Christians have a problem with democracy – or, if they don’t, they should. As we explored last week, the justification for political power in western Europe from the middle of the first millennium onwards was based on the king’s faithfulness to the idea of justice as articulated and defined by careful theological reflection on the biblical witness. Only by securing peace, administering justice, protecting the poor and weak, and so on, was a king truly made king.
This could set onerous demands on kingship (even if they remained largely in the realm of theory rather than reality) but perhaps paradoxically it also stood in the way of democratic progress. Put simply, if there was a right way and wrong way to govern, how could you risk allowing the people to choose the wrong way?
It was this mentality that underpinned ecclesiastical, particularly episcopal, opposition to political reform. Although they said comparatively little about the (1832) Great Reform Act at the time, 21 bishops voted against the bill initially and only two supported it. Furious crowds demanding disestablishment, attacking bishops’ palaces and overturning their coaches helped to change their minds – but only a bit. At the second reading the following year, the bishops were more vocal but also more divided, 12 voting for the bill and 15 against it. Those Christians had a big problem with democracy.