Over the weekend, President Obama and other national leaders traveled to Selma, Alabama to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the march on Selma. The events of that day in particular, and of the Civil Rights movement in general, remind us of an important truth: Religion and politics do go together—a democratic version of the latter cannot be sustained without the former.
Mark Luther King recognized that American law was accountable to divine law—much in the same way that Richard John Neuhaus spoke of America’s “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance as meaning that America is a nation committed to God’s judgment over it. The Civil Rights movement awakened America to its brutality and barbarism. The Civil Rights movement invoked God as the judge over the affairs of man. The religious roots of the Civil Rights movement made America a more humane place.
“Freedom's chances coincide with those of the evangelical message,” wrote Jacques Maritain in “Christianity and Democracy.” The project of democracy is nourished by institutions that stand between the individual and the state, institutions that guide both the individual and the state into what Francis Schaeffer referred to as “true truth;” institutions that work to combat the dictatorship of relativism. Apart from the religious truths that hold the state accountable through its citizenry, there is no lasting democracy, but simply majoritarianism. A state unaccountable to its actions is no longer a state, but a god.
The lessons of King and Maritain remind us there is no intelligible hope or sustainable vision for achieving a humane democracy that doesn’t descend into barbarism apart from mediating institutions anchored and motivated by transcendent authority. This means religion and politics.
Few claims are more controversial in American life today than the call to replenish our public life with more religion, not less. But there’s no claim more necessary for reviving our democratic order than the claim that the democratic order is not an end to itself.
Selma should inspire us to commit to what Maritain calls the “common task of heroic renewal.” It is a commitment to vigilantly denounce the latent barbarisms that would tear our democratic order asunder.
I never voted for Barack Obama. I was, however, deeply moved this weekend when I saw President Obama speaking against a backdrop that included the Edmund Pettus Bridge, an icon that symbolizes one of America’s past and ongoing tensions. It was the best of America’s religious character that helped to install President Obama as the Chief Executive of this land—a character worth guarding and perfecting still.
Andrew Walker is Director of Policy Studies at The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and a PhD student in Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Image adapted from Alliance Defending Freedom.