A participant displays a placard with the lettering ‘Democracy’ to demonstrate against the far right and to condemn attacks on politicians, in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany on May 5. (Photo: AFP)

By Jesuit Fr Myron J. Pereira

May 8 2024

The political form of representative government, commonly called democracy, antedates Christianity and has few, if any, religious connections.

When democracy originated in the city-states of Athens, Thebes, and Corinth, participation in civic affairs was the exclusive right of free-born male adult citizens of the polis (city-state), and not of women, children, slaves and migrants.

So why this sudden desire to see a correlation between religion and politics, between Christianity and democracy?

A quick look at history reveals some interesting facts.

The role of autocracy

For centuries, autocracy was the privileged form of governance in Christianity, even if synods and councils occasionally had their place.

The pope was the supreme boss; after him came the cardinals and bishops, down to the lowest parish priest.

Whence the disproportionate emphasis on obedience to the designated authority in the Catholic tradition (“pray, pay and obey”).

This was because popes saw themselves as “Caesars,” anointing kings at will and excommunicating them if such royalty became difficult. Synods of bishops and colleges of cardinals had their uses, but mainly as oligarchies of male privilege (Greek oligos, a few), which supported the pontiff.

Democracy (“the rule of the crowd”) was invariably suspect and always shunned.

And naturally, because the power of the hierarchy was based on privilege and caste — and enforced by compulsory celibacy and misogyny.

An important change

But somewhere in seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe, a great displacement took place, as the rising middle classes demanded a greater share in political power and economic reform.

This corresponded to the growth of the town and city (as distinct from feudal lords and the peasantry), and the growing importance of trade. No accident then that democracy in its rudiments took shape first among trading nations.

After all, trade depends on negotiation, not on diktat.

The creation of “parliament” (French parler, to speak, discuss) in its various forms was the first step. The king and his court had perforce to take cognizance of these changes: two kings lost their heads by resisting.

The “republic” (Latin res publica, something belonging to everyone) was born.

In all this, it was the aristocracy and the clergy, the priestly class that suffered most. One reason is that most modern governments have had a decidedly hostile attitude to religion, reflected in their secular outlook.

Styles of democracy

Democracy is based on participation, which becomes problematic when the masses are too large.

This is one reason why most democratic governments today use a system of representation. It’s not always perfect, but it’s workable.

Who is it that is represented? In other words, who has the right to vote? For generations, and in most countries until relatively recently, women did not have the right to vote. Nor did a man if he did not have a school education or did not own property. Or if he were not registered as a citizen.

India was unique in that. Upon becoming a republic, it gave all its citizens a franchise (right to vote) irrespective of gender, class, caste, or religious background, something the present government is surreptitiously trying to change.

However, human nature is irredeemably corrupt and impatient. Democracies work slowly. Dictatorships are quicker at “making the trains run on time.”

The philosopher Yuval Hariri calls democracy “a delicate plant which must be carefully nurtured,” and contrasts it with dictatorships which “grow rampantly, like weeds.”

But nurturing demands intelligence, patience, care and self-sacrifice, qualities singularly lacking in the usual kind of selfish male politician.

This raises the question: Does democracy call for a different kind of ethos? Should more women hold public office?

A new form of dictatorship has emerged today, a phenomenon of our technological age — populism.

The populist dictator bypasses government institutions and goes directly to the people. He has “quick-fix” solutions for all the world’s problems. And to an electorate tired of the complexities of governance, he appears like a godsend. Trump, Putin, Orban, Modi, Bolsanaro, and Duterte would surely agree.

How religion comes back: Theocracy today

Most governments today are secular in policy and practice, but religion is not all that easy to obliterate. That line of the Roman poet Virgil, a gentleman farmer, is relevant here: “Drive nature out with a pitchfork if you will, she comes back again in weeds and undergrowth.”

Popes and priest-kings may have had their day, but the rallying power of religion is still alive and potent in today’s theocracies. Israel, Iran, and ‘Hindutva’ India are proof enough, as are various forms of fundamentalism.

Why is this so? Nothing offers as complete a system of cult, code, and creed as religion does, and has done, across cultures and generations.

But another more subtle reason may lie in the rapid growth of technology, which has made old-style beliefs and rituals redundant. Yet the ache for something supernatural persists.

We began this piece by asking if democracy has a Christian value, and discovered that it has not, not even a religious value!

On the other hand, a “substantive democracy” does free the human spirit to act responsibly, to choose rightly, to argue and dissent if necessary, so we may certainly say that a people empowered is a people enhanced, a people embracing that abundance of life which the Gospels claim to bring.

If democracy is not the best form of political expression, it is very close to being there. – UCA News