Vinoth Ramachandra

Which Democracy?

Posted on: April 14, 2014

India, the world’s largest democracy, is currently involved in a general election process that will take many weeks to execute. Cynics have often raised the question of what democracy can mean in a country where as much as a quarter of the population cannot read or write and where politics has not only been caste-based but has involved the buying of mass votes by politicians.

Similar questions were asked of me during a recent visit to Thailand. The latter has far better indicators of social welfare than India but a shorter history of democracy. Although never colonized, military rule only ended in the mid-70s (and the military and monarchical establishment continue to exercise a powerful influence on politics). It is salutary to remember that Western European democracies such as Spain, Portugal and Greece were freed from fascist political-military regimes not long before Thailand; and that women in Switzerland were only granted the vote in 1971.

Those in Thailand who vehemently oppose the present government believe it to be manipulated by the corrupt business tycoon and former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who fled Thailand in 2006. Thaksin’s economic policies proved very popular among peasant farmers who constitute the bulk of Thailand’s voting population. Opposition to Thaksin and his supporters come from a coalition of urban upper and middle-class groups whose slogan is “Reform before Elections”. They have used intimidation on the streets and at polling stations to scuttle government institutions. Their argument is that the poor are being duped by rural subsidies that are actually massive scams; and that politics in the country is so corrupt that government should be given over to a representative, but non-elected, group of academics and technocrats who can “clean up” corruption and pave the way for a properly-functioning democracy.

What is fascinating is that the debates recall the nineteenth and early-twentieth century arguments in Europe about the perils of democracy. The most perceptive political thinkers of the time (Mill, Constant, Tocqueville, Gladstone) argued passionately for the extension of political and civic liberties but agonised over the spectre of mass conformity, the downgrading of public tastes and the “tyranny of the majority” that popular government would bring. They devised safeguards against this danger, arguing for electoral and constitutional restraints, including entrenched rights that limited the scope of democratic decision-making while making the most of democracy’s potential for good.

There were, therefore, numerous inconsistencies and contradictions in their political positions, not least when it came to dealing with European colonial and imperial rule. John Stuart Mill, often called the father of modern political liberalism, famously argued that the “barbarous” people of India had to be educated into political liberty by first being subject to British rule. Not surprisingly, he followed his father into the Board of the British East India Company.

There are many illiberal democracies around today. From Putin’s Russia to Museveni in Uganda and Rajapakse in Sri Lanka, despots ground their legitimacy in electoral success. And in Western Europe, we have seen the rise of far-right political parties that have played to familiar themes of scapegoating new immigrants and demonizing minorities.

It is interesting that while the middle-classes of the world resent the populism of politicians who exploit the ignorance of the peasantry, there is little comparable anger at the subversion of democracy by the super-rich. This, after all, is what is crippling American politics. The Tea-Party has not only deeply divided the Republican Party but managed to shut down government in the nation’s capital.

Writing in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville warned that the greatest threat to America’s fledgling democracy lay in the greed of the mercantile class. Gross economic inequalities destroy social solidarity, and subvert democratic participation. Wherever we happen to live in the world, we know that those who have more resources are able to manipulate public policy in their favour at the expense of those with fewer.

At the same time, to pit freedom from want against freedom of thought and speech is to perpetuate a false dichotomy. “If someone takes away your bread”, wrote Albert Camus, “he suppresses your freedom at the same time. But if someone takes away your freedom, you may be sure that your bread is threatened, for it depends no longer on you and your struggle but on the whim of a master.”

Where freedom is not cherished by a significant portion of the citizenry, and where people care more about their own sectional interests than the common good, liberal democracy cannot flourish. Moreover, Tocqueville observed: “Liberty regards religion as its companion in all its battles and its triumphs, as the cradle of its infancy and the divine source of its claims. It considers religion as the safeguard of morality, and morality as the best security of law and the surest pledge of the duration of freedom.”

Therefore Christians engaging in the public sphere should not be defending an abstract “democracy”, but rather the liberal values (which are also Christian values) on which a democracy that respects and safeguards the rights of all people ultimately rests; and then to argue that if such values, embedded in appropriate political institutions, are to take root we have to nurture a public culture that prizes both the love of freedom and voluntary self-restraint for the sake of the common good. Thus, contrary to some understandings of political liberalism, we cannot exclude moral and religious discourse from the public sphere.

15 Responses to "Which Democracy?"

In America for example, what happens when most of the moral and religious discourse comes from the far right? They certainly are not preaching what´s best for every member of society (especially the most vulnerable) nor are they interested in voluntary self-restraint. They seem to practice what is best for the individual and have a voracious appetite for consumption. Are these “values” most consistent with kingdom values? My hope is that more voices can enter the public sphere that truly love freedom, practice self-restraint, and lobby for the common good — in America and all over the world.

Could you elaborate about the ‘liberal values (which are also Christian values) on which a democracy that respects and safeguards the rights of all people ultimately rests’? As a Belgian I see liberalism (liberal humanism, and/or political neo-liberalism -which ironically is what the tea-party reminds me of, except for the religious part-) most often as completely incompatible with Kingdom values.
I know there’s more to liberalism than the incarnations of it around me, but to me it often looks like the etymological root of ‘liber’ in most forms of liberalism I encounter is more like an Orwellian doublespeak…

I echo brambonius plea for elaboration on the identification of liberal values with christian values. this seems like a terrible theological mistake and one untenable after the experiences of the 20th century (and barth’s theological response).

christians after all don’t have ‘values’ they have a story and a set of practices which undermine the whole notions of ‘values’.

I find these questions/comments baffling. Would you both prefer to be living in societies where there is no religious liberty? Or freedom of the media? Or freedom of association? Or where the majority coerced minorities into social conformity? or where governments were not held accountable to its citizens and to human rights norms? I think it pretty obvious that translating the Golden Rule or the mind-set of Matt 5:43-47, for example, into political practice would lead very much in the direction of what we call a “liberal democracy”.

As for Christians “not having values” (!), am I being unChristian if I value the freedoms you both enjoy and want to see them embodied in political institutions around the world? And how does “Barth’s theological response” (presumably to German nationalism) relate to what I have written?

I do think a question similar to the title of your blogpost could be asked: “Which liberalism?’.

I do agree with your list of values, but they are not what I think abou when I think about the people who call themselves ‘liberal’ here in Belgium, like the ‘liberal humanists’ and our liberal party.

I know that very differnt meanings of the word exist, since Americans seem to generally lump liberalism together with socialism, while they couldn’t be more different here in Europe..;

The worst side of our Belgian liberal party is not far from a cross between a non-American antireligious tea party and Richard Dawkins. They seem to be more in favor of freedom from religion (or at least pushed very deep into the porsonal space and out of the public space) than religoous liberty, and they have something about them that. They alse seem to be most concerned with the neoliberal ‘freedom’ to have as much economic darwinism without the government interferin as possible. Another example: Some liberal humanists I’ve talked with are able to turn an emphasis on modern individualism in a call to conformity in a way I don’t even understand.
(another concern could be that generally those people seem to be enlightenment chauvinists who sometimes believe that their view is neutral and all the rest colored and thus inferior.)

I know there is more to liberalism than those things, but that’s what I’ve seen under that label, and without you defining ‘liberal values’ I do think of things extreme neoliberal capitalism and worship of ‘the market’, religion taken out of the public sphere, and Western enlightenment chauvinism, none of which is for me compatible with Christianity.

As for John’s comment, I think we fall in a semantic quicksand again, so, what definition of ‘values’??

All the more reason why Christians should study and recover the historic roots of liberalism. Instead of making knee-jerk reactions to terms like “Enlightenment”, “socialism” and “liberalism”, let’s explore the complexity that underlies them and appreciate what is true before we reject whatever we consider false.

I state towards the end of my post that there some versions of liberalism from which I distance myself. But there are also some versions of Christianity from which I distance myself.

But liberalism and Christianity tell different stories! They have different starting points and different conceptions of ultimate goods. Liberalism’s founding myth is, as Milbank points out, ontological primacy of evil and violence. A threatened individual or piece of property.
‘Liberalism instead begins with a disguised naturalisation of original sin as original egotism: our own egotism which we seek to nurture, and still more the egotism of the other against which we need protection.’
Of course this doesn’t mean that we reject liberalism out of hand. (I wouldn’t want to live in North Korea anymore than I would want to live under Louis XVI) Only that we don’t put all our faith in liberalism to deliver ultimate good. That is why conflate liberal values with Christian values is dangerous.

Barth’s genius wasn’t to be more courageous than his contemporaries but to diagnose the bankruptcy of theological liberalism which produced the response of the majority of the german church to Nazism. If we fail to heed Barth’s warning or follow his example, and conflate liberal values with Christian values, we will have no ground on which to stand in challenging the powers of the day. We will be reduced to shrill and ineffective shouting (see this blog for fine examples) which just amounts to begging for people to ‘play nice’.

instead of recovering liberalism, how about recovering the church as the primary locus of political action. recovering what is might mean that christ was crucified and was raised on the third day.

John, you would do well not to demolish straw men. E.g. where did I ever identify liberalism as a philosophy with Christianity? Or talk of “recovering liberalism”? You would do well to read an article more carefully before you leap to attack.

Why cannot the same moral/political values be embedded in two or more different stories/traditions? Moreover, don’t stories overlap and interweave with each other in history?

You would also do well to develop a healthy scepticism towards those writers who rant against X (in this case, liberalism) while enjoying all the benefits and protections of X.

What are you and the theologians you admire doing beyond the “shrill and ineffective shouting” that you accuse others of? I would love to hear stories of how you and the followers of Millbank are “challenging the powers of the day”.

As for Barth and “theological liberalism”, that a complete red herring isn’t it? Unless you are equating theological liberalism with political liberalism…

Finally, please translate your last sentence for the Christians in India and Thailand. Are they to boycott the elections? Or how should they vote?


I see how I approach certain traditions phenomenologically the way they appear to me in their dysfunctional state (like European neoliberalism and ‘liberal humanism’ being my point of reference for the word ‘liberalism’) while for others I do have a more idealistic approach and ideas about how they should be even if they appear to me in a less than ideal state (Christianity here in this case, or even socialism). It might be a double standard, or just something that distinguishes the traditions of which I know ‘the heart’ and feel some connection to it, from those from which I don’t. Maybe I should read more about the roots of liberalism.
(Do you have a tip for a book on political liberalism that’s not too focussed on one place -Europe, US-, nor too extremely heavy scholarly? )

I realise that, even for a sceptical postmodern, there are foundations of more basic forms of liberalism and enlightenment thought that have formed me, and that I couldn’t be without just as the fish can’t see the water nor imagine how a world without it would be. But the more extreme excesses (that sometimes go contrary to their roots) are what I see, and what I can’t help but reject, and it’s easily then to slip into a mode of seemingly rejecting all of liberalism without noticing that the modern religious freedom (that I would want to recover from people who call themselves liberal) does have the roots of liberalism itself. It’s the way classical humanism was founded upon man conquering nature, and contempory people calling themselves humanists while propagating a ‘no free will’-neurocalivinism which is nothing but the ultimate conquest of man by nature. Even without older historiical streams, what should I use the word ‘humanism’ for then?

It’s not easy when one tradition has layers and brachnes that are opposite to each other. It’s already difficult with Christianity, let alone liberalism or the enlightenment.

1) Where do I identify liberalism as a philosophy with Christianity? Answer – when you say that liberal values are the same as Christian values.
2) Where do you talk of recovering liberalism? Answer to Brambonius – “All the more reason why Christians should study and recover the historic roots of liberalism”
3) The problem with the language of ‘values’ is that is assumes that one can extract truths from specific histories and traditions and transfer them without remainder to other situations. It is a de-historicizes and de-particularizes traditions in search of universal truths which can then be employed in the type of abstract discourse that liberalism represents. In short it is an enlightenment strategy – universalizing and domesticating, making unwieldy dangerous narratives into safe understandable tools. Ultimately to talk of ‘values’ denies the incarnation. Jesus was a Jew not the teacher of abstract golden rules.
4) Your advocacy of skepticism is completely unwarranted and betrays a covert racism which you so often exhibit in the comments section of this blog. Just because someone is from the west and is relatively wealthy, does that justify an automatic hermeneutic of suspicion? Because you are brown and poor, should I assume that you enjoy playing the victim? Of course not!
5) Until you justify what you are doing, I fail to see why anybody else should justify themselves. This is ad hominem attack substituting for argument. (Although should you care to know Milbank has been a crucial player in the setting up of Respublica, an influential think tank advocating a new politics in the UK)
6) I am absolutely saying that there is a causal link between political liberalism and theological liberalism. There is an obvious link between say, Schleiermacher and Kant’s project.
7) Finally, I would not presume to advise Christians in India or Thailand what to do. Except to say that liberal democracy is not the Kingdom of God and that going to church and taking the eucharist is just as ‘political’ an act as casting a vote in the elections. Does that mean we don’t engage in democratic party politics? Of course not! We just don’t baptize liberal democracy. Rather we understand the church as an alternative school of virtue embodying an alternative political vision.

John (whoever you are):


Calling people “racist” when you run out of arguments? The chip on your shoulder sticks out a mile!

It seems that all your “going to church and taking the eucharist” has not taught you an ounce of civility. Says a lot for the kind of political action you must favour.

Your verbose posts are full of straw-men (I agree with Vinoth); evasions; name-dropping (now its Schleirmacher and Kant); vicious personalisms; and shallow theologizing – but stated so dogmatically.

I would rather remain a liberal than a Christian of your stripe.


I’m afraid I don’t know any popular accounts. You have to read serious scholarly works. Here are some places to begin:

1. Chs. 6 & 7 of Oliver O’Donovan’s The Desire of Nations
2. Nocholas Wolterstorff, Understanding Liberal Democracy
3. Jeremy Waldron, God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations in Locke’s Political Thought

Vinoth, I am a campus minister in Canada serving many international students from Hong Kong. I wonder if you would comment on the ongoing pro-democratic occupy movement in Hong Kong in the near future. Since the movement is spearheaded by students, many have asked me how would a Christian witness look like at a time like this. I told them our faith teach us to support the voice for universal suffrage so that the voice of the disenfranchised can be heard, particularly the one million residents who still live under the poverty line. But as the movement unfolds, there are fierce civic debates on the issue of civil disobedience and the rule of law, which is an essential ingredient to liberal democracy. Therefore, even though my initial conviction still stand, but I am getting more muddied how Christians should relate to the movement. Please advise.

David, there are many Christian students and graduates of FES-Hong Kong who have given leadership to these protests. See (This article pointed to the key role of several Christian leaders in the protest movement).

Many write about Joshua Wong, who is said to be a Christian: at age 15 he led the successful protests against Beijing’s plans for patriotic education in HK schools, and at age 17 he’s a leader in the current protests. See: Hong Kong student protest leader Joshua Wong

[…] democracy, it can be easy to take for granted or disregard democracy’s value and benefits. Vinoth Ramachandra has argued that: ‘Christians engaging in the public sphere should not be defending an […]

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April 2014
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