Stewarding Democracy

For his retirement, my grandfather decided to purchase and cultivate thirty-plus acres of land, located in an unincorporated community of the northern Puget Sound, that otherwise would have gone neglected. Grandpa’s farm became not just a place for growing crops. It was a place for growing relationships through hosting events such as church outings or family reunions. It was a place where one could appreciate the wonder of the natural world without experiencing the modern divorce of beauty from utility.

Us grandkids had the privilege to join in and observe his retirement project. While my grandfather took good care of the land, his true passion (and secret to his success) seemed to be in taking care of the equipment. Although rain in the Pacific Northwest fell gently, neglected tools were still vulnerable to rust and rot. Such dilapidation was common at the nearby auction yards where my grandfather would acquire imperfect equipment at the perfect price. Repair was possible if given the proper care and attention.

Why Democracy Matters

The lesson I learned from my grandfather, that one must take care of the tools in order to take care of the land, also applies to more abstract environmental challenges.

As a member of the Steering Committee for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action (Y.E.C.A.), I am part of a team reflecting on how we as Christians should respond to the particular challenge of climate change. At least one thing is clear: to address a collective problem like climate change, collective action is necessary. While individuals can take personal action to minimize their carbon footprint, ultimately what we need is for everyone to change their behavior. For that to happen we need the economic systems—those in which we purchase, sell, move, remain, live, dream, and decide—to be reimagined and transformed.

In the United States, securing such collective action requires democratic participation. Opposed to more authoritative, top-down methods of securing climate action, democracy guarantees that the burdens (and opportunities) associated with addressing climate change will be distributed fairly. Democracy is our best chance to make sure collective action on climate represents not merely a technical victory, but an actual moral victory.

But as promising as democracy is, similar to the equipment on my grandfather’s farm, in order for it to be useful, our democracy has to be taken care of.

The Assault of Consumerism

Many of us feel this presidential election cycle has been a spectacular mess. Personally, I have been led to wonder if our democracy has fallen prey to the same phenomenon responsible for so much environmental degradation: consumerism.

Consumerism is the worldview that values God's creation only through acquisition and consumption. Simultaneously ideological and pathological, consumerism blinds us to the hard work that sustains creation, while also making us complacent about that which pollutes creation.

Given the right perspective, we can see the symptoms of consumerism infecting our democracy:

  • We are told to be “informed voters”, which often means we choose our elected officials based off of television advertisements, celebrity endorsements, or media reviews.
  • Political parties resemble free markets where an entrepreneurial candidate can easily disrupt the entire primary process simply by appealing to some previously untapped sentiment held by the electorate.
  • When running for office politicians must contort themselves into brands, so that we can know them through their campaign logos, slogans, and merchandise (and, don’t forget, the breakout star of this election cycle was a brand long before he was a politician).
  • Our political imaginations are limited so that often the only method of democratic engagement we can name is voting. Perhaps this is because ballots resemble order forms: convenient pieces of paper on which we mark what we want and then expect to receive.

Within the community of faith-based climate activists and “creation care” practitioners, a major rallying point is the idea of stewardship. Stewardship is the antidote to the poison of consumerism. We figure that because the Bible says that God has entrusted his creation to us mere humans, we ought to take care of it appropriately. Taken a step further: if our democracy can be considered a tool for stewarding God’s creation, then we need to steward our democracy.

Steps Toward Stewarding Democracy

How might we steward our democracy? What follows is my attempt at imagining a four-stage cycle of stewarding democracy. It is a cycle because as long as decay and entropy is possible, stewardship is a constant process. The endless nature of stewardship should not be taken as an excuse to despair, but rather as an invitation to jump in at whatever stage one feels most equipped to do so.

Cultivating Relationships: Theologian Marcia Pally laments that today, “we’re hurting from excessive separability”. To give democracy a solid foundation, we need to develop relationships with fellow citizens. This includes those who we fundamentally disagree with (and who the only thing we have in common might be being created in the image of God). Furthermore, we should attempt to reach out to our elected officials and their representatives, lest we perpetuate the myth of a distant governing elite by letting them remain distant. 

Relationships, in turn, become appropriate spaces to express convictions.

Expressing Convictions: Convictions are the part of a person’s identity that go deeper than mere opinions. Counter-intuitively, people are not willing to give up their opinions because they do not want the embarrassment of being wrong, whereas people are willing to compromise on their convictions because they want success in whatever amount they can get it. As the late Senator Mark Hatfield wrote in the preface to his book Conflict and Conscience, “An unabashed candor about our deepest convictions will be respected if we convey them in an authentic spirit of humility and explicate them by the tested quality of our lives.” In other words, we can steward our voices to be genuine, through expressing our convictions with clarity and confidence while remaining humble and open-minded.

Convictions, in turn, become the fuel for making sacrifices.

Making Sacrifices: To make a sacrifice is to give something up, not because one expects anything in return, but because one believes in something greater than oneself. Of course we can sacrifice our time and our energy, perhaps by getting involved in an issue campaign or attending candidate town hall meetings. We can also sacrifice status and reputation. For example, we can make a sacrifice for a better ballot by participating in party politics and identifying with people we probably disagree with in some way, even those who are likely to embarrass us from time to time (as a self-proclaimed independent moderate, I find this idea particularly convicting). Another more extreme example of this sort of sacrifice would have been when Al Gore chose to concede the contested 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush. Gore arguably had a path to victory remaining, perhaps through the Electoral Count Act of 1887, but the ambiguity of doing so would have almost certainly damaged our democracy. Instead, Gore of course went on to become an accomplished climate activist, using the democracy that he left intact as part of his platform for doing so.

Sacrifices, in turn, are received and respected with processes.

Following Processes: The rules and institutions of democracy are rather abstract. Thus, effective democratic engagement requires rituals and traditions. Even if we think our cause is just and urgent, we need to reject the temptation of taking shortcuts and subject ourselves to the processes of democracy—otherwise we blaze a trail that the so-called “bad guys” can follow. Not all processes, of course, are just: we need to reject those processes that are simply means by which one group dominates over another. Our democracy shrinks anytime there is a reduction in the number of people who can determine for themselves how they are governed. Note how frustrated Martin Luther King Jr. was with those who were procrastinating under the guise of process in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The rituals of civil disobedience are perhaps some of the most brilliant forms of democratic processes available to us, brilliant because they demand the sort of moral courage that no true bad guy can sustain for long.

Processes, in turn, gives us as framework within which we can develop relationships.

A Movement to Renew Democracy

To be clear, the “Kingdom of God” and “American democracy” are not the same. The Kingdom of God represents the perfect rule of the Creator, whereas American democracy is an example of humanity’s imperfect exercise of the freedom granted us by our Creator.

However, just as Christ washed the feet of the disciples and ate with sinners, so too does the Kingdom of God walk alongside American democracy (and, ultimately, all forms of human government). As Christians, we recognize that the Holy Spirit implicates us in God’s redemptive mission. If we perceive that the Kingdom of God is working to renew American democracy, we have a choice: we can either futilely resist, or we can join in. In today’s political imbroglio, I believe that “joining in” is going to take the form of stewarding our democracy.

This election cycle, I am adopting the attitude that our democracy is not something to be controlled but rather to be cared for. To care for democracy requires the commitment to make repairs where our democracy has been damaged. Accordingly, such a commitment requires a belief that might sound paradoxical, but nevertheless is as possible as my grandfather’s farm: the belief that our democracy can be something more than simply useful. It can also be beautiful.

Kaleb Nyquist is a graduate student at The University of Chicago, seeking a joint Masters of Divinity/Masters of Public Policy degree. Since 2012, he has served as the part-time Director of Student Ministries at Ravenswood Evangelical Covenant Church and as a member of the Steering Committee for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action (Y.E.C.A.). He currently is chairing Y.E.C.A.’s campaign to engage young evangelicals during the 2016 Election season.