Will Democracy Survive in the United States?

by J. Alan Branch January 13, 2021

Carl F.H. Henry’s 1996 book Has Democracy Had Its Day? is a provocative and helpful reflection on American democracy as he considers its future in an era when the Christian faith has been shoved to the side in favor of highly individualized moral autonomy. Since Henry’s death in 2003, the dramatic shift away from moral consensus has accelerated and moved rapidly towards a nearly despotic emphasis on highly privatized views of sexuality and gender.  Again we ask, “Has democracy had its day?”

Henry broadly defines democracy as “a form of government predicated on human liberty and human equality. It involves rule by the people, either directly or representatively.”[1] Though this definition is helpful, it doesn’t address the various forms of democracy.  Democracy is a collective term for a wide variety of governments, including radical and moderate democracies.[2] One very important distinction in democracy’s various forms is the difference between federal and unitary democracies. The United States is a federal democracy meaning power has been divided between the central government and the constituent states. In contrast, Great Britain, for example, is a unitary democracy in which constitutional authority lies in the hands of the central government and the administrative divisions only exercise powers delegated by the central government. The Tenth Amendment says, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Many debates about American democracy focused on the Tenth Amendment, centering on where the power of the central government ends and that of the states begin.  For good or ill, the United States Federal government has collected more power to itself and the areas left to the states continues to shrink. 

In the American context, defending a strong sense of a federal democracy reminds many people of the tragic memory of “states’ rights” opposition to federally mandated desegregation.  The systemic racism of Jim Crow laws illustrates a weakness of a federal model in which states denied constitutionally protected rights to citizens. At the same time, a Federal judiciary that seems reluctant to restrain its use of power to rule in favor of the progressive left on profound moral issues – such as abortion or gay marriage – illustrates the danger of an over-reaching central government.  Considering the strengths and weaknesses of democracy, one is reminded of G. K. Chesterton’s comment, “Seemingly from the dawn of man all nations have had governments, and all nations have been ashamed of them.”[3] All this to say, if democracy does survive in the United States, it may possibly be with a model that functions more like a unitary democracy with a centralized, statist power.

Discussing the future of democracy must also be placed squarely in the context of the Biblical purposes of government and the forms of government used to achieve these purposes.  At least three primary purposes for government emerge from Scripture. First, government provides order instead of chaos. The Christian doctrine of government presupposes the twin doctrines held in tension that mankind is both made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26 – 28) and is simultaneously fallen and capable of unspeakable horrors (Romans 3:23).  Because of man’s sinful nature, government is necessary to provide order and prevent descent into the anarchy of gang rule and oppression.  Two other purposes for government clearly emerge from Romans 13:1 – 7 and 1 Peter 2:13 – 17: Government exists to promote good and restrain evil.

Secularists have forged a distorted version of separation of church and state into the public psyche, convincing people that religion is intensely private and religiously motivated ideas are not welcome in public discourse. If democracy is to survive, we must convince our non-believing friends that this wrong-headed version of the separation of church and state may get them what they want in the short run – silencing Christians – but in the long run if the government can silence one group, other dissident groups had best beware as well.  A vibrant, lively open market place of ideas protects basic rights for believers and non-believers as well. A nation that says it believes in freedom of religion but does not want religions to have free speech has a confused understanding of religious liberty foreign to the American founders’ intent.

While the purposes of government are clear in Scripture, the Bible does not specifically tell us which form of government should be implemented. Henry said, “It is noteworthy that Christianity stipulates no one permanent form of government in the name of divine revelation.”[4] Henry’s point granted, democracy holds the greatest potential to show proper deference to Biblical warnings about human tyranny. Winston Churchill gives the right perspective when he said that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” 

A democracy with a citizenry whose conscience is informed by Biblical categories offers the best chance for ensuring basic liberties and self-correcting abuses; a democracy with a citizenry whose conscience lacks Divine accountability will soon descend into something undemocratic. The greatest danger for democracy is that the people themselves will lose any sense of morality, and then democracy becomes a blunt instrument to force the most immoral ideas off on a reluctant minority. In Democracy in American¸ De Tocqueville said, “Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot,” and he then added, “And what can be done with a people which is its own master, if it be not submissive to the Divinity?”[5]

For any preacher or church concerned about passing on liberty and democracy to the next generation, the most important thing you can do is share the Gospel with as many people as possible and teach your congregation to be soul-winners. For democracy to be effective, the populace must be able to practice a degree of moral self-control.  The most certain way for moral restraint to pervade in republic is for men and women to be born again, and when they are saved, one of the fruits of the Spirit is self-control.

[1] Carl F.H. Henry, Has Democracy Had Its Day? (Nashville: ERLC Publications, 1996), 1.

[2] Manfred G. Schmidt, “Political Performance and Types of Democracy: Findings from Comparative Studies,” European Journal of Political Research 41 (2002): 147.

[3] Gilbert K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With The World? (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1912), 198.

[4] Carl F. H. Henry, Has Democracy Had Its Day? (Nashville, TN: ERLC Publications, 1996), 3.

[5] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 357.