned and cruelly repressed.
In addition to this unspeakable human suffering, however, we declare that the intent itself is evil. It is both politically and theologically imperative to assert that Marxism-Leninism promulgates a doctrine that is incompatible with a Christian understanding of humanity and historical destiny. Thus Christians must be unapologetically anti- Communist. Anti-Communism is not a sufficient political philosophy, but it is an indispensable component in discerning the signs of the times. Those who do not understand this have not recognized the bloody face of our age and, however benign their hopes, can contribute little toward the establishment of a more humane world.
Democratic government is limited government. It is limited in the claims it makes and in the power it seeks to exercise. Democratic government understands itself to be accountable to values and to truths which transcend any regime or party. Thus in the United States of America we declare ours to be a nation "under God," which means, first of all, a nation under judgment. In addition, limited government means that a clear distinction is made between the state and the society. The state is not the whole of the society, but is one important actor in the society. Other institutions-notably the family, the church, educational, economic, and cultural enterprises-are at least equally important actors in the society. They do not exist or act by sufferance of the state. Rather, these spheres have their own peculiar sovereignty which must be respected by the state.
Democratic governance is pluralistic governance and thus the opposite of political monism. By protecting the roles of many institutional and individual actors within the social order, democracy keeps society open to the future. It resists the act of historical closure which is the consequence of the totalitarian impulse. Because it cherishes criticism and change, democracy is a progressive movement invoking the promise of the future. Totalitarianism, which would freeze and consolidate power relations, is essentially reactive and fearful. It represses diversity and dissent in a fearful denial of the human capacity for growth and the human need for criticism.
As democracy keeps society open to the future it also keeps the future open. That is, the democratic posture is not one of merely passive receptivity to whatever may happen. Rather, it is one of protecting and nurturing the individual and institutional visions of alternative futures. Democratic society is not a terminal enterprise. The intention is not that at some point in the near or distant future all questions will be answered and all conflicts resolved. The chief goal of democratic governance is to sustain the process of democratic governance. Toward that end, constitutional provisions do not provide all the answers to society's problems but protect the process by which various answers are debated and adopted, always subject to change. Democratic government is contingent, modest in its claims, and open- ended.
What we perceive as the virtues of democratic governance others condemn as its weakness. There is a deep human hunger for a monistic world, for authority, control, and definitive meaning which can cut through the ambiguities and uncertainties of our existence. From this hunger emerges the totalitarian impulse. This hunger is essentially religious in character and is dangerously misplaced when it seeks satisfaction in the politics of the present time. This hunger cannot and should not be satisfied short of the coming of the Kingdom of God. To mistake any existing or proposed social order for the Kingdom of God is the great crime against humanity.
We readily acknowledge that democratic governance is unsatisfactory. Everything short of the consummation of the rule of Christ is unsatisfactory. For Christians, it is precisely the merit of democracy that it reminds us of this truth and sustains the possibility of humane government in a necessarily unsatisfactory world. There are tensions and contradictions within democratic theory and practice. Especially problematic are relationships between the individual and the community, between formal process and substantive purpose, between popular participation and power elites. We do not deny these and other problems. Rather, believing that democratic theory and practice is still developing, we would encourage in the churches a lively examination of the problems and their possible resolutions. Such an examination only begins with the basic outline of democratic governance set forth in this statement and should be informed by the maxim framed by Reinhold Niebuhr: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."
Democratic governance is based upon a morality of respect and fairness for all. It is responsive to the diverse moral judgments and meanings affirmed by individuals and institutions within society. It not only tolerates but rigorously protects those spheres within which people find meaning for their lives and share that meaning with others. Most importantly, democratic government does not seek to control or restrict the sphere of religion in which people affirm, exercise, and share their ultimate beliefs about the world and their place in it.
As democratic government does not seek to absorb the sphere of religion, so it does seek to respect the autonomy of cultural and economic life. With respect to the last, there is much debate about the relationship between democracy and capitalism. Whatever the economic achievements of capitalism, and they are considerable, our primary concern is to preserve and strengthen democracy. We believe that the personal and institutional ownership and control of property-always as stewards of God to whom the whole creation belongs-contributes greatly to freedom. We note as a matter of historical fact that democratic governance exists only where the free market plays a large part in a society's economy.
Like political democracy, a market economy is a process open to the future. The focus is on the production of wealth rather than on the consolidation and redistribution of existing goods. Experience in America and the world suggests that when a market economy is open to the participation of all, it works to the benefit of all, and especially of the poor. Conversely, we note that the economic systems advanced by totalitarian regimes have been consistently disastrous for all but the new class of the political elite. A market economy may be a necessary condition for democracy. It is obviously not a sufficient condition for democracy. There are more or less capitalist societies with repressive regimes quite unlike the democratic governance we affirm. In modern industrialized societies the state is necessarily involved in aspects of economic life. Apart from pragmatic considerations, however, our bias in favor of a market economy is informed by our commitment to democracy. To the extent that capitalism is a necessary restraint upon the monistic drives of society, it warrants our critical approval.
The formal structures of democratic governments may and do vary. Both in theory and historical experience, however, there would seem to be some universal requirements. These include some concept of the rule of law to which any regime of the moment is held accountable. That concept may be embodied in a constitution, in common law, in institutionalized tradition, or in a mix of all three. It also appears necessary that there be an institutionalized division of powers within the government itself. Thus, as society is not monolithic, so the state is not monolithic. Within democratic government there are processes of appeal, whether to the courts or to the parliament or to some other agency. While there must be, so to speak, an agency of last resort, its decisions too are subject to democratic change. In sum, the instruments of democratic government are internally limited, as is the government itself externally limited by virtue of being but one actor in society.
As we have seen, democratic governance respects the rights not only of individuals in society but of other institutional actors. Individuals and institutions must associate in order to press their interests in relation to the government and to other associations. Crucial to this process is the freedom to assemble, to speak, and to publish. What in our country is represented by the Bill of Rights is not only constitutionally mandated but is theologically imperative. Such rights, however imperfectly framed and implemented, are necessary to keeping the future open and to resisting the impulse, also in our society, to effect an idolatrous closing off of historical change.
Among the universal requirements of democratic governance is the institutional means for transferring the authority to govern. In a democracy every government is temporary, for the time being, until further notice. The means for transferring authority aim at maximum consultation and participation by the people governed. Although this goal can theoretically be achieved in different ways, the way it is generally accomplished is through popular elections. Elections must be regular, at specified times. They must be contested, as open as possible to every viewpoint and interest group. They must be decisive, effectively bestowing governing authority upon the elected party or persons. We note that nowhere today is there democratic governance in the absence of regular, contested, and decisive elections.
Valid distinctions are made between categories of human rights-personal, civil, political, economic, and social. Individual and communal freedom from terror and coercion is essential to the protection of all human rights. Repressive regimes of both the left and the right frequently and falsely pit social and economic rights against the rights of freedom. But without freedom persons cannot pursue their economic and social well-being as they deem best. And without freedom the economic and social advances which regimes claim for the poor cannot be examined and verified. As a matter of empirical fact, those societies which give priority to freedom generally secure social and economic rights more successfully than do those societies which attempt social and economic advance at the cost of freedom.
The most fundamental of all human rights is the freedom of religious faith and practice. Religion is both freedom's shield and central sphere of action. "For religion," Pope John Paul II has declared, "consists in the free adherence of the human mind to God, which is in all respects personal and conscientious; it arises from the desire for truth and in this relation the secular arm may not interfere, because religion itself by its nature transcends all things secular." Religious freedom consists of many parts: the freedom to believe, to worship, to teach, to evangelize, to collaborate in works of mercy, and to witness to the public good. Where religious freedom is violated, all other human rights are assaulted at their source.
The churches should be relentless in protesting every infringement of freedom, especially of the freedom of conscience and association, and most especially of religious freedom. In protesting human rights' violations, governments will of necessity take into account many considerations-political, diplomatic, military, and economic. The ethics of the Church, however, are not the ethics of Caesar. In witnessing to the transcendent dignity of the human person, the churches are bound not by reasons of state but by obedience to Christ. Therefore the witness of the churches should reflect an unwavering adherence to a single standard in the judgment of human rights. Whether the regime in question is repressive only in order to maintain itself in power or whether it aspires to totalitarian control over its people, whether it fashions itself as rightist or leftist, whether it is friend or foe or neutral toward whatever great power, to the extent that it violates the rights of people to be the artisans of their own destiny it blasphemes against the divine intent for human life. The churches dare never be apologists for such blasphemy in the name of some higher social good. Because every person is called to the fullness of humanity revealed in Our Lord Jesus Christ, there is no higher good than the human person. With particular respect to the weakest and most vulnerable members of the human community, Christians insist that no human being is expendable.
In our dangerously divided world, choices must be made. Among the nations and social systems of our time, the choice is never between absolute good and absolute evil. No nation perfectly embodies the democracy we would affirm, and no nation totally represses freedom from which democracy springs. Tragically, the great majority of our sisters and brothers throughout the world live under varying degrees of repression. Certain distinctions can and must be made, however. To all but the willfully blind, it is obvious that some nations aspire to the democratic ideal we have described, while others condemn both the ideal and the fact of democracy as enslaving illusion.
The United States of America is the primary bearer of the democratic possibility in the world today. The Soviet Union is the primary bearer of the totalitarian alternative. For better and for worse, each is a global force and between them there is no pattern of smooth convergence but of real and potential conflict. Armed as they are with weapons of terrifying destructive power, their conflict threatens the future of humankind. Christians are called to earnest prayer and work for mutual disarmament that can reduce that threat. Without denying the reasons for suspicion and anxiety, Christians should also cultivate cooperation in the common interests of otherwise hostile powers.
More profound than the conflict of military and political forces, however, is the conflict over the dignity and destiny of the human person, and the societal order appropriate to that dignity and that destiny. In this conflict, we believe that the United States of America is, on balance and considering the alternatives, a force for good in the world. In this conflict, the leaders of the churches should more clearly evidence their hope that the democratic ideal prevail.
Ideals do not make their way in history except they be carried by persons and institutions. The carriers inescapably fall short of the ideals to which they witness. This is most dramatically true of the Church as the bearer of the Gospel. It is also true in the realm of social and political change. Although it is the primary bearer of the democratic ideal today, America is far from having fully actualized that ideal in its own life. To say that America has a singular responsibility in this world-historical moment does not mean that America is God's chosen nation, as for instance, Israel was chosen by God. God has made no special covenant with America as such. God's convenant is with his creation, with Israel, and with his Church. However, because America is a large and influential part of his creation, because America is the home of most of the heirs of Israel of old, and because this is a land in which his Church is vibrantly free to live and proclaim the Gospel to the world, we believe that America has a peculiar place in God's promises and purposes. This is not a statement of nationalistic hubris but an acknowledgment that we bear a particular and grave responsibility. Beyond this, we are also mindful that this is the nation for which we are most immediately accountable.
As America falls short of the ideal it bears, so also some nations aligned with America fall short, while some grievously and systematically violate that ideal. The requirements of national security and international order involve prudential judgments of tortuous moral ambiguity. Because they are not the government, and must always maintain a critical distance from the government, the churches must speak out boldly against violations of human dignity wherever they occur. In a democracy Christian citizens are called upon to make judgments about the wisdom and morality of their country's foreign policy. The Church-in the biblical sense of the Body of Christ-has neither competence nor responsibility to design or control the foreign policy of the United States. As we have said, the mission of the Church is to be the Church- to proclaim the saving Gospel of Christ and to embrace all persons in a sustaining community of caring discipleship. As part of that sustaining and caring activity, agencies and leaders of the churches should address foreign policy issues in order to help Christians exercise their responsibility as citizens.
Arguments for oppression are evident in our several churches, in some churches more than others. Those who advance such arguments become, whatever their intent may be, apologists for oppression. These arguments are voiced at various levels of episcopal, administrative, journalistic, and academic leadership. We believe that those who espouse these arguments do not as a rule act from design but from bureaucratic and intellectual habit. Their behavior does not constitute a conspiracy but reflects selective compassion for human suffering and indifference to the meaning of democracy in our kind of world.
Apology for oppression is sometimes passionately anti-Communist. It excuses and rationalizes any injustice if it is perpetrated in the name of defeating Communism. Such an approach is morally odious and antithetical to our understanding of religion and democracy. We emphatically reject it.
Much more respectable, influential, and common, however, is apology for oppression that excuses injustice as necessary for the eventual creation of a new and, it is claimed, more equitable social order. The apology for oppression declares that liberal democracy is decadent and dying. It claims that we should welcome, or at least resign ourselves to, inevitable revolutionary change under totalitarian auspices. We declare, however, that history is not the sphere of the inevitable but the sphere of freedom. Within the limits of a life that is bounded by death, free men and women strive for what should be; they do not surrender to what others say must be. Moreover, the results of the revolutions that have denied freedom are now coming in; the record is one of grim failure. In the long struggle of history it is the idea of democracy that is the new, the progressive, the audacious experiment toward the future. We refuse to terminate this promising venture by returning to the false securities of an oppressive past that now advertises itself as the inevitable future.
Another form of apology for oppression asserts that we have no right to impose our values upon others. It is said that other people must choose their own form of government. It is said that other people do not share our concern for democratic governance and human rights. This combination of lies and half-truths conceals a host of cultural and, more often than not, racial prejudices. It is monstrous to assert on behalf of others that they do not feel about their basic human rights as keenly as we feel about ours. It is disingenuous to say that other people must be free to choose their own form of government and, at the same time, to support precisely those forces that would deny them their freedom to choose.
It is also an apology for oppression to claim that, faced with repressive oligarchies or militarisms, people often have no alternative to Marxist-Leninist revolution. In truth there is hardly a country in the world without advocates of democratic reform. Again and again, however, the democratic forces are crushed between the false anti- Communists of the reactionary right, on the one hand, and naive or knowing supporters of the totalitarian left, on the other. In these and other ways, the freedom and justice which we cherish for ourselves are denied to others.
Wherever the churches can influence situations of oppression, and whenever the churches address themselves to American foreign policy, we beg our leaders to heed and support the forces for democratic change. Whether we approve or disapprove of such influence, in many places American power and opinion can be decisive. Those Christian leaders who collaborate in the denial of freedom and justice to others bear an ominous moral responsibility.
Some even excuse the denial of elementary religious freedom. This is the most contemptible betrayal of trust. It is said that securing social and economic rights requires the sacrifice of formal, "bourgeois" freedoms- including the freedom to assemble for worship without penalty, to proclaim the Gospel publicly, or even the freedom of parents to instruct their children in the faith. It is very hard to understand how Christians could deem it a secondary or subordinate concern that believers be able to practice their faith. Yet some leaders in our churches praise the alleged achievements of totalitarian regimes, while acknowledging incidentally, if at all, that it is unfortunate that these regimes have brutally repressed religion. And some leaders welcome warmly the religious and secular agents of totalitarian and repressive regimes while seeming to turn a deaf ear to the cries of believers in prisons and concentration camps who are persecuted for nothing more than the profession of their faith. It is indeed very hard to understand. Many church members today voice the suspicion that the primary solidarity of some leaders is not with the Church and their primary loyalty is not to the Gospel of Christ. That suspicion must be understood and addressed in order to renew the credibility of Christian social witness.
We do not know whether democracy is the wave of the future. We do know that the future will be darker if the democratic idea is extinguished. We do know that the victims of freedom's denial already number in the many millions. And we do know that one day, before the judgment throne of God, those who were voiceless will ask what we said on their behalf. What we say or do may seem to be of little moment. But in the face of every discouragement we will persist in hope because finally, as we said at the start, Jesus Christ is Lord.