Many Americans look upon our democratic liberties as God-given rights which we enjoy as a favored people who live under a “manifest destiny” which is God-ordained. This gives us the mandate to propagate democratic institutions willy-nilly not only as our natural right, but as a Christian duty. In fact, some so confuse democracy and Christianity that if one is not a flag-waving eulogist of the former his claim to the latter may well be questioned.

Writing about government and the people in an article for the International Reformed Bulletin entitled, “The Power of the Reformation in Political Life” (April, 1962) Dr. Jan D. Dengerink has the following to say. “The so-called ‘democratic liberties’ concern those rights which the citizens may exercise in the political arena, in the life of the state. They are not ‘absolute,’ and have no validity over against the state. Their range is wholly defined by the form which the state has assumed in a specific period of history. From this perspective it is impossible to posit democracy in a formal sense as a general condition for every type of state. For a well-functioning democracy presupposes a certain fundamental maturity, a certain feeling of responsibility on behalf of the citizens before they can formulate responsible judgments about the most fundamental principles which they think should guide the government in its decisions.”

The Communists are fully aware of the importance of an apprenticeship in the ways of democracy. By contrast the Western powers seem to assume that instant democracy is possible. Foreseeing the results of too much liberty too soon, the Communists have posed as democrats insisting that the emerging nations of Africa be given independence. As a result, one after another the new nations come under a “strong man” after a short and unsuccessful attempt at democracy. Blame for the fact that these peoples are not ready for self-government may be laid at the door of the colonizing powers, but this does not mean that we can advance the political clock under pressure of Communist propaganda. We can not ladle instant democracy out of a labeled jar.

In addition to saying that democracy may not be the suitable form of government at all times and in all places, Dr. Dengerink implies that democracy is only appropriate for those who have prepared for it. In the United States we had n period of apprenticeship running from 1619 when the Virginia House of Burgesses first met to the Declaration of Independence in 1776. In that period and subsequently, we had the leavening influence of Christianity in our society which brought to us the sense of moral restraint and responsibility which are the basic ingredients of a successful democracy. Jefferson to the contrary, mere educational enlightenment is not enough.

If the above conclusions are correct, and I am fully convinced that they are, then a startling question faces us as a nation. If the success of democracy has been the result of Christian influences, what will be the course of our American political institutions when those influences are withdrawn in our late twentieth century post-Christian era? Must we conclude that the post-Christian era will lead to a post-democratic era as well?

We have not far to look for the harbingers of change. The Students for Democratic Society are dedicated to complete unrestrained action in order to bring about the changes they desire. Like other disruptive anarchical or totalitarian movement s, they parade under the banner of democracy. In an NBC News interview relative to their aims on the Columbia University campus, the respondent forthrightly assertcd that their goal was a completely value-free society. That, being interpreted, simply means that their aim is to live in complete lawlessness, i.e., anarchy.

The only immediately effective counteraction to the ideals of the S.O.S. is the solution chosen by George Wallace. Disruptive force must be met by the same kind of raw controlling force. More bayonets along Pennsylvania Avenue, however, can only be a temporary solution or we will have traded one unbearable master for another.

Isn’t it time that those who in America arc loosely designated as Christians divest themselves of the political confusions which they so blithely entertain? They assume that democracy is theirs by natural right or by some divine predisposition towards that form of government. Is it not rather the case that democracy can only be sustained under that kind of a sense of responsibility which recognizes God as the sovereign ruler of the kings of the earth? Balancing pressure groups one against the other is only a form of Machiavellian power politics in disguise. Nor is contract government by the consent of the governed the Christian way. Under it there is never any warrant to give more than we take.

Christians in government, as in all other areas of life, must recognize the over-ruling sovereignty of God. Men do not have sovereign rights when they are unwilling to use these rights as subregents under the Ruler of the kings of the earth. The rights of the individual and the rights of his neighbor are not autonomous rights. They are derived. Only when this derivation is recognized will men act with due restrain t towards the person and effects of another. With this restraint democracy can continue to work. Christians confessing a sovereign Lord and working in community to regenerate society with the leaven of the Word may yet forestall the alarming advance of the post-democratic society. The time to begin is now.


Prof. Nick Van Til is Professor of Philosophy at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.