Does democracy require morality?

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Does democracy require morality? An excerpt from “Respectfully, I Disagree”

August 23, 2023 -

A lone hand waves an American flag in front of a clouds at sunset. © By nicoletaionescu/ What role does morality play in a democracy?

A lone hand waves an American flag in front of a clouds at sunset. © By nicoletaionescu/ What role does morality play in a democracy?

A lone hand waves an American flag in front of a clouds at sunset. © By nicoletaionescu/ What role does morality play in a democracy?

The following excerpt is from Chapter 1: “How Did We Get Here?” in Respectfully, I Disagree: How to Be a Civil Person in an Uncivil Time by Dr. Jim Denison.

We have seen that our culture is uncivil and unbiblical on a wide spectrum of moral and biblical issues. We have diagnosed our spiritual problem as transactional religion that separates Sunday from Monday and God from the “real world.”

Now let’s ask why our discussion matters. What difference does our moral and cultural trajectory really make? What’s at stake? Why is civility in our uncivil day so urgent?

Plato, one of the greatest minds in human history, was convinced that a democracy could not last. The people could be swayed too easily by public speakers, he warned. And once the people discovered that they could vote based on their personal interests rather than the good of the nation, their democracy would begin to fail.

“Religion and morality are indispensable supports”

In a democracy, we do not seek to legislate morality. But did the founders of our nation believe that morality was essential to their democratic experiment?

In his farewell address on September 19, 1796, President George Washington told the nation:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

John Adams, our second president, wrote reflections in his diary that are especially relevant to a book on civility:

Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law-book and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited! Every member would be obliged, in conscience, to temperance and frugality and industry; to justice and kindness and charity towards his fellow men; and to piety, love, and reverence, towards Almighty God. In this commonwealth, no man would impair his health by gluttony, drunkenness, or lust; no man would sacrifice his most precious time to cards or any other trifling and mean amusement; no man would steal, or lie, or in any way defraud his neighbor, but would live in peace and good will with all men; no man would blaspheme his Maker or profane his worship; but a rational and manly, a sincere and unaffected piety and devotion would reign in all hearts. What a Utopia; what a Paradise would this region be!

And he warned: “We have no government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by morality and Religion. Avarice, Ambition and Revenge or Galantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

The Founders knew that democracy requires morality, a basic insistence on character and integrity by the culture. Returning to such a conviction is essential to our survival and future as a nation.

How do we build character?

What steps can we take toward the kind of moral renewal which is essential to our democracy?

First, believe in absolute truth and objective morality.

To claim there is no absolute truth is to make an absolute truth claim. We accept relativism when it is convenient. By this standard, the Holocaust was just “Hitler’s truth.” Either the Bible is God’s word, or it is not. Either Jesus is God’s Son, or he is not. What is his standard for us?

Second, choose to live biblically.

How does Scripture call us to relate to others?

You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, “You fool!” will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:21–24)

What about sexual sin?

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (vv. 27–28)

What about those who do evil to you?

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you (vv. 38–42).

What about our enemies?

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (vv. 43–48).

Third, seek the help of God’s Spirit.

We cannot fulfill our Father’s purpose without his power. That’s why his word calls us to “be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). The text could be translated literally, “Keep on being controlled by the Spirit.”

As we will see in chapter three, this is a vital and transforming way of life.


Paul C. Vitz (Ph.D., Stanford University) published these words nearly thirty years ago:

One of the major characteristics of moral decline in the United States in recent decades has been the rapid growth of moral relativism. The idea is now widespread that each individual has some kind of a sovereign right to create, develop, and express whatever values he or she happens to prefer. . . . Hard work, self-reliance, self-control, the delaying of gratification, sexual restraint, an active concern for democracy and patriotism have all fallen on hard times. Unfortunately, America has now reached the point where it permits almost everything and stands for almost nothing—except a flabby relativism.

How much truer is his assessment today?

We are living in a society that desperately needs the example of civility.

To read more, request your ebook or physical copy of Respectfully, I Disagree: How to Be a Civil Person in an Uncivil Time by Dr. Jim Denison.

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