“Christian Democracy”—An Oxymoron?

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July 6, 2012

By James W. Skillen

This article originally appeared in the Root & Branch, a publication of the Center for Public Justice, in 1999.

Can the word “Christian” ever convey a positive connotation when used in conjunction with politics and government, or does it necessarily carry the negative baggage of past imperialisms? Is a phrase such as “Christian democracy,” for example, an oxymoron … or can it stand on its own with integrity?

Americans champion democracy, and many American Christians believe this is a Christian nation. … Yet the more we gain historical distance from the era of slavery, anti-Catholicism and male-dominated White-Anglo-Saxon Protestantism (WASP), the more it appears that “Christian America” is a holdover from “Christian Europe.”

Today, we repeatedly hear … warnings about the threat of the Religious Right to re-impose Christianity on American society. Religious “fundamentalism” of any kind is regularly associated, if not equated, with radical Islamism. Christianity may be … constructive if it remains confined to worship services and helping ministries to the poor and needy. But as soon as there is any sign of Christians pushing for political power, the warning flags go up.

There can be no doubt that Christians (and church institutions) have, in the name of Jesus Christ, used power unjustly to abuse and subordinate others (including other Christians). The first political act by Christians today, therefore, should be to repent of those practices and institutions of injustice that we and our ancestors have supported. Yet such an act does not by itself answer the question of the just use of political power. …

The question is whether Christianity, from its deepest roots, drives toward public justice for all citizens, including equal, public-legal treatment for people of all faiths.

This is the question that calls for serious examination today. And the place to start is with the Christian scriptures. For there is no evidence in the Bible that Jesus Christ and his apostles called on government to impose Christianity on the public at large or urged Christians to use political power to gain privileges for themselves. Jesus recognized the legitimacy of government and spoke of God as the one who sends rain and sunshine on the just and unjust alike. He also told his disciples it was not their responsibility to separate believers from unbelievers in the field of the world. Paul urged Christians to recognize and submit to governments as ministers appointed by God to encourage those who do good and to punish those who do wrong. And he admonished fellow believers to live at peace with everyone insofar as it depends on them.

Both the Old and the New Testaments speak of the accountability of governments to God directly and not via submission to the church. Israel, of course, had its own governments, and those in power were repeatedly called to account for not doing justice to the people or to the aliens within. The greatest body of biblical wisdom on government (in the historical books, Psalms, the prophets and the wisdom literature) focuses attention on government’s obligation to do justice to all, especially those who have little or no power, rather than on ways to keep believers in control of unbelievers. When Job speaks of the awe he inspired as a governing official, it was because “I rescued the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist him . . . I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy, I took up the case of the stranger” (29:12-16).

A phrase like “Christian democracy” should not be an oxymoron. In fact, … Christianity, properly mined, is the very fount of an open society offering equal treatment to people of all faiths, political participation and representation for all citizens, strong protections against the abuse of power by government and provisions to protect the rights of non-government organizations and institutions … .

A “Christian-democratic” approach to politics and government should carry a banner that says, “We will never claim that our deeds or policy proposals are God’s will, but only that they represent our humble human effort to respond to God’s call to do justice.” The will of God is God’s to reveal. If our modest efforts to promote justice in an open public square can mature into a multi-faceted program of just statecraft, then perhaps one day an explicitly Christian approach to politics will be respected both at home and abroad as an honorable and valuable part of the political process.

—James W. Skillen is the former President of the Center for Public Justice.

To respond to the author of this Commentary: capcomm@cpjustice.org

Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.