Today, I, like many of you, will go to my local polling station and vote. It is somewhat ironic to me that my place of voting is in a Presbyterian church building. I walk to the room with the voting booths past bulletin boards that announce potluck dinners and have art drawn by Sunday School kids. The irony is that nowadays, the church seems to be at odds with government in many ways.
And I wonder, is there any connection between the voting-style of government that we call democracy and what the Bible teaches us?
If we were to look to the Bible for a governmental pattern, we might make a strong case for royal rule, hereditary kingship. Although we are told that God was initially sorrowed by Israel’s desire for a king, by the time we get to the second king, David, we find Scripture referring to him as God’s “son,” one who is given promises of an eternal throne. The historical reality of the Davidic kings ruling from Jerusalem is a central and irreplaceable aspect of our Christian concept of Messiah (as in “Jesus the Messiah,” or “Jesus the Christ”).
But no one is proposing a king for America. We believe that the power for governing folks is given to them by the people, not by hereditary succession or supposed royal blood. Presidents may have enormous power while in office, but there is a check on that power every four years when we vote.
Is there a biblical basis for the democratic ideal? I guess that depends on how you understand democracy. If you understand democracy as based in the dignity of each adult and their right to have a single voice in the selection of government, then yes. This concept is embedded deeply in American tradition.The Declaration of Independence declared:
We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights …
Jefferson and the others who framed this document wrote better than they knew or practiced. They did not intend “unalienable rights” to be extended to African slaves or to women, but later leaders followed these words to the conclusion that gave voting rights to both of these groups.
I think the greatest single expression of American democracy is found in the Gettysburg Address, which begins with these stirring words:
Four score and seven years ago
our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation,
conceived in Liberty,
and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
This is at the core of American democracy, the value of each and every person within our country and thereby their right to vote in elections. I think this is a biblical principle, coming primarily from the New Testament. The New Testament comes from a time and place in history when each person was not valued. The Roman empire and its economy were fueled by slaves, perhaps 1/3 of the population. Few people had any rights in determining who the governing class would be. To see exemplars for democracy in ancient Rome or even in ancient Athens will not yield satisfying results.
There was a solitary voice for the value of each individual in this time period, and that was Jesus. Jesus ministered to the least-valued members of his society; the lepers, the prostitutes, the traitorous tax collectors, even the despised Romans who lived among his people. He loved men. He loved women. He loved children. He cared about each person who crossed his path. All were equal, children of God in his words and actions.
So I doubt whether American democracy could flourish or even exist without Jesus and his example. May we continue to follow his lead. Maybe we could return to the words of Emma Lazarus on our Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free;
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless,
Tempest-tossed to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
If we lived out those words, maybe we would have another “new birth of freedom.”
Nebraska Christian College