For most Americans that democracy is good is a given. This was not always so. Mark Noll observes:
Republican themes have been so widely embraced by both religious and nonreligious Americans that it is now difficult to understand why defenders of traditional religion once looked with such suspicion on civic humanist, commonwealth, Real Whig, and country convictions. Yet such suspicion was in fact the norm until the unusual convergence of republicanism and Christianity in the American founding.
Traditional Christian complaints were recited for several centuries as a common litany: Republican instincts prized human self-sufficiency more highly than dependence on God. They demeaned the life to come by focusing without reservation on this-worldly existence. They defined the human good in terms of public usefulness instead of divine approval. Both Protestants and Catholics, in addition, regularly noted the persistent correlation of republican political convictions and heterodox theological opinions. This discourse of virtue, vice, liberty, and tyranny seemed always to be associated with the rejection of innate human sinfulness, with views on human salvation that dispensed with the substitutionary work of Christ, with opinions about Jesus treating him as no more than an unusual human being, and, in the most extreme cases, with arguments denying the existence of God altogether.
Mark Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 57-58.
Through friendlier to democracy that Christians in earlier generations David Koyzis warns against democracy as an ideology. When Koyzis issues this warning, he is not claiming that democratic elements in a government are a problem. To the contrary, democracy as an element of a governmental system seems appropriate given that God has given all humans the responsibility of ruling over the earth (Gen. 1:26-28).
But sometimes political figures speak as if the spread of democracy would bring salvation, or at least stability and freedom, to the world. This kind of thinking, Koyzis says, is idolatrous. In addition it neglects the reality that unchecked democracy has significant flaws: “Democracy, in short, can endanger politics by attempting to impose a single majoritarian interest on a diverse and pluriform political community” (Kindle loc 1592). It is true that modern democracies often have checks and balances built in, but Koyzis notes that “democratic checks on political power are insufficient to prevent a totalitarian expansion of that power, especially if there are no countervailing checks on democracy itself” (Kindle loc 1711). The American founders instituted a number of these checks on democracy, from the election of senators by legislatures and of the president by the electoral college to the appointment of Supreme Court justices for life. Yet these checks have been eroded or are now regularly challenged on the grounds that they are undemocratic.
Koyzis notes a “second way in which democracy can become totalitarian: by attempting to extend the democratic principle throughout the entire political system and even into the whole of life, including an array of spheres where for various reasons it is simply not appropriate. Here democracy becomes not simply a form of government, but a way of life with definite idolatrous religious roots” (Kindle loc 1718). Examples of this noted by Koyzis include running families, churches, and schools as if they were democracies. Sometimes people presume that all of society and culture should be democratic in nature.
C. S. Lewis also identified this extension of democracy as a problem: “When equality is treated . . . as an ideal we begin to breed that stunted and envious sort of mind which hates all superiority. That mind is the special disease of democracy, as cruelty and servility are the special diseases of privileged societies” (“Equality,” in Present Concerns, Kindle loc 147).
The privilege to participate in the governing process should be valued by all Americans, but we must be alert to the dangers of democracy as well as to its blessings.