The Christian Duty to Heal Our Democracy

Democracy in the United States is in a world of suffering, and Christians who cherish it must make a crucial contribution to the healing process. This truth applies especially to white Christians because self-identified white Christians also form the political base of forces that seek to restrict democratic activity and social liberty. Our vocation is both political and spiritual.

Greg Carey

We Christians who cherish democracy and civility, whether liberal or conservative, face a special opportunity and challenge. For example, white evangelicals are the only major American religious group to believe that defeating political opponents is more important than overcoming differences, sociologist says Samuel Perry. If we want democracy to survive, heal and thrive, we must play a part in healing the polarization that is rotting the foundations of democracy.

According to political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, democracies weaken and fail when political leaders abandon tolerance and abstention. Tolerance demands that we affirm each other’s legitimacy, even when we strongly disagree about important things. You may think I’m wrong, but you assume I want what’s best for our society, just like you do. Forbearance involves the discipline to act according to standards that support goodwill and compromise. Signs of declining abstention include radical gerrymandering, refusal to grant presidential nominations and, of course, cynical denial of election results.

Our leaders have failed us and ordinary Americans are feeling the effects. Our most trusted institutions now face suspicion. Not so long ago, most Americans basically trusted the Supreme Court. Since Dobbs rule on abortion, a “clear majority” does not. We don’t trust each other either. A Pew Research poll conducted just before the 2020 election showed that 89% of Democrats and 90% of Republicans expected “lasting harm” to the nation if the opposing candidate won. You probably feel the same way about 2022 and 2024.

Understandably, those of us who identify as liberals or progressives feel deep resentment toward family members, friends, and neighbors who support authoritarian leaders. If we’re old enough, we’ve seen conservatives become increasingly radical since at least the 1990s, with the melding of the rhetoric of Rush Limbaugh, the politics of Newt Gingrich, and the media of Fox News. I first wrote about the problem in 2012, and it seems like forever. Real experts confirm the impression: political radicalization is much more extreme on the political right, and it has been going on for a long time. Let’s remember that conservatives who also love democracy can be as worried as we are, even if they don’t share our analysis.

So what can we Christians do? Political leaders do not necessarily respond to the wishes of citizens. Political primaries and donor desires lead many politicians to gravitate towards extreme positions. For this reason, nothing replaces political victory. This means we must organize ourselves, often building coalitions across ideological boundaries. We must show up with our feet, our minds and our money to support candidates who emphasize democracy and inclusion. At least for now, a policy that insists on ideological purity endangers democracy.

At the risk of sounding divisive, we need to unite, we need to win, and we need to do it now.

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I am no expert in political strategy, but I do know that Christians never win by pursuing unethical practices. In the end, this kind of victory corrupts everything. We see this among right-wing Christians. In the past, Evangelicals believed that political leaders should be people of good character. When Donald Trump arrived, many backed off from that commitment. They bought into power politics and corrupted their own movement. When oh-so-Christian Ted Cruz gets into gendered pronoun politics by saying, “I’m Ted Cruz, and you can fuck my ass,” and wins wild applause, you know Christians have gone astray. We cannot win by selling our souls. I believe Jesus said something like that.

Winning is not enough. Many Americans seem to accept authoritarianism. Many of them believe so deeply in their cause that they are willing to trade democracy for political security. This number includes many Christians, probably people we know and feel some tension with. Therefore, even when we win, the deep animosity that has brought our nation to this point resurfaces again and again.

It means that we have to do soul work. We cannot allow undemocratic policies to be legitimate. But you have to treat people as legitimate. As followers of Jesus, who have dined with the tax collectors, this is our only way. We need to show empathy and compassion. We have to build, maintain and nurture relationships. It’s good to set limits: we don’t have to listen to nonsense, especially evil nonsense, but we have to listen to people.

Change usually happens through relationships. Logical arguments almost never influence deep persuasion. The fracture is deep. We hear countless stories of people who have become radicalized because of right-wing media ecology. A 15-minute sample from Fox News will show why. The programming is designed to make people fearful, resentful and contemptuous – and that’s the sweet stuff. Relationships are the only way out of this loop.

To be clear, not all Christians are obligated to this ministry. For example, we white Christians shouldn’t be asking black, Latino, and Asian American Christians to undo our damage for the rest of us. Nor should we expect those entangled in harmful family and other relationships to submit to abuse.

Our task is as much spiritual as political. The nation’s greatest challenges demand that we heal our disunity. We cannot mitigate the harms of climate change and inequality without developing a willingness to collaborate, a sense that our prosperity and freedom depend on each other, and an awareness that serious threats require concerted action. Our broken response to COVID-19 has proven these things. We may feel anger, resentment, and disappointment toward our family, friends, and neighbors. Nevertheless, if reconciliation is at the heart of the gospel, our call is clear.

Greg Carey is Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary. His books include Using Our Outside Voice: Public Biblical Interpretation and Faithful and True: A Study Guide to the Book of Revelation.