Columns Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Who cheers for democracy?

Official portrait of President Dwight D. Eisenhower

You can still get a chuckle when you quote Dwight Eisenhower’s remark, “[O]ur form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” But what he said next makes clear that his point was not that some religion, any religion, is good for America.

With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men are created equal.”

Ike was saying that democracy (our form of government) depends on a fundamental religious belief in human equality—a debatable proposition perhaps, but hardly a trivial one.

The remark, from a speech he gave shortly after his election as president in 1952, bespoke the country’s mid-century anti-totalitarian project. America had helped defeat Nazism and Fascism in Europe, Japanese imperialism in Asia, and was now engaged in a struggle with Soviet communism—all in the name of democracy and its values.

Religion was part and parcel of the project, not just as a freedom to be defended but as essential to the nature of our form of government.

In 1950, for example, the editors of the Southern Baptist periodical Commission justified promotion of democratic values in their missionary work by declaring, “Political democracy is a by-product of Christianity. It has its roots in the Christian concept of the God-given dignity of every human being.”

That statement is quoted in Saving Germany, James C. Enns’ excellent new book about Protestant missions to Germany in the postwar period. Enns shows how these missions, whether ecumenical, denominational, or revivalist, all put their shoulders to the cause of building democracy in a country that had to be at once denazified and made into a bulwark against the Communist threat.

Today, democracy is again on the ropes. The Führerprinzip is alive and well, and not only in Russia and China, in Turkey and the Philippines. Populist parties across Western Europe declare their admiration for strongman government. The leader of the United States is enamored too, musing the other day about how the U.S. might, like China, think about a life term for its president.

Where Billy Graham once used his crusades to warn against the Soviet threat to democratic values, today his son Franklin celebrates Russian dictator Vladimir Putin as a defender of traditional ones. Nor is Franklin alone among his Christian tribe.

It’s easy to make fun of America’s Cold War religious rhetoric, to disdain it as an unholy subordination of the spiritual to the nationalistic. But with democracy under more serious threat than it’s been since the 1930s, it’s hard not to feel some regret for the passing of that old time civil religion.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

15 Comments

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  • Interesting article on how religion, or non-religion, can be used as a tool to get what you want out of life.

  • Eisenhower was. and the Evangelicals are wrong. This country was founded on secular ideals. Democracy is based on the human moral value of justice. It does require a wide spread understanding and commitment that citizens have compassion and strive for justice for all. We are all equal in our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These humanistic values were respected in some Greek philosophies long before Christianity. This was known by some of the founding fathers. Democracy requires that some citizens do not desire to control or oppress others. An autocratic or oppressive society is not a democracy.

    The history of the Judeo-Christian religions has not shown that their former, or present, cultures have been very successful in following these humanistic values.

    A society that required everyone to follow the values of one religion would not be a democracy. This is an Evangelical belief that Billy Graham gave to Eisenhower.

  • “And the day will come, when the
    mystical generation of Jesus, by the
    Supreme Being as His Father, in the
    womb of a virgin, will be classed with
    the fable of the generation of Minerva
    in the brain of Jupiter.”

    — Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

    Letter to John Adams, from Monticello, April 11, 1823.

  • I very much favor democracy but I don’t think it needs to be based in religion to teach the need for equality. America was considered to be a Christian nation for most of its history, but during that time, equality did not exist, and it still doesn’t. From the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans from the land to the enslavement, persecution, and prosecution of Blacks, equality has always been a missing ingredient in America.

    The equality that exists is one that says we believe in equality for our own group while others are deemed to be less than. When that own group is defined by national identity, language, ancestry, race, or religion, then, according to Jeff Halper in his book An Israeli In Palestine, you have an ethnocracy. That is you may have democratic political processes, but the end result is not a society that is shared equally by all, it is a society where one group has achieved supremacy over others by the privileges it has used the democratic process to grant itself

  • The mixing of religion & politics can only result in a horrible outcome. Case in point is Czarist Russia. It’s no wonder why Marx was an atheist given what he saw there and in Germany where the Lutheran church had so much sway over the government.

  • What’s wrong with this picture?

    “The Führerprinzip is alive and well in Russia” – where Orthodox Christianity and Islam are officially protected – but not in America – where “a fundamental religious belief in human equality [remains] a debatable proposition”!

    And this picture?

    “The Führerprinzip is alive and well [not in America where] … democracy [has been] under … serious threat … since the 1930s”!

    So what’s wrong with those pictures? NOTHING.

    For that’s exactly what “democracy” looked and looks like and will always look like – with, as in the US, or without, as in post-USSR, “the old time civil religion”!

  • Good response. Just another example of how Billy Graham influenced America in not so good ways.

  • Thanks Susan,
    His Evangelical followers are currently having an even worse effect on our culture and government.

  • I’m just for theocracy, or God’s righteous, loving and peaceful rule over mankind on earth (Isaiah 11:1-5) from his heavenly government (Matthew 4:17) instead of any imperfect man and his governments ruling over all of us. Enough is enough! ????

  • O God my Father. The God and Father of my Lord and Savior, Christ Jesus. Together with Your beloved Son, Christ Jesus, at Your right hand and on His throne next to Yours, You’re the King of kings with the Lord of lords. Reigning over Your kingdom on earth and in heaven – and for eternity in the new heaven and earth – all because of Your ransoming Fatherly love for all of humanity, through the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of THE Christ Jesus of the gospels, epistles and revelation.

    Oops ‘scuzi. Got to praying there upon reading your powerful comment.

    … But that’s what you mean, though, right? By “God’s righteous, loving and peaceful rule over mankind on earth”? By “his heavenly government”? If so, then, well, that ain’t “theocracy” – so don’t use that perverted word from here on, for God & Jesus’ sakes. Because, OMG forbid:

    According to the Oxford University Press’ “Oxford Dictionaries”, “theocracy … [means] a system of government in which priests rule in the name of God or a god.”

    And according the Cambridge University Press’ “Cambridge Dictionary”: “theocracy … [means] a country that is ruled by religious leaders [or] government by religious leaders”.

  • How about, then, “the mixing of [worldviews] & politics”? You kewl wi dat?

    Life and people, though, are always full of worldviews. And there’s scientific worldview. And philosophical worldview, too. And oh yeah also … wait for it … tada! … religious worldview.

    Scientific and philosophical worldviews OK, but religious worldviews NO GOOD – that’s what you’re getting at?

    OK, so convince us now, you & me +others here. You’ve got 24 hours. GO.

  • Hp0,

    God’s kingdom or heavenly government will soon put an end to and replace ALL human governments, as was prophesied by Daniel:

    “And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall BREAK INTO PIECES and CONSUME ALL these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever” (Daniel 2:44, King James Version).

    Not only is Christ Jesus its King (Isaiah 9:6,7), but he will also have 144,000 spirit-anointed co-rulers (the only ones from earth who have a heavenly hope), who are also priests, rule with Jesus (also as a high priest; Hebrews 6:20), during their upcoming millennial rule (Revelation 14:1-5; 20:4-6) over mankind on earth.

    They therefore qualify as to both of your “definitions” of a “theocracy,” and all of man’s governments will no longer exist. Jesus referred to that group of persons as his “little flock” who inherit the heavenly kingdom (Luke 12:32).

    After the great tribulation hits all mankind on earth (Matthew 24:21) and an innumerable number of persons on earth survive it (Revelation 7:9,10, 13,14), then Armageddon, or “the battle of that great day of God Almighty,” will take place against “the KINGS of the earth and OF THE WHOLE WORLD” (Revelation 16:14,16), only confirming fulfilllment of Daniel’s prophecy.

    I am presently a subject of God’s government (as a theocrat) which has been established in the heavens, my complete allegiance belongs to it now, and it will continue on earth until the end of time.

  • DISAGREED. The reign of God the King of kings with Christ Jesus the Lord of lords over Their kingdom on earth and in heaven – and for eternity in the new heaven and earth – all because of the ransoming Fatherly love for all of humanity, through the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of THE Christ Jesus of the gospels, epistles and revelation – AIN’T THEOCRACY.

    That’s NOT “a system of government in which priests rule in the name of God or a god”!

    That’s NOT “a country that is ruled by religious leaders [or] government by religious leaders”!

  • “Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such, the second death hath no power, but they shall be PRIESTS OF GOD AND OF Christ, and shall REIGN with him a thousand years (Revelation 20:6, referencing the 144,000 spirit-anointed Christians mentioned at Revelation 14:1-5).

    At the end of their millennial rule with Jesus, when mankind has finally obtained perfection that Adam and Eve lost for us, Jesus will then give back complete rulership to his Father, or God, whose name is Jehovah (Psalm 83:18, King James Version):

    “And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that GOD may be ALL IN ALL” (1 Corinthians 15:28).

    Jesus will no longer be required as a mediator (1 Timothy 2:5), as he is now for sinful mankind, since mankind will be perfect, just like Adam and Eve had been before their disobedience.

  • SAY WHAT?! “Part[akers] in the first resurrection … shall be PRIESTS OF GOD AND OF CHRIST, and shall REIGN WITH HIM a thousand years [so as to run] a system of government in which priests rule in the name of God or a god [and run] a country that is ruled by religious leaders [or] government by religious leaders”?!

    And for that, your sources of inspiration are Revelation 20:6, Oxford University Dictionaries, and Cambridge University Dictionary?

    Here’s where it gets all crazy & everything:

    (1) Your “theocracy” will be an impermanent “system”. What is that?! Just for “a thousand years”, and then no more?

    (2) Even Christ Jesus will only be one of however many “priests rul[ing] in the name of God or a god”? Instead of being the Lord of lords at the right hand of God the King of kings and on His throne next to God’s?!

    (3) The Millennial Kingdom shall be “a country that is ruled by religious leaders”, and shall be a “government by religious leaders”?! And not by God & Jesus Themselves?! How dare you call Them “religious leaders”?!

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