Making an idol of democracy

Rob Slane  ·  Aug 01, 2013

“No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Winston Churchill, speech to Parliament, November 11, 1947

I’m sure Winston Churchill was right to think that nobody in his day held democracy to be perfect or all-wise. In theory many people would still agree today. Yet, in recent years, the word democracy has—at least in the minds of many—taken on characteristics akin to omniscience and omnipotence and is increasingly being seen as the answer to humanity’s problems.

This can be seen most clearly in the “nation-building” wars of the past decade, which have been waged with the expressed intention of bringing democracy to those nations. Afghanistan was invaded in order that the Taliban might be defeated, and with the hope that some form of democratic system could then be established. The same was largely true of Iraq. Although the rationale given for war was the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein was said to have possessed, the hope from the outset was that, once he was deposed, democracy could then be established and a peaceful and stable country created, which would form a blueprint for the rest of the Middle East to follow.

Following the invasion of these countries, the U.S. and its allies have continued to hold out the hope of democracy taking root in the Middle East, albeit using a different approach. Rather than invading sovereign nations, the West has instead given moral, financial and even military backing to groups attempting to overthrow the dictators of those nations, even though those opposition groups often happen to be made up of radical Islamists. So far this policy has contributed to a change of regimes in Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and Egypt.

But despite the jubilation that has followed the toppling of the dictators and the establishment of democracy, the hope of peace, liberty, and order just hasn’t followed. Instead, it is all turning rather sour.

Take Iraq, for example. Of all the countries mentioned above, Iraq has had democracy for the longest period, yet if the goal was to produce a free and peaceful society, that goal has so far been woefully missing. Protests and violence have not only continued since democracy was established, but have actually escalated in the past few months as the hostility between the ruling Shias and minority Sunnis continues unabated. In May of this year, more than 1,000 people were killed in what was the deadliest month since the 2006-2007 “civil war.” It is not for no reason that Iraq currently ranks No. 11 in the world on the Index of Failed States, being deemed “critical.”

And now there is Egypt. Two years ago the people of Egypt, egged on by partisan Western governments keen to see a new world order with secular democracies established to the ends of the earth, rose up in protests which led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. The country was largely jubilant at this unexpected turn of events, and even more so at the prospect of free and fair elections.

However, the elections—totally free and fair, according to international observers—were an unmitigated disaster as far as the U.S. and its allies were concerned. Many Western commentators, beguiled by the idea that democracy has the power to solve the world’s problems, and ignoring the glaring truth about the kind of government the Egyptians would likely elect, had assumed that a secular party would be voted in and that Egypt would take its place in the pantheon of secular democracies. Of course, it didn’t turn out that way, and the biggest party after Egypt’s first ever free and fair elections was the Muslim Brotherhood, led by Mohammed Morsi.

Now here we are, just a year after he was democratically elected, and Morsi has been overthrown by what was essentially an army coup, not too dissimilar to the one that unseated Mubarak. Once again many people rejoiced at the overthrow of the dictator. Except that Morsi wasn’t actually some unelected dictator. He was the man elected to govern Egypt after free and fair elections had taken place.

It’s hard to see where Egypt goes from here. The people can hardly plead for democracy, as they did when calling for Mubarak to go, since they have effectively rejected what democracy brought them. In cheering at the forced deposing of Morsi, the Egyptians have undermined any future elections and the democratic process which they welcomed just a year before.

So why has democracy failed all across the Middle East? Well, when Churchill said that democracy was the least, worst form of government, he was right in one sense. It was obvious then, just as it is obvious now, that the freest and most ordered countries in the world were democracies.

But many people have concluded from this that it is the democratic system itself that brings freedoms and prosperity, which is an entirely false assumption. If it is the case that democracy brings peace, liberty, and prosperity, then you need to explain why it has failed to do so in places like Iraq and Egypt. Then you also need to explain how it led to the rise of Adolf Hitler, whose party won the most number of seats in the democratic elections of 1932, thus giving him a platform from which to grab total power.

The fact is that the Western democracies have been largely free and prosperous, not because they are democratic, but because they are built on the ethics of Christians. The modern form of democracy didn’t arise from Islam and it didn’t arise from a secular vacuum. It arose in nations that were basically Protestant Christian.

This is not to say that everyone in these nations was Christian, but it is to say that the influence of the Gospel was such that constitutions and laws were ostensibly Christian, and also that much evil was restrained because of this influence.

Democracy has worked in such countries not because there is something inherently good about people voting their government in, but because the cultural and social landscape in those nations has been shaped by the ethics of the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount.

Attempting to bring democracy into a country that does not have this Christian cultural and social landscape, and then expecting it to produce liberty and peace, is like teaching trigonometry to children who have not been taught to count and expecting them to get it. Of course, they aren’t going to get it, and, of course, the people of nations that have not been steeped in the teachings of the Bible are not going to vote for “able men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe” (Exodus 18:21).

Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan, Libya, and the like are all proving that democracy really is no savior, but rather an idol. Democracy is an approximation of the will of the people, but if the will of the people has not been changed by the Gospel, then you are never going to get a peaceful and free nation out of the process. Democracy works best in nations where the salt and light of Christianity has done its transforming work.

This is one of the reasons that freedoms and prosperity are being lost in the U.S. and other democratic nations. We idolize democracy—the will of the people—but are busy destroying the foundations that actually make democracy work. We hack away at the moral structures that make us able to choose good and wise leaders, and then expect that we will continue to vote in good and wise leaders to lead the country into peace, liberty and prosperity.

This is a vain hope. It is like staring admiringly at the roof of a great house, then going and digging up the foundations of the house because they are apparently superfluous and we think the roof can survive without them. But it cannot. The foundations are what hold the roof, and the entire house, up. Do not be deceived: There is no such thing as a secular democracy that brings liberty, peace and prosperity. The only reason that the Western secular democracies are still by and large the freest and most ordered places on the planet is not because they are secular or because they are democracies, but simply because the influence of the Gospel still pervades those nations and has not yet been entirely expunged.

But as the Gospel continues to be eradicated, do we really suppose that democracy will save us? Do we really suppose that nations rejecting God’s Law and His Word will continue to be free, peaceful, law-abiding and prosperous just because the people get to vote their leaders in and out.

The failed experiments in the Middle East are a warning to us that they will not. Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ can transform a nation and give it peace and order. Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ can give democracy the foundation it needs to function properly. Without it, democracy is just one more vain idol among many promising salvation, only to fail us miserably.

Rob Slane lives with his wife and five home-educated children in Salisbury, England. He is the author of The God Reality: A Critique of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, contributes to the Canadian magazine Reformed Perspective, and blogs on cultural issues from a Biblical perspective at