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Contemporary Democratic Ideals and Christian Tradition


Nowadays, democracy as a form of political organization is of great interest to researchers in multiple fields of knowledge due to its potential to establish and maintain just social order. Democracy has a long and ancient history. It can be regarded as a result of the development of Western civilization. It is rooted in the Greek and Roman heritage, on the one hand, and Judeo-Christian tradition – on the other. For centuries, since the term was implemented in the translations of Aristotelian works for the first time and up to the present day, the disputes regarding the meaning of the word have not stopped.

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The notion of “democracy” has a few definitions. In modern language, the term “democracy” has a few interpretations. Its first basic meaning is etymological. It originates from the Greek word “demokratia” which, in its turn, is comprised of two other words “demos” (people), and “kratos” (power). In this meaning, the term is frequently used by contemporary political figures. For instance, Lincoln gave a similar interpretation of power in his Gettysburg Address in 1863: “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Additionally, a broader interpretation of democracy is a derivative from the etymological understanding of the term, and it implies the form of organization based on the equal involvement of all the members of the society and parties in management and decision-making.

In the given paper, democracy will be regarded as the value-based ideal of social order that implies the presence of a particular worldview aligned with it. Among the major values which comprise such an ideal are liberty, equality, fraternity, and justice. This perspective is of particular interest for the given research because the mentioned values were proclaimed in many Christian scriptures. It is suggested that democracy may have both ethical and religious implications. To identify the possible influence of the Christian heritage on the formation of modern democracy, we will analyze the mentioned core values in both political-social and theological contexts in the following paragraphs.

Democratic Liberty and Christian Freedom

The concept of “social freedom” has an ethical basis. From this perspective, it is “not a priority of individuals, but a relationship between people”. In society, every member depends on others and, at the same time, affects them through actions and decisions. In this way, every person has a certain amount of power. Liberty or freedom, in this regard, means the freedom and power to act. The social and political perspective on liberty implies the presence of particular conditions in which individuals are given sufficient power to act and chose, e.g., prosperity or the lack of poverty. Overall, the increase in the level of social freedom can be mediated through the increase in financial and legal power.

The liberties that are currently included in democracy as a form of forms of political organization are freedom of speech, freedom of the press and assembly, freedom from the arbitrary arrest or punishment, freedom of religion, and individual liberty “consonant with social requirements”. The modern democratic systems also widely promote the acceptance of diversity. The given feature may serve as a sign of the influence of the Christian traditions on the development of the modern political values as, throughout the history, Christianity not only affirmed human equality but promoted the rights of individual differences as well.

The religious ideal of freedom is perfectly expressed in the following verse: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another”. In accordance with the given command, true freedom is not merely the freedom from the unfavorable external conditions, but the freedom for other people. From the theological perspective, freedom implies the opportunity and duty to choose between evil and good. In Galatians 5:1, St. Paul states: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery”. The idea of freedom given by Christ, on the one hand, exalts human dignity and attributes the moral quality of justice to individual behavior, on the other hand. Thus, freedom may be regarded as an act of spiritual self-affirmation. It is the act of realization of own moral duties and responsibilities towards other people because, as it is mentioned by John de Gruchy, “being created in the image of God is, therefore, to be regarded as a task and responsibility rather than just a status”.

Equality, Justice, and Fraternity

It is possible to say that the development of modern democracy commenced with the advancement of natural sciences and the strengthening of the belief in the progress. In Europe, Marquis de Condorcet was the primary “exponent of progress” who believed that humanity moves towards the state of “the ultimate perfection” which will find form in the total equality among nations, citizens, and individuals, as well as their rights and freedoms. In his perception, future equality also meant the intellectual, moral, and physical perfection of all people. Condorcet was one of the leaders during the reformation process after the French Revolution which is regarded as one of the contemporary symbols of democracy. It is worth mentioning that he was against any religion and Christianity, particularly.

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Due to the de-Christianizing orientation of the French Revolution and the substantial detachment of the state institutions from the church and avoidance of clericalism by the politicians, the European clergy was hostile to the principles and values of the Revolution. The popes regarded the overall movement and post-revolutionary political regimen as anti-clericalism and atheistic. Their perceptions of modern democracy as a phenomenon that threatens the church and religion as a whole certainly were valid to a large extent. Based on these historical observations we may assume that there was a significant difference between the political and religious understanding of equality, as well as other values mentioned before. At the same time, the reasoning of the French revolutionists was substantially based on the belief in the inherent goodness of humanity (as described in the Nicomachean Ethics). Thus, the contemporary democratic concept “equality” has its roots in the antique perspectives on morality and duty which are also related to the religious understanding of the term.

From political and social perspectives, equality profoundly relies on the principle of social justice. Justice, in its turn, implies the actualization of core moral rules. As stated by the political theoretician, William Godwin:

What is it that society is bound to do for its members? Everything that can contribute to their welfare. But the nature of their welfare is defined by the nature of mind. That will most contribute to it, which enlarges the understanding, supplies incitements to virtue, fills us with a generous consciousness of our independence, and carefully removes whatever can impede our exertions.

The propensity to justice is thus enclosed in the very human nature. At the same time, from the political and social perspectives, it largely depends on the external conditions, i.e., “equality of welfare” or proportionate action. In this way, it is possible to say that equality is a product of just actions that imply the proper balance between both material and psychological welfare of all individuals. It means that people should not receive or give more than is needed. Equality may be regarded as a self-contained and self-sustained state of society.

As mentioned by Joseph de Torre, “when Christianity appeared on the scene, it proclaimed the radical equality of all persons”. For instance, St. Paul stated in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Or as it is said in the Gospel According to John: “Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him”. The verses perfectly demonstrate the significance of equality. However, contrary to the social-political view on the concept, they target not just the moral level of human consciousness, but also the spiritual one. At this level, a person perceives his or her fundamental relationships to both the transcendental divine powers and to the other people. In this way, the Christian theological tradition refers us not just to the external and material prerequisites of the equality which can be expressed through economic, cultural, and political advancement, but to the permanent quality of human nature.

The major difference between equality in the religious and the political sense is that the emphasis in the later is made on the development of the “generous consciousness of our independence,” while the biblical scriptures, on the contrary, accentuate the interdependence among people. From the theological point of view, friendship and justice are regarded as the major prerequisites of social equality and are directly linked to the progress of equality among people. In this way, equality emerges as a result of the sound communal relationships between the members of society. The given perspective also has its roots in Aristotelian view on virtues and moral behavior which serve to achieve common happiness and welfare. In accordance with Aristotle’s views, Maritain observes that moral behavior, including friendship among all people, is in human nature. Thus, the idea of equality bases itself on the absolute ideals of morality and humanism which are also supported by the spiritual values.

In John 13:34-35, Jesus said: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another”. This commandment was given by Jesus the evening before the crucifixion after he predicted the betrayal. In the verse, love to each other implies the divine love – the love of a person who is in close relationships with God, who is humble and able to rise above misfortunes, injustice, and grief constantly dwelling on the Earth. Such a love is the love of a self-knowing and highly conscious individual. It is pure and vast. The love of Jesus was not affected by the mistreatment which, from the social-political point of view, could undoubtedly be regarded as the greatest act of injustice contradicting all principles of democracy. The commandment, thus, targets a higher level of human senses and consciousness – it has spiritual origins. Moreover, it emphasizes the significance of fraternity in the Christian worldview.

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“Liberty, equality, fraternity” became the national motto in France after the revolution that took place at the end of the 18th century. According to Spicker, “the idea of fraternity is based on the idea that people have responsibilities to each other”. The major principle comprised in the concept as first defined in the French constitution is “do not do to others what you would not choose for yourself”. This is the golden rule of reciprocity which has the religious origins: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself”. At the same time, in political studies, solidarity among citizens is commonly regarded as the key concept that lays the foundation for justice and fraternity.

Solidarity implies a certain degree of affinity between individuals. Based on this, there may be several sources of solidarity. Researchers in politics and social studies usually distinguish three major types of solidarity: civic, ethnic, and patriotic or nationalistic. It means that individuals may tend to show solidarity to those who share particular qualities and features with them, i.e., in case they belong to the same group or category. It may be ethnic, cultural, socio-economic, or even demographic backgrounds. In this way, the cultural, social, national, and any other grounds for membership can serve as the boundaries of friendship among people.

Therefore, the definition of fraternity as equal to solidarity may significantly contradict the principle of justice as it implies a certain degree of favoritism. At the same time, it is possible to say that true democracy implies the availability of valid and impartial sources of criticism which would equally judge or allocate resources and provide opportunities to all members of the society regardless of their identities and loyalties. In this way, the concept of “fraternity” is deeply interrelated with equality and justice and, in order to create friendship among people, the egalitarian perspective on democracy suggests making these two principles – equality and justice – the parts of the social practices.

From the religious point of view, justice and impartiality are incompatible with solidarity and favoritism as well. For instance, it is stated in Leviticus 19:15: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly”. In this regard, justice excludes any sense of solidarity but becomes synonymous to equality. As it is observed by an Italian philosopher and theologian, Thomas Aquinas: “even as the object of justice is something equal in external things, so too the object of injustice is something unequal”. The given statement is largely inspired by Aristotelian Nicomachean Ethics:

The just in this sense is, therefore, the proportionate, and unjust is that which violates proportion…for when injustice is done, the doer has too much, and the sufferer too little of the good in question; though vice versa in the case of evil.

As it is observed by Spicker, “the principles of proportion does not mean that people are equal, but it does mean that inequalities have to be justified, and so there is an initial presumption of equality”. It is possible to say that in the Christian tradition, equality is the inherent quality of humanity, and it is the innate right of every individual to be treated equally and fairly. The social justice always takes the form of an action, e.g., corrective punishment or allocation of resources, and so on. However, despite the external orientation of social and political justice, it has the roots in the “initial presumption of equality” which is one of the basic principles of righteous behavior as given in the Biblical scriptures.


The findings of the literature review revealed that, to a large extent, the contemporary democratic ideals and values derive from the Christian tradition. However, it is observed that the relationships between Christianity and democratic values have always been inconsistent. The best example of this inconsistency is the attempts of the French governors to de-Christianize the state. At the time of the formation of contemporary democracy, many rulers and political figures treated clergy in a disrespectful and humiliating way denoting the absolute detachment from the Christian tradition. However, despite the great differences in the views on equality, fraternity, and other values, we could identify a few large links between the two perspectives, and they may indicate the relatedness between the political and religious views.

The core democratic values – liberty, equality, fraternity, and justice – are deeply interrelated. As the analysis results make it clear, the social and political perspectives on the given values are mainly concerned with their external expressions, i.e., actions and behaviors. At the same time, it is possible to say that the theological view of the values discussed in the paper is mainly focused on innate human qualities, rights, and responsibilities. For instance, democratic liberty and freedom in the religious sense are somewhat different due to their focus and implications. However, both of the notions include the element of personal responsibility to act in a way that would benefit others and minimize harm, although the two interpretations express them in different ways.

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We could find many references to the antique philosophical thoughts in the literature as in the case of Marquis de Condorcet who claimed to believe in equality and movement of humanity towards perfection but based his assumptions on Aristotelian positions regarding morality and reasoning while rejecting any relationships to Christianity. However, there are still many common points in the modern democratic statutes and Christian scriptures. For instance, the inclusion of the Golden Law of reciprocity in the constitutional rules may serve as evidence of the influence of Christianity on the formation of modern political systems.

The principle of fraternity may have religious origins also because it implies the expression of love to others and the fair treatment of others. The principle cannot be regarded as mere solidarity because true friendship and trustful relationships among citizens are the products of love. Additionally, democratic principles are based upon the presumption of the initial equality which serves as the foundation for justice. This initial equality is an innate attribute of humanity. From the Christian perspective, it means that all people, despite their racial, national, gender, and social identity, are equal in the eyes of God. It is the duty of every individual to strive to bring this basic value into reality. And it is exactly what modern democracy stands for. Therefore, we may conclude that it is influenced by religious ideals and the belief in the innate goodness of humanity.


Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 1996.

Cory, Catherine, and Michael Hollerich. The Christian Theological Tradition. Upper Saddler River: Prentice Hall, 2009.

De Gruchy, John. Christianity and Democracy: A Theology for a Just World Order. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

De Torre, Joseph M. “A Philosophical and Historical Analysis of Modern Democracy, Equality, and Freedom Under the Influence of Christianity.” Presentation at the annual meeting of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Steubenville, OH, 1997. Web.

Holy Bible: New International Version. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004.

Godwin, William, and Mark Philp. An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Levy, T. Jacob. “Against Fraternity: Democracy Without Solidarity.” Presentation at Association for Political Theory 12th Annual Conference at University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI, 2014. Web.

Maritain, Jacques. Christianity and Democracy, the Rights of Man and Natural Law. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012.

Reid, Patrick. Readings in Western Religious Thought: The Middle Ages through the Reformation. New York: Paulist Press, 1995.

“Reconsidering the Etymology of Democracy.” Olin Revelation. Web.

Spicker, Paul. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Bristol: Policy Press, 2006.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Justice: Rights and Wrongs. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

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