Democracy: What good is it for?

By Philip Powell

vote-661888_1280On 7th May 2015, millions of UK citizens will exercise their franchise and participate in the formal process of choosing the next government. The right to vote is one of the marks of living in a democracy. And yet, despite the fact the UK has universal suffrage, millions of citizens will shun casting their vote because of cynicism or indifference. My vote is not going to make any difference is the attitude that keeps many from going to the polling station.

Read also: our short booklet on Democracy or Sustaining Democracy by Philip Sampson

Sure, no democracy is perfect, and free elections, though important, are only one aspect of living in a free society. But can democracy survive and thrive in a climate of moral indifference to the responsibility of exercising choice? What good is democracy for?

American public theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote: ‘Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.’[1] There are two parts to Niebuhr’s maxim.

As Christians we believe all human beings are created in the image of God (Genesis 1) and part of being human is the capacity to make moral choices. We have the potential for doing justice in the world. Democracy, in a limited but real sense, gives expression to this fact. Casting a vote is one aspect of the formal process of citizens taking responsibility to participate in the governance of their country. The will of the people ultimately determines what government comes to power. Without the consent of the citizens, governments in a democracy will have no legitimacy to exercise authority. This is called popular sovereignty.

The second aspect that is equally important to emphasise is that man is fallen (Genesis 3), and therefore susceptible to the corruptions of power. Our elected representatives (MPs) in Parliament bear a heavy responsibility to make good decisions on behalf of their electorate. But they also face the constant temptation to use their public office for other ends, i.e. to serve the private interests of a few. The whole process of periodic elections is one way of making sure elected representatives are held accountable. In a democracy citizens hold the power to vote political leaders out of office.

Christians should never genuflect before the altar of democracy but neither should they turn their backs on democracy, as some are tempted to do. There is no perfect political system because there are no perfect people, and contrary to what some would say, democracy, though imperfect, far surpasses other systems of governance.

Democracy is good because it affirms the freedom of citizens to exercise their choice and it holds public officials accountable for their decisions and actions. Our democracy would be even better if all the citizens with the right to vote exercise that right and participate in the elections two weeks from now.

[1] The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944)

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Category: Blogs

April, 2015

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