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Weekly Blog - 12 June 2023 - Democracy Undermined

 

Democracy undermined

Worrying actions that threaten to undermine democracy have been taken by former leaders on both sides of the Atlantic in the past week.  On Friday 10 June, former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson stepped down as an MP.  He resigned after seeing an advanced copy of a forthcoming report by the parliamentary Privileges Committee into whether he broke lockdown rules and misled parliament about it during the Covid-19 crisis.  The report is widely expected to conclude that there was indeed substantial rule breaking and deliberate misleading of parliament and to call for a temporary ban in Boris Johnson sitting in parliament.  In his open resignation letter Mr Johnson called the committee a ‘kangaroo court’, and made allegations without evidence of a ‘witch hunt’ against him, including by many members of his own party.[1]  Meanwhile former US president Donald Trump appeared in a Miami court on Tuesday 13 June, accused of illegally taking boxes full of sensitive documents when he left the Whitehouse, including details of the US nuclear programme, and lying to officials when they tried to recover them.  Mr Trump becomes the first former US president to be charged with a federal crime.  He has pleaded not guilty and made various allegations that the trial is politically motivated with no evidence, despite the Justice Department operating independently from the Whitehouse.[2]

Both men have form in making unsubstantiated allegations and claims with no evidence against legitimate democratic and national institutions.  In Donald Trump’s case, most famously the former president refused to accept that he lost the 2020 election, and repeated baseless claims of election fraud, offering no evidence and despite multiple independent investigations and reports by election monitors.  Even today, some 60% of Republicans continue to believe the 2020 election was fraudulently stolen, despite no evidence whatsoever.  Ultimately, this led to his supporters storming the US capitol on 6 January 2021.  In Mr Johnson’s case, there is a long track record of repeated lying over multiple issues.  Ultimately this behaviour, including misleading the public over the details of parties at No 10 during Covid lockdowns, led to the mass resignation of much of his cabinet, and his own fall from power in September 2022.

 

It’s about the behaviour, not the policies

These issues often become incredibly divisive incredibly quickly.  We default into camps and political tribes that believe our ‘man’ is innocent and the other side is evil, no matter what the truth, facts and evidence might be.  But, crucially this is not about sides, nor about the policies Donal Trump or Boris Johnson advocate.  People will take different views on them, but if they are legitimately pursued through a legitimate democratic system that is acceptable.  It’s not about their policies, it’s the behaviour that undermines legitimate democratic institutions that is the problem, and would be the problem with any politician from any political background.  Calling a legitimate, independent parliamentary committee carrying out a legitimate enquiry a ‘kangaroo court’, without any evidence to back up that claim, dangerously undermines a legitimate democratic institution, as does deliberately misleading parliament and the public.  Similarly, repeatedly saying the legitimate result of a legitimate election is false, without a shred of evidence, or not accepting the legitimacy of an independent criminal investigation and court case does the same in the US.  Repeating these messages and encouraging others to believe them with no evidence risks seriously undermining crucial legitimate democratic institutions that protect all our freedoms.

 

A worrying trend

The events on both sides of the Atlantic in the last week are the latest examples in a worrying trend.  In the US, President Trump’s time in the Whitehouse from 2017 – 2021 was marked by repeated undermining of previously established democratic norms, ultimately culminating in the January 2021 storming of the capitol.  In the UK, the government has passed the Lobby Act and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, and is currently taking the National Security Bill through parliament, all of which significantly restrict fundamental freedoms of protestors and civil society groups to free speech and demonstration.  In Brazil this past January, thousands of supporters of the right-wing popularist former president Jair Bolsonaro stormed and vandalised the congress, supreme court and presidential palace.  Like former president Trump in the US before him, Bolsonaro also avoided accepting that he lost the recent October 2022 election, and used social media to stir up his supporters and promote baseless claims that the election was fraudulent.  In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s Young Democrats – Hungarian Civic Union (Fidesz) has systematically undermined the democratic institutions of the country since coming to power in 2010.  It has passed laws which have given the government more control over independent institutions of the state, including the judiciary, and that severely limit the freedoms and free speech of opposition parties, universities, the media, NGOs and civil society.  Similar events have occurred in many other long-standing democracies in recent years.

 

The importance of democracy

A major report from Arise, The Arise Manifesto, looks in detail at what standards for democracy, human rights and good governance countries should have.  As Christians, we read in the Bible how God wants all governments, everywhere, to rule well, with justice, fairness, impartiality and integrity (The Arise Manifesto, pg 79 – 85).  As Jeremiah the prophet said, “Hear the word of the LORD to you, king of Judah, you who sits on David’s throne – you, your officials and your people who come through these gates.  This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right.  Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed.  Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.” (Jer 2: 2 – 3)  In our modern world, democracy has been one of the most effective ways of making sure this Biblical principle is put into practice.  Democracies have a much better track record of governing well and effectively with justice, and good standards of human rights, civil liberties and basic freedoms than autocratic states do (The Arise Manifesto, pg 102 – 108).  As Christians we also know that the Bible teaches us to be people of truth, as Paul says “each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbour” (Eph 4: 25) (Arise Manifesto, pg 53). 

Therefore as Christians we should do all we can to stand for truth, based on evidence, facts, objectivity and impartiality.  We should defend it and stand by it, refuting and exposing baseless claims without evidence that are being propagated to manipulate, deceive and whip up popular support.  We should all also do all we can to support and defend the legitimate democratic institutions and the checks and balances on power that keep societies free, democratic, and good respecters of human rights.  For many of us fortunate enough to live in broadly free democratic countries, it is all too easy to see each of these incidents as minor.  It is all too easy to think the gradual loss of democracy ‘could never happen here’.  But the events of recent years offer us a powerful warning, as should the lessons of other countries like Russia which has descended from a relatively free democratic system in the 1990s after it emerged from Communism, to the current state of extreme autocratic repression under Putin.  These facts should remind us that democracy and human rights can never be taken for granted (even in the most historically democratic and free countries).  They must always be protected and strived for.  Supporting bottom up Reform Movements, that have historically been the best way of gaining and maintaining democracy in countries all around the world, is one of three key focus campaigns for Arise.

Political leaders from all sides in democratic countries must end their criticising and undermining of legitimate democratic institutions.  Democracy is too important and precious to throw away.  It has served the world well.  All of us at every level: politicians, civil servants, public figures, the media, community leaders, churches, individual Christians, and every citizen, should use our actions, our public voice and our votes to protect and strengthen democracy.  We will miss it sorely once it is gone. 

 

Find out more

Find out more about how God is at work in the world, and the role we all have to play in that work, in the Arise Manifesto.  This report is Arise’s big picture, researched, Biblical, holistic and practical vision for a better world.  It looks at what the Bible says, and what we can learn from the best data and the world’s leading experts on the five major areas of evangelism, discipleship, social justice, development and the environment.  It then draws these lessons together into a practical road map for the changes we need to see in our world, which the Arise movement campaigns to achieve.

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[1] Boris Johnson steps down as MP, Sky News, (10 Jun 2023), https://news.sky.com/story/boris-johnson-steps-down-as-mp-former-prime-ministers-statement-in-full-12899717

[2] Donald Trump pleads not guilty in Miami court over classified documents case, Sky News, (13 Jun 2023), https://news.sky.com/story/donald-trump-pleads-not-guilty-in-miami-court-over-classified-documents-case-12901944​​​​​​

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