Can Democracy Survive in a Post-Christian World?

Mar 13, 2024 | News

By: Akos Balogh

Western democracies are in trouble.

That’s the view of many informed political and social commentators, including The Australian newspaper’s Senior Editor, Paul Kelly. In a recent piece for the Weekend Australian, he outlines the challenges facing countries like Australia and the US, which is worth considering:

In Australia today, the public is unsettled and getting more unsettled. People distrust the nation’s direction, some probably fear the “valueless void” while others are alarmed about the mental illness contagion among young people, the elevation of personal feelings as the basis for morality, the decline in core school standards, the rejection of objective truth, uncertainty over who is a man and who is a woman, the demand for group identity rights based on race, sex, and gender, the erosion of free debate on university campuses, the disputes over whether our history is to be honoured or denounced, constantly lecturing elites who fail as genuine leaders, the lost ability to disagree with mutual respect and above all, the doomed demand for leaders to display moral values amid a society that cannot agree on what constitutes virtue.

It’s a confronting list.

But it’s hard to argue with. And it’s worth noting that many of these factors are because the Christian worldview is being replaced by other ideologies and beliefs here in the West. Ideas have consequences. And non-Christian ideas and ideologies are starting to bear their rotten fruit.

While many of these factors are worthy of further exploration, Kelly goes on to write about another factor that caught my eye:

That great moral leader of our times, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, said: “A Free Society is a moral achievement, and it is made by us and our habits of thought, speech and deed. Morality cannot be outsourced because it depends on each of us. Where there is no shared morality, there is no society.”

Where there is no shared morality, there is no society.

That’s an unsettling thought, considering how many different versions of morality we see across the West. While there is still moral agreement about some important truths (e.g. that murder is wrong), there is a growing gulf between Christians (and social conservatives) on the one hand, versus secular progressives on the other.

“Should some people be given more rights than others based on whether they’re deemed to be ‘oppressed’?”

One moral flashpoint is around what it means to be human: are there two genders (based on biological sex), or is gender fluid? Are all human beings equal in worth, status, and dignity, or should some people be given more rights than others based on whether they’re deemed to be ‘oppressed’?

And this question raises the next observation:

Democracies can’t flourish if there are basic disagreements about what it means to be human

Atheist French philosopher Luc Ferry argues that without Christianity, there would be no democracy (at least not the type we recognise).

He writes:

In direct contradiction, Christianity was to introduce the notion that humanity was fundamentally identical, that men [and women] were equal in dignity – an unprecedented idea at the time, and one to which our world owes its entire democratic inheritance.

This Christian idea of human equality used to be taken for granted in the West (at least in principle, if not always in practice!).

But it’s now being challenged, especially from increasingly vocal corners of the secular Left. Many on the Left are pushing a different view of humanity: a view that divides people into either oppressor (e.g. white heterosexual male) or oppressed (e.g. Black lesbian female). And the aim of politics in this view is to overthrow the oppressor and raise the oppressed. But while sounding compassionate, it’s divisive, not egalitarian: it’s a view of humanity that divides society, pitting people against each other, rather than bringing people together into a shared humanity.

Can democracy flourish if it’s riven with such identitarian division?

Free Democracies can’t flourish without a virtuous, self-controlled people

Kelly quotes American Founding Fathers like Washington, who said: ‘Religion and morality are the essential pillars of a civil society.’

Another US Founder, John Adams, said “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Why did the US Founders argue the need for religion (by which they meant the Judeo-Christian variety)?

Because in their view, religion helps people to be self-controlled and moral, so that the state doesn’t have to step in and control people (which would limit people’s freedom).[1]

But Judeo-Christian religions are increasingly demonised and constrained in the West – with religious people being seen as ‘the bad guys.’ Religious affiliation and practice are dropping across the West. And while underlying Christian influence is still strong in many quarters (e.g. in the moral outlook of most Westerners), it is waning.

What does a Post-Christian Democracy look like?

Democracies are fragile. They’re not inevitable.

They’ve only been around for the last few hundred years, and many around the world are floundering. Without shared bedrock beliefs like human equality, they revert to tribalism and fall apart (e.g. in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East). Or they’re overtaken by ‘strong men’ who impose their will on others (e.g. Putin’s Russia).

Time will tell whether Western democracies are going through a rough patch or will decline and revert to such forms of undemocratic governance.

But it’s heartening to realise how many non-Christian commentators are waking up to the impact – and continued importance – of Christianity or at least Christian morality to a healthy functioning democracy.

Would that more people see this, too.