The events in Washington, D.C., on 6 January appeared to take everyone on Capitol Hill by surprise. However, many observers said that though they were shocked, they were unsurprised by what happened. For weeks, people had been breathing the noxious air of unsubstantiated allegations of election fraud and had been told they had been cheated. Their president had urged them to march on the Capitol, mocking the elected representatives who were about to confirm Joe Biden’s victory. Something was going to happen.
On a wider scale, Christians should not be surprised at contempt for the democratic process. Nor should British Christians have confidence that something similar (or worse) could never happen here.
Irresponsible words from an erratic president may have been the spark that lit the blue touch paper, but the fragility of our democracies did not begin with him, nor is it restricted to America. A number of factors are feeding it, reminding us that democracy is a delicate flower, only found in certain privileged soils, vulnerable to the removal of essential nutrients and the presence of toxic elements.
The loss of a Christian worldview
Fifty years ago, Francis Schaeffer was telling Americans that they lived in a post-Christian world. The controlling idea that influenced big decisions was the materialistic, impersonal outlook of atheism, discounting thought of God as of no relevance to public life and dismissing his law as of no authority.
The problem is that when we lose touch with God, we lose our understanding of what humanity, created in his image, is.
Since well before the Reformation, the Christian concept of the moral equality of individuals and the sanctity of human life had become foundational in ‘the West’, or Christendom. It took the Reformation to recover the authority of Scripture and to free the gospel from the tyranny of the institutional church. These recoveries allowed the flourishing of the harmony of form and freedom, of unity and diversity, the enjoyment of personal liberty so far as possible in a fallen world, together with the acceptance of moral standards that held ‘across the board’ – absolutes.
The West has been characterised, despite lamentable failures and big cultural differences between nations and even within them, by respect for all human beings, the humility that comes from knowing we are all fallible because we are all sinners, and the appreciation of the separation of powers in how we are governed – between the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. Along with this has emerged the ‘rule of law’, which accepts that we are all, kings included, under the law for our own good.
Slowly and painfully, within this framework has developed what we call ‘liberal democracy’. We do well to remember how recent a development it is, even with a long history of Christianity in some form. But take that Christian base away, and democracy will fold. The nutrients for feeding this frail flower will not be there.
Respect for the individual, the humble thought that we may we wrong, the accountability of rulers, the wisdom that insists that power should not be concentrated in too few hands for too long – these attitudes are rarer than we think. Without Christianity, which the West has now rejected wholesale, democracy cannot survive.
But there are toxic agents in the mix as well.
Confidence in reason rather than revelation characterised the West beginning in the ‘Enlightenment’ in the 18th century, but it became apparent by the late 19th and certainly the 20th century that reason had no ultimate answers. A profound scepticism about the notion of truth pervaded culture and society. Not only could ultimate truth not be found, it did not exist. Any attempt to suggest that it did was regarded as oppression – an illegitimate attempt to deprive people of the freedom to believe and to be what they liked.
The modern flowering of this plant is the emphasis on diversity. Not a bad thing in itself, perhaps, but there is no concept of unity to hold the parts together. A human being can be what he or she likes, but – what is a human being after all? What have we in common? The result is fragmentation of nations, within nations, in communities, families, and within the individual psyche.
In his book The Holy Trinity, Robert Letham states: ‘As diversity rules, subgroups are divided against subgroups, tribe against tribe… As ethnic and interest groups press their own agendas with increasing vigour, discord and violence will increase.’ Letham then quotes Anthony Thiselton: ‘The postmodern self is predisposed to assume a stance of conflict.’
Schaeffer points out another consequence of a society without an overarching metanarrative or absolutes in terms of who we are and how we should live: ‘The chaos of violence – especially random or political violence and indiscriminate terrorism.’
The corollary is that ‘When freedom destroys order, the yearning for order will destroy freedom’ (Eric Hoffer). Totalitarianism is the inevitable consequence of unbridled lust for personal freedom. This is where postmodernism is taking us. But on the way there, there will be a lot of violence in ‘good causes’. The true basis for form and freedom, unity and diversity, is the Triune nature of God. The closer it lives to that truth, the happier society will be.
Loss of confidence in truth claims
It should go without saying that where we reject the existence of ultimate truth and the reliability of any revelation from God, it will not be long before we reject the reliability of lesser truths as well.
So far as our attitude to God is concerned, this is primarily a matter of the rebel will – I will not believe, I will not obey. But the challenge is thrown out to lower authorities and sources of knowledge: ‘By what authority?’
This is partly rebelliousness, partly epistemological reality – how do I know what is true? Fake news is everywhere (so we are told, but how do we know?) but scepticism did not begin with social media and Donald Trump’s rejection of anything he does not like. It is endemic to postmodernism – what is true?
Lies, half-lies, and manipulation did not begin with the internet. We may have listened to Capitol rioters convinced that a massive fraud has been perpetrated on them and wondered what planet they are on, but live in their bubble for a week or two and perhaps we would be convinced. After all – they may be right!
My point is not to assert their error, but to point out that we should not be surprised by their refusal to accept what (to most of the world) looks like evidence-based, rationally-deduced, stone-cold truth.
Our grasp on truth is never as firm as we like to think it is. Further, brought up in a world where all the big answers are relativised, uncertainty about everything becomes understandable. Further still, in a world where we are told that we are being fed lies, it is hardly surprising that some people reject ‘the facts’.
But we can no more live without some certainty to anchor our lives than we can live without order and authority in the moral and political realms. The inevitable consequence is that we then clutch at ‘certainties’ because they suit our personal agenda, not because they are true. Truth is what I want it to be, even in the face of the evidence. My scepticism is radical, yet my faith is unshakeable. A ‘looking-glass world’ seems perfectly real.
The Christian faith enables us to live humbly with a lot of earthly uncertainty, but sure of the great, abiding, and eternal verities. Because of certainty about what God’s Word tells me, I can trust what I know about lesser things too.
I have no authority to critique American Christianity and do not want to appear merely critical, so I will couch what I say as personal perception only (there, how postmodern is that!).
Many evangelicals voted for Trump and it is not outside the bounds of possibility that people calling themselves evangelical Christians would have been among those protesters at the Capitol. It does seem that some of American evangelicalism has become tribal in the sense of Robert Letham’s phrase above – symptomatic of postmodern society.
We (for I think it can be equally true of evangelicals in the UK) see ourselves as another group in society, a segment of society who need to fight for our interests which, of course for us, often coincide with those of the ‘Christian culture’ we have lost. Life becomes a cultural battle, defending or seeking to recover in the political and cultural realm the Christian world whose loss we lament.
Even Christians can be guilty of justifying the means by their end, trampling on the rights of others to achieve what they see as their prized goals. And all for the very best motives, of course.
At the same time, we have lost our grip on the fundamental truth that Christianity is first of all the truth, and that means truth for all people everywhere at all times.
Christianity is, firstly, about what is true for creation. We fight for the preservation of what we call our Christian culture, but we lose touch with the more profound fact that it is Christian principles that undergird the world that our enemies live in too – who man is, how we should live together with all people, how to govern in a way that treats everyone with respect and fairness.
We need to remember that, as human beings, we are part of the human race, all of whom are made in God’s image, and these truths are more fundamental than the particular cultural expression – however Christian it may seem – in which we live at the moment. Evangelicals in the political sphere must fight for the rights of all men and women, as great evangelicals have done in the past.
Freedom is something often heard on the lips of the supporters of Donald Trump, Christian and otherwise. Indeed it is a precious commodity, hard won and too easily lost. But it is not to be idolised.
America, ‘the land of the free’, has a proud history of seeking and fighting for freedom. Yet true freedom is freedom under the law of God. It is relative. Absolute freedom only God knows; when we claim it we play God, we lapse into selfishness, exploiting any means to achieve what we want, depriving other human beings of their share of freedom, pursuing our enjoyments in a masquerade of freedom. The only true freedom is that which comes from honouring the Word of God: like democracy, one of freedom’s concomitants and its best custodian, it will not flourish apart from submission to God’s authority.
Words like ‘insurrection’ and ‘revolution’ have been used to describe what happened on 6 January. But it was not the storming of the Bastille; democratic business got underway fairly soon afterwards.
Perhaps a connection could be made with other moments of more institutionalised conservative political panic: the McCarthyite witchhunts against Communists of the 1950s or the Watergate scandal fifty years ago when another president authorised illegal behaviour (justified, for many, by the morbid fear of Democrats coming to power).
Men acting criminally genuinely believed they were doing the right thing, not as a mob but as elected or employed political administrators.
The mob on 6 January was attacking the operation of government at its symbolic heart in Washington, yet its danger was soon over. It was basically a march that got badly out of hand.
But it was a significant moment. The frailties it has highlighted in Western democracy are deep and real. Democracy will continue to decay so long as the Christian faith fails to inform our basic convictions about how to live together. Democracy is not the ultimate good, and it is perfectly possible to be the church under all kinds of political systems, though not equally comfortable.
The recovery of Christian conviction does not come by political action, though that is necessary. It will come by the preaching of the gospel and prayer that God will build his kingdom (which is not to be equated with democracy!) among us and through us.
Mostyn Roberts is pastor at Welwyn Evangelical Church.