Tuesday 15th September marks International Democracy Day, and there’s a lot of concern over the state of democracies both here and abroad. To reflect on this from a Christian perspective, TGCA spoke with John Anderson, a former Deputy PM, and now social commentator. (N.B. This is an edited version of the interview – the full video interview will be up this weekend on TGCA’s FB page and Instagram TV).
TGCA: What should Christians think of democracy in general?
Christians should be deeply thankful for democracy. It is the only political system devised by man with the unique capacity to reflect our dual nature.
JA: I think Christians should be deeply thankful for democracy. It is the only political system devised by man with the unique capacity to reflect our dual nature. As one American put it, we’re so good, we had to give ourselves a vote. And we’re so bad we had to give ourselves a vote.
What does that mean? It recognises that at one level, every one of us has agency and we matter to God. The foundational principle of Western democracies is that no one should be above the law, and no one should be below the law, because all have worth, all have value. But all of us are fallible.
So how do we recognise the dignity and the worth of each person, and give them a say over the society that they live in? And how do we, on the other hand, recognise the need to be able to peacefully remove those leaders who become corrupt or tired or proud?
Democracy as we know it is a product of Western-style Christianity. And it seems democracy only flourishes in societies where people have a deep understanding of the nobility of each individual, and their capacity for failure. And the deeper that understanding it is and the more moral the people are, the stronger a democracy is. Therein lies the key as to why our democracies are now all flailing around in the dark. Ours less than most—but it’s still flailing around.
TGCA: What do you see then as our responsibilities as Christian citizens? How should Christians act in a democracy?
JA: Firstly, we’re told to pray for our leaders. In 1 Timothy 2:1-4 we’re told to pray for government so that the gospel might prosper. God is a God of order. He doesn’t like disorder. The weak and the marginalised suffer in the case of crumbling or disorderly government. They suffer in many types of government anyway. But you need orderly government if you’re to look after the weak, the less fortunate, the elderly and provide a secure environment for children.
The weak and the marginalised suffer in the case of crumbling or disorderly government. You need orderly government if you’re to look after the weak.
I also think it’s critically important that Christians behave with utmost integrity. As the great Spurgeon used to observe, Christians must be mindful that the world around them will be watching very closely for the slightest signs of hypocrisy. And we’re all going to fall. But we need to minimise those falls.
TGCA: There seems to be some cynicism in Australian culture when it comes to politics and political engagement. How much of an interest should Christians should have in the political process, in policies and so forth?
JA: I believe a deep interest. And I don’t believe a Christian should ever be caught saying that politics doesn’t matter. It’s a blessing God gives us. He is concerned about what happens in this life. And as Paul makes it plain to Timothy, if you want to reach people for the gospel, we need to be quietly governed.
I hear some people saying that the gospel does best when people are in need. And therefore, if society falls apart, that would be good, because we’ll see more people coming to God as a result of the crisis. I don’t follow that reasoning. I don’t think there’s any evidence to suggest that it’s true. It may be that God uses good events or bad events for his purposes at times. But there’s no golden rule that says chaos produces more belief. And globally, I think Australians are deeply worried about the chaos.
Well, if you’re deeply worried about the chaos, it’s irresponsible to be unconcerned for politics and politicians. You should be praying. When opponents of Christianity are strongly verbalising their positions, you need to be prepared to stand up. But how you stand up, of course, is a real challenge for Christians.
Democracy Under Threat
TGCA: What do you think are some of the challenges to our democracy here in Australia? How do you see the state of democracy here in Australia right now?
JA: We face enormous internal and external challenges. Behind a lot of the political movements at the moment is a profoundly anti-democratic streak where it’s assumed that the common people in the street don’t really know what’s good for them. You see that coming through from a lot of elites. You see it in the media where there’s an assumption that such and such a set of policies (and they always seem to be the ones that align with Christian thinking) are archaic and restrictive, transphobic or, worst of all, the great epithet that you use to destroy people, is ‘they’re racist’.
An external reference obliges us to recognise that, whether we disagree with the person next to us or not, they have worth in the eyes of a higher authority.
So, what you’re seeing now is a new attack on the idea of the worth and the value of every individual. It’s a remarkable thing that Bob Menzies, our longest serving prime minister, a man of profound Christian understanding—I would say one of personal faith—made the observation that democracy’s more a spirit than a machine. That is, we recognise that no matter the difference in people’s places in life, their wealth, their ability, their power, whatever—all souls are equal in the eyes of heaven.
So, an external reference point of view out there obliges us to recognise, whether we disagree with the person next to us or not, they have worth in the eyes of a higher authority. But when you strip that out, you’re rapidly moving down the road of saying power is the thing that gives you authority, not recognition of another person’s worth. There’s a world of difference. We are in trouble precisely because we’re losing a Christian understanding of the worth of the neighbor that we find standing next to us.
TGCA: Is there anything else you think that Christians might be able to do at this time when these sorts of anti-Christian ideologies are entering the public space? I mean, how might we engage these ideologies for the sake of our nation?
JA: I honestly believe we have to step up. We live in an age when a lot of people feel that they cannot say what they really think anymore. In fact, people often feel obliged to say things they do not believe to be true. That is profoundly troubling. It’s evil. And we have to find ways to stand up against it.
We should be well informed about our world. John Stott said that Christian should study the Word but should also study the world, so what they say to their neighbour and to the unbeliever is both meaningful and relevant. It’s really important that people get a handle on what’s happening. Understand the insidious ways in which bad ideas are infiltrating our society. Then you can talk more effectively.
The other thing we’ve got to do I think is learn to gently ask questions—kindly and respectfully: “Do you really believe that? Why? Are you sure? What has led you to that conclusion? What do you think the outcome might be? What will be the impact on other people of that approach?” We’re not good enough at asking questions.
A great deal of people hold these [anti-Christian] views because of a herd mentality, and not because they’ve thought it through. Nor even because they’re convinced. But because, well, that’s what everybody thinks now. The mass of people now, unfortunately, think quite a few things that aren’t really right. We need to learn to – out of love – politely push back. And often the best way is to question. [Editor’s note: here’s an article that will help with questioning well]
Polarisation in Society
TGCA: Let’s move now to the idea of polarisation. But I think it’s fair to say the polarisation is increasing over here (albeit not as much as the US, for example). How might Christians be salt and light in this increasingly polarised environment?
JA: According to American sociologist and author Arthur Brooks’, in his book Love Your Enemies, what’s happened is that we’ve combined anger with disgust, and it’s producing contempt. So, we are contemptuous of people who hold a different view. And as any good marriage counsellor will tell you, it becomes incredibly hard to come back when contempt enters a relationship. You have no basic respect for the person next to you.
As any good marriage counsellor will tell you, it becomes incredibly hard to come back when contempt enters a relationship.
This is where we need to be Christlike.
We need to recognize that the Word who was there at the beginning—Christ himself—was treated with contempt by contemptible human beings. He didn’t treat them as contemptible, so neither should I: ‘Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.’
The other thing I find encouraging is to read the story of the greats. Look what William Wilberforce went through. We now recognise him as one of the most influential fighters of freedom, perhaps the greatest of the last five hundred years in our culture. But at the time that he was fighting for slaves, He was treated with utter scorn and derision. We need to recognise there’s nothing new in this.
… And in the Church
TGCA: So there’s polarisation across society. But what about within churches? How Christians can deal with disagreements over political issues?
JA It’s an important point. Polarisation is happening in the church. It’s very hard to keep the forces of society at bay in the church. But the great priority in church is to try and remember what you’re there for and how the God we’re there to worship sees the person in the pew beside you: as someone made in their image and, if they’re forgiven, covered by the blood of Christ; just as you are.
It’s where humility comes in. We’ve been saved through no merit of our own. Our neighbour has been saved by the same God. Who are we then to hate them, even if we can’t support their political views? I don’t pretend it’s easy, but polarisation is one of the most dangerous things confronting the church. And I do think that our lack of being salt and light has made the very problem that we’re now confronting worse than it would otherwise have been.
TGCA: So if we look ahead, where do you see Australian democracy in 10 years’ time?
JA: A lot will depend on what happens in November in America, because as people often point out, American elections are as important for Australia as Australian elections during times of unbelievable global uncertainty. And there is real possibility now of misadventure and miscalculation between the superpower and the rising superpower. And trade dangers are enormous for Australia.
I have to say to you, there are no guarantees Australia will still be a free country as we think of ourselves today.
So, I have to say to you, there are no guarantees Australia will still be a free country as we think of ourselves today. I hope and pray that we are still free. But there are no guarantees.
There are other things, however, which we do know. We will be financially weaker, and our living standards will be lower because of COVID. Not just here, but internationally. We’re also likely to be exhausted by the polarisation and more suspicious of one another. In that environment, the present lack of social harmony will be more evident.
I also think you will see a greater acceptance on the part of many Australians, strangely enough, of Christianity. This especially if Christians behave well, but you will see a more ferocious opposition from larger numbers.
And it’s quite possible that in 10 years’ time it will be illegal, at least on paper, to preach parts of the gospel. I’m not particularly optimistic about where we’re going.
What should our response be?
We should be model citizens pointing to a better way, to be reflectors of a secure hope. And to be very active in supporting good political leaders and good policies: they do matter. We should also try and draw alongside politicians, local, state, federal, and seriously consider involvement ourselves. Because there is a great role for Christians in public life.
Notwithstanding what I’ve said, we can be thankful we live in Australia. So, let’s do a level best to keep it as good a place as possible in order that the gospel might flourish.
TGCA: Thank you, John Anderson, for sharing your thoughts on Christians and democracy.