I was recently browsing in the stacks at Feldman’s, a used book store on the El Camino Real in Menlo Park, when to my good fortune I discovered an original edition of Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Children of Light and The Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defenders. I bought the book and read it that same evening. As I did so I found myself wondering what guidance Niebuhr, perhaps the most influential American theologian and religious leader of his time, might give to church leaders today with respect to their role in supporting democracy in the U.S.
The book contains a set of lectures that Niebuhr gave at Stanford University in 1944. He sought to come to democracy’s defense as it was fighting for its very existence around the globe. But, as he noted in his foreword, he felt obliged to offer, “a more realistic vindication” of this form of government in its time of extreme trial, one that was not unsteadily based on “the excessively optimistic estimates of human nature and of human history with which the democratic credo has been historically associated.”
Niebuhr was a realist, not a pessimist. He acknowledged that “a free society requires some confidence in the ability of men to reach tentative and tolerable adjustments between their competing interests and to arrive at some common notions of justice that transcend all partial interests.” Yet the case for democracy could not rest on optimism alone: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
Fast forward to the present and we can see that Christians are increasingly bringing their faith into the public square of our democracy. Name the issue – immigration, health care, the environment, etc. – and you will almost invariably find Christian churches and advocates participating in the political debate, in many instances on opposing sides of it.
This heightened and diverse engagement helpfully underscores the plurality of political views that can be held and expressed within the Christian tradition. At the same time, such disagreements, which can be quite sharp given members of the same faith are arguing over what it entails, point to the depth of divisions among and even within churches. This has the unfortunate consequence of pulling them into the maw of the polarization that is exacerbating rather than reconciling the divisions in our society.
This leads me to wonder: over and above any particular policy they feel compelled to advance, might some Christian churches and their leaders rally to the defense of representative democracy itself, as a form of government that merits and needs their support? As part of our philanthropic efforts to address the problem of polarization, we are beginning to explore this question with religious and lay leaders.
Note that I am not talking here simply about encouraging more respectful and civil discourse, undergirded by the humbling recognition that all people and parties see through a glass darkly. To be sure, if this way of participating in politics was consistently practiced by the seven of ten Americans who profess to be Christians, it would make a huge difference in the tenor of our public debate.
But this may be insufficient. Given the accelerating polarization, and the resulting decline in the legitimacy of our representative institutions, the real question is whether Christian churches and their leaders will actively support those institutions as good things in and of themselves, irrespective of the particular policy outcomes they are producing, much as Niebuhr felt obliged to do in World War II. If he was right, and human nature makes democracy both possible and necessary, it would seem that such a defense would be just as warranted and timely today.
What is your take on this issue? What might I be missing or misconstruing? I’d welcome your feedback on how we should proceed with this line of inquiry.