I am writing this at a point when it appears that Donald Trump is on the verge of winning the Republican nomination for Presidential candidate and Hilary Clinton the nomination for the Democrats.
I have encouraged myself to re-read the late Glen Stassen’s chapter on Democracy in his book A Thicker Jesus: Incarnational Discipleship in a Secular Age.
It seems possible to suggest that what is happening in the American campaigns with respect to the support for both main candidates but particularly Trump reflects a failure of liberal democracy. What I mean by this is that if liberal democracy has inherently no other values than freedom, such as in the freedom to vote, then issues such as the stature, character, and policies of candidates become irrelevant because there is no agreed system on which to judge them.
If I read him right, Stassen in his writing wants to counter both ‘tradition’ less liberal democracy and a purely pragmatic liberal democracy. He does this by an appeal to the Puritan Christian tradition in the making of America. From this position he wants to argue for the importance and presence in the liberal democracy tradition of such things as separation of Church and State, civic responsibility, justice, freedom of religion for all, and human rights.
I have sympathy with Stassen. That history should not be written out of a purely ‘secular’ explanation of the American Democratic story. It represents at least a tradition within a tradition.
Yet I think two things need to be said:
First, whatever the history – people today do not need to identify with the Christian faith in order to hold some or all of the values I have mentioned above in order to see them as an expression of liberal democracy. You can indeed be secular and atheist and hold these values. Arguing about the grounds for these values if a person holds no faith is another matter and actually today I feel less important than the fact that people can find common ground on them.
Second, there is no such thing as the Christian tradition. Not all versions and expressions of Christianity result in the comittments which Stassen highlights. Indeed, the evangelical support for Trump perhaps suggests that some expressions of Christianity necessarily go against these values. I am also not always convinced that the Puritan’s held some of the values that Stassen advocates. I am clear, however, that Stassen as a Christian ethicist holds these values/practices to be important and that his views come from a particular understanding of the Christian faith that places the life teaching, death and resurrection at the centre of his understanding.
It is also feature of Stassen’s work that he encourages Christian people to work with others on common ground and in tactical alliances of matters that matter. I think that for the sake of a liberal democracy which is good for the ‘common’ as well as indeed for the Church that this is a time for such alliances.