Is Democracy the Best Form of Government?

Much has been said about democracy this week. Those who resented the referendum’s outcome are bemoaning the electorate’s knowledge and capacity to make decisions. They quote Churchill’s observation that ‘the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter’. Some are advocating a second referendum to allow the previously ill-informed to make the ‘correct’ decision.

Others, especially those who are pleased with the outcome, are championing democracy’s virtues. They too can rent-a-quote from Churchill, such as ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time" (House of Commons, Nov. 11, 1947). When the British people elected a Labour government in 1945, he remarked ‘They have a perfect right to kick me out. That is democracy". When offered the Order of the Garter, he asked "Why should I accept the Order of the Garter, when the British people have just given me the Order of the Boot?"

We in the West love democracy. We attempt to export it to countries like Iraq, and get upset with China when it only offers candidates from one party. But is democracy Biblical? The obvious answer is no, as the Old Testament predates the earliest democratic Greek Cities such as Athens. It comes from a predominantly Jewish culture, rather than a Greek one. Israel was governed by judges, kings and prophets, all ‘elected’ by God only. The New Testament Church was led by apostles appointed directly by Christ, or alternatively, by lot, over which God still extended his sovereignty.

Furthermore, the Kingdom of Heaven is very much an absolute monarchy. Although individual churches, especially our own, may appear to run along democratic, congregational lines, our Head is a King, not subject to parliaments, senates, congresses or committees. We do not elect Him; rather, He elects us. Democracy, on the other hand, places power into the hands of every human citizen via the ballot box. Every human heart is darkened by sin, corruption and rebellion. Hence the outcomes of ballots and referenda may reflect human weakness and depravity rather than righteous judgements and godly deliberation.

Nevertheless, we may still rejoice that we live in a democratic country. A government subject to five-yearly approvals of the people will seek to govern fairly or risk the sack. Corruption is minimised and the marginalised are given a voice. Even for the first Old Testament king, Saul, in chapter 11 of 1 Samuel, the prophet invited public support and endorsement by the people. Though chosen directly by God, the people are invited to affirm him, which most, but not all, do. More recently, Oliver Cromwell and his puritans paved the way for parliamentary democracy when they assailed the Divine Right of kings and promoted the Parliaments of the people. The democratic process may not be described as Biblical, but neither has it been incompatible with God’s people through the ages.

Human government will always be flawed and imperfect. We Christians look to the One returning, upon whose shoulders the world’s government will be. But until that time begins, I’m glad I live in a democracy, for it is indeed better than the available alternatives.

I took the picture on a visit to County Hall, Preston, where the shire's elected representives argue and debate.