Democracy and Religious Values

The Inter-Faith Conference on Democracy

Published 17 November 1993

The following is a transcript of a lecture delivered by Rabbi Sacks to the Inter-Faith Conference on Democracy, held in Westminster Abbey on 17th November 1993.

As religion once again becomes a power in the contemporary world – often allied with ethnicity and nationalism – it becomes important to re-examine the relationship between democracy and religious belief. The connection is far from obvious. To a religious believer, democracy can look as if it locates authority in the wrong place: with fallible mankind instead of infallible God. It involves compromise. It is built around the wrong kind of freedom: ‘freedom from’ rather than ‘freedom to’. So at least, it can be argued. Religion has not always been democracy’s friend. At times it can be its implacable enemy.

None the less, it was from the Hebrew Bible that the great architects of British and American democracy drew their inspiration. The ethical arguments for democratic government carried force precisely because they were based on biblical principles and values. Those principles now need restating.

But I begin from the opposite direction, because the strength of a religious argument for democracy depends on the honesty with which we are able to confront the contrary case. The religious argument against democracy is this. Democracy, or rule by the people, is directly opposed to theocracy or rule by God. We owe our western political traditions not to the Hebrew Bible, but to the Greek city states of the fifth century BCE. The Bible by contrast sets out its ideal political system in terms of monarchy, the king anointed by the prophet as the representative of God.

Religion and democracy represent two conflicting visions of the social order, and this can be seen by their respective answers to a set of ultimate questions. Is authority vested in God or in humanity? Do we owe obedience to a higher will or to the collective determination of the human will? Is the ideal society one in which a single vision prevails of the common good, or is it one in which plural visions co-exist and compete for our allegiance? Democracy tends to emerge from secularisation; while ecclesiastical power has historically been associated with authoritarian regimes.

There is enough truth in this argument to make us cautious about too easy an identification between ancient faiths and contemporary political structures. None the less there is a route to be charted from biblical prin­ciples to democratic government. Democracy is not prescribed in the Bible, nor is it an end in itself. But it is the best means currently available for protecting the values at the heart of a biblical vision of society.

Political Structures as Means, not Ends

Our most important starting point is the realisation that neither the Hebrew Bible nor the rabbinic tradition idealise any specific political order. Judaism has known rule by magistrates, judges, elders, kings, patriarchs, exilarchs and community leaders of all kinds. Jews have experienced the complete spectrum of political power, from national sovereignty to local autonomy to voluntary association. They have constructed political systems ranging from monarchy to oligarchy to representative democracy. That same variety is evident today as we survey the Jewish world from the sovereign State of Israel to the highly variegated governance of diaspora communities.

This calls for explanation. The Hebrew Bible is intensely concerned with the political domain. A large part of it is devoted to what we might call political history. Jewish law covers the spectrum of social, economic and environmental concerns. Why then does it not articulate an ideal form of government? The answer surely is this. Systems of government do not for a proper subject of revelation. Revelation is concerned with spiritual and moral truth, with principles that apply at all places and times. Political structures are not of this kind. They are means, not ends. A form of government appropriate in one context may be inappropriate in another. A tribal society is different from a unified kingdom. A sovereign state is different from a scattered diaspora. Systems of government meet specific needs, and those needs change from age to age. Democracy itself is not that same phenomenon in the small Greek city state of antiquity and in the large European nations of today. Revelation contains a set of principles against which any particular political order can be tested. But it is not a timeless formula for constructing governments.

Nowhere is this conveyed more dramatically than in the sequence of events in chapters 18-20 of the book of Exodus. In Exodus 19-20 we read of the great revelation at Mount Sinai. The Israelites are convened as a people and they hear, directly from God, the core of their constitution, the Ten Commandments. Immediately prior to this, however, they institute their first system of governance. This does not come directly from God, but from Moses’ father-in-law, the Midianite Priest Jethro, who advises Moses to appoint a hierarchy of officials – leaders of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens- who will judge and apply the law. The principles are established of delegation and subsidiarity.

The contrast is clear. Israel receives its constitution from God, but it learns its system of government from the experience of other people. In other respects, the Bible lays down a code of difference for the people of the covenant. They are to be a holy people, which is to say, separate, distinct, set apart. Thesoleexception is government. Even monarchy, one of the few political structures to be divinely commanded, is described in Deuteronomy and the book of Samuel as an imitative gesture, something Israel will seek in order to be ‘like the nations’ around them.

From this we can draw a fundamental conclusion. All attempts to confer transcendental justification on a particular system of government- be it the Divine Right of Kings or the Thousand Year Reich or the Communist utopia – is at best mistaken, at worst a form of idolatry. Revelation is eternal. Politics is not.

The Primacy of the Individual

Religion does not uniquely specify an ideal form of government. Instead it provides us with a set of values or principles against which a system can be judged. What are they?

The first is the epic statement of the opening chapter of the Bible, that the human individual is created ‘in the image of God’. This is a religious and ethical proposition. But it is also a political one. The person is prior to the collectivity. The starting point of political theory must lie in the rights, freedom and dignity of the individual, not in those of the State. It is this that forms the biblical basis of modern political theory, and an eternal protest against totalitarianism.

To this must be added two other propositions. The idea that humanity is created in the image of God is a subtle one, because central to the Hebrew Bible is the idea that God has no image. His very name, God tells Moses, is ehyeh asher ehyeh, ‘l will be who I will be’. God is Being in its infinite, open­ ended unpredictability. What is divine about humanity is its diversity, not its uniformity. The rabbis of the Mishnah put it simply. They said: when coins are minted in a single mould, they are all alike. But when people are created in the image of God they are all different. What they hold in common is simply their infinite value, from which the rabbis derived the rule that one who saves a single life is as if he had saved an entire universe.

But the individual is not self-sufficient. Each of us lacks some gift that someone else has. The Bible presents this proposition in an arresting way. The first chapter of Genesis describes the stages of creation, each ending with the phrase ‘and God saw that it was good. There is one thing which God declares not to be good: ‘It is not good for man to be alone.’To achieve anything we must form associations, and this gives rise to the political process. The great twelfth-century Jewish thinker, Moses Maimonides, puts it thus:

It has already been fully explained that man is naturally a social being, that by virtue of his nature he seeks to form communities; man is therefore different from other living beings that are not compelled to combine into communities. He is, as you know, the highest form in creation, and he therefore includes the largest number of constituent elements; this is the reason why the human race contains such a great variety of individuals, that we cannot discover two persons exactly alike in any moral quality, or in external appearance … This great variety and the necessity of social life are essential elements in man’s nature. But the well-being of society demands that there should be a leader able to regulate the actions of man; he must complete every shortcoming, remove every excess, and prescribe for the conduct of all, so that the natural variety should be counterbalanced by the uniformity of legislation, and the order of society be well established. I therefore maintain that the Law, though not a product of nature, is nonetheless not entirely foreign to nature. (The Guide for the Perplexed, 2:40)

People are different, but they must be able to form societies. This requires l.1ws, and hence a legislator, and therefore a source of legislative authority. Humanity needs political structures.


The key word underlying such structures in the Bible is brit, ‘covenant’, and it is this which gives Judaic politics its distinctive character. The idea of covenant presupposes that all parties to a political order have independent integrity, that associations are formed on the basis of reciprocal under­ takings, and that they are freely assented to by all their members. Daniel Elazar describes covenant as a contract ‘usually meant to be perpetual between parties having independent but not necessarily equal status, that provides for joint action or obligation to achieve defined ends … under conditions of mutual respect, in such a way as to protect the integrity of all parties involved.’

Crucial to the idea of covenant is consent, and this remains so even when one of the parties is God Himself. Prior and subsequent to the great covenant at Sinai, Moses assembles the people, who signal their willingness to be bound by its terms (Exodus 9:8; Ex. 2.4:3, Ex. 7). National assemblies are convened subsequently to ratify the covenant at critical moments of change, as in the days of Joshua or Ezra (Joshua 24; Nehemiah 8-10). Similar assemblies are gathered to institute the monarchy (I Samuel 8) and to confirm the transfer of kingship to David (n Samuel 5:3).

The idea of the consent of the governed is central to the defence of liberty. Hobbes and Locke, for example, took the biblical concept of covenant as the starting point of their political theory. For the Hebrew Bible itself, covenant is rooted in a vision of the human being as a moral agent for whom freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. God and man are linked in a shared enterprise. They are, as the rabbis put it, ‘partners in the work of creation’. Axiomatic to the Hebrew Bible, therefore, is the idea that God never acts to restrict human freedom. As Moses Maimonides explained, though God may miraculously change the course of nature, He never changes human nature. To do so would vitiate the entire purpose of the law, which is predicated on free human choice. When a fourth-century rabbi hypothesised that the Israelites in the wilderness may have had no choice but to accept the covenant, a rabbinical colleague immediately countered that this would constitute a fundamental flaw to its authority since obli­gations cannot be binding if accepted under duress. Even the moral author­ity of a Divine covenant ultimately rests on its initial free acceptance.

The Limits of Power

Covenant itself, though, is set within a wider context: the supremacy of morality. Justice constitutes a limit on all power, even that of God. This gives rise to the momentous dialogue between God and humanity in the form of the great challenges of Moses, Jeremiah and Job, reaching a cres­cendo in Abraham’s question: ‘Shall the judge of all the earth not do justly?’ According to the Bible, therefore, no authority is absolute, even if initially endorsed by the people’s will. David is wrong to arrange for the death of Uriah. Ahab is wrong to seize Naboth’s vineyard. Governmental authority is circumscribed by the moral law. Accordingly rabbinic law recognises in extremis the duty to disobey illegal or immoral orders, a principle already foreshadowed in the biblical account of the Hebrew midwives who refused to carry out Pharaoh’s decree that male Israelites be drowned at birth. How, though, is justice to be secured against the inevitable corruptions of power? Crucial to biblical politics is the division of leadership into three domains, those of the King, the Priest and the Prophet. They were later called by the rabbis the three crowns: of government (Keter malchut), priesthood (Keter kehunah) and Jewish law and moral teaching (Keter Torah). This separation of powers, later developed and modified by Montesquieu, seems to have been a consistent feature of Jewish political organisation at most times. It does not correspond to a division between secular and spiritual authority, since each domain drew its ultimate mandate from God and was bound by the Divine law. Rather, it represents three different aspects of the life of society, the king embodying its civic and political governance, the priesthood its organised worship, and the prophet or sage its commitment to the eternal principles of the Divine law as translated into daily life.

  • There were and are constant struggles between these domains, but attempts to combine them in a single person or institution were resisted. This was the criticism levelled by the Sages against the later Hasmonean kings, who combined monarchy and priesthood. The independent voice of the prophet was particularly important in guarding against the temptations of power. It served as a continual reminder that power must be tempered by justice, and that all authority is constrained by the sovereignty of God.
  • These principles did not entail democracy in the modern sense of the word, but they did contain the seeds from which it could evolve. The Bible, as well as containing a mandate for monarchy, includes a sustained prophetic critique, never surpassed, of the ways in which governmental power can be abused. This led the great fifteenth-century Jewish scholar and diplomat, Don Isaac Abarbanel, to review the whole Judaic political tradition and conclude that monarchy was not so much commanded by the Bible as temporarily conceded. It was, he says, one of those concessions the Bible makes to the shortcomings of human nature and is not in any way to be regarded as an ideal form of government.

Abarbanel’s remarks, written five hundred years ago, are still of interest. The arguments for monarchy in his day were that the concentration of authority in a single individual made for unity, continuity and absolute power. The king stood in the same relationship to the people as the heart to the body, or as God to the universe. Abarbanel dismisses this argument in the following words:

[As to unity,] it is not at all impossible for a people to have many leaders conducting the state and its laws in unison and concurrence. [As to continuity,] I know of no reason why their leadership should not be temporary, changing from year to year, or at other intervals, and thus making their actions subject to control and, if need be, to the punishment of those who follow them in office. [As to the benefit of absolute power,] I do not see any reason why their power should not be limited and regulated according to established laws and customs. Common sense dictates that one man in the position of a monarch is more likely to do wrong than many people acting together. For if any one of them is inclined to commit a crime, his colleagues will prevent him from doing so, knowing very well that all of them will be called into account after a short while and will be subject to the punishment meted out by their followers and to public disgrace. (Commentary to Deuteronomy 17:14)

The case for democracy could hardly be put better.

Perhaps the greatest testimony to the power of the democratic idea in Judaism is the fact that the modem State of Israel was from the beginning and remains a vigorous democracy, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of its population come from countries in which democratic govern­ment was unknown. Of few other states created since the Second World War can this be said.

Religion and Democracy

The Judaic tradition thus suggests a distinctive approach to questions often posed about religion and democracy. Is there not a conflict between religious and democratic concepts of authority? From a Judaic perspective, this question is based on a fallacy. There is a sharp distinction between matters of right and wrong, which for the biblical monotheisms are the subject of revelation, and matters such as defence, the economy and the preservation of order, which are the domain of politics or the ‘crown of government’ (keter malchut). Judaism has always seen authoritarianism in this second sphere as an assault on the essential dignity of the individual. Government is a partnership between those who govern and those who are governed. That partnership must be honoured both in the manner in which the government is chosen and in the substance of the policies which it pursues. Democracy, as the most effective form we know of accountability to those affected by government policies, has powerful biblical support, and it was within the biblical context that the early theorists of democracy both in Britain and the United States constructed their arguments.

It is true to say that democratic regimes are now in favour. Is this a passing phase in the progress of civilisation, or is democracy a value to which we are committed unconditionally? Prior to the ultimate redemption – which is to say, within the terms of human history as we have known it – no political achievement is final. The struggle between power and justice will continue. So will the search for a proper balance between the individual and the collective. There are many kinds of democracy; none is perfect. Nor is democracy alone the guarantor of a healthy society. None the less it is the best system we have thus far evolved to ensure the accountability of governments, the protection of the individual, and the freedom within which we can grow to maturity as autonomous moral agents. It is in ongoing danger of erosion, and as a result constant vigilance is required.

Is democracy an end in itself or is it a means {perhaps the least unreliable we know) for securing the values of freedom, the rule of law and protection of the weak and vulnerable? The Judaic answer would be that, being a political structure, democracy is a means, not an end. As Maimonides put it, the highest forms of human perfection lie within the domain of the individual soul. However, to achieve those perfections, we must secure certain physical needs, which we can only do by constructing societies and hence political systems. These require the ceding of individual entitlements to a central body (property, as in the case of taxation; liberty, as in the case of a judicial system backed by punishments). The individual must have a say in both the process and product of that transfer of rights. Democracy is therefore the least unreliable form of government, which is itself only a framework of human flourishing, not the flourishing itself.

Do religions have a role in safeguarding democratic values against cor­ruption? They do, but in two distinct ways, corresponding to the biblical realms of prophecy and priesthood. Prophecy has a critical function. Ezekiel defined his role as ‘watchman’ to the house of Israel, giving warning of impending catastrophe. But priesthood is about constructing communities where the life of faith is given tangible expression: the role given its classic sociological analysis by Emile Durkheim. Without prophecy a society can become corrupt at the top. But without priesthood, it can erode from below. It can lose its structures of family and community life, within which the civic virtues are learned and enacted. Prophecy is dramatic, priesthood is not. Prophecy makes headlines, priesthood rarely But both are necessary to the civil order. Without the matrix of institutions within which individual responsibility and the moral sentiments are nurtured, no free­doms are secure for long. In an age in which those institutions are rapidly dissolving, the priestly function is no less important than the prophetic.

Can Religions Endorse a Plural Society?

These are some of the questions commonly posed about religion and democ­racy. But there is another and more fundamental tension between our great religious traditions and the contemporary political environment. The modern democratic state is built on quite different foundations than Athens or Sparta in ancient Greece. Those were hierarchical societies, in which only some groups, not all, were enfranchised. Women were not; slaves were not; nor were long-term resident aliens. Greek democracy would today be regarded as intolerably undemocratic. It was less rule by the people than rule by a subsection of the people, and it left large groups outside the political process.

Greek democracy was predicated on cultural homogeneityModern democracy faces the problem of cultural and religious diversity. In its purest form, it proposed to solve the problem by drawing a sharp distinction between individuals and groups. Individuals were to be enfranchised, groups were not. A person’s religion or culture was irrelevant to the politicaI process. He or she participated not as a Protestant or Catholic or Jew but as a person. Church and State were, either formally or in effect, to be separated. Politics was to become a neutral arena where conflicting interests were resolved.

We now know that this vision did an injustice to the human need for identity: a sense of the past, of belonging, and of common purpose. It understated the connection between political structure and a nation’s his­ tory and traditions. It also neglected the degree to which members of religious and ethnic minorities felt part of their group and its loyalties, and not merely disembodied citizens. The ground was set for a tense conflict between a coherent national identity and a culture of different faiths and ethnicities.

The modern democratic nation state is built on more than the concept of government by the collective will for the collective good. It is based on the idea that there is a domain of public life in which a multiplicity of communi­ties with different traditions can join together in the collective enterprise of citizenship. It is not merely a democracy. It is a plural democracy. And it is this idea – a difficult one, calling for a most delicate balance of restraints – which is today in danger. As the neutral state fails to answer the most basic questions of personal identity, so we see larger societies disintegrate into religiously, culturally or ethnically defined entities: in the break-up of the Soviet Union, the possibility of French-Canadian secession, the divorce between Czechs and Slovaks, and most tragically in bloody ethnic war in Bosnia.

The most important conflict in today’s political landscape is less between religion and democracy than between religion and pluralism, an essential component of the ethnically diverse state. Religions often embody a yearn­ing for a unitary social order which overcomes the dichotomy between the rich traditions of the individual, the family and the group, and the relative neutrality of the state and its ‘naked public square’. How can a genuine religious believer tolerate the indignities of a pluralist democracy in which, though the members of his group have rights, so too do the members of other groups who reject and even ridicule the values he holds dear? Religious conviction finds itself in conflict less with democracy as such, than with the jangling discord of voices which a plural society inevitably broadcasts. In such a society, there is no one dominant voice. As Michael Novak puts it:

‘In a genuinely pluralistic society, there is no one sacred canopy. By intention there is not. At its spiritual core, there is an empty shrine.’

The question that has suddenly become acute in today’s fragmenting political order is: can a strong religious presence tolerate this empty shrine, and with it a society which confers equal rights to members of other faiths or of none? If the answer to this is no, then a religion might tolerate democracy in the Athenian but not in the modern sense. It would reject the essential premise that different groups should have an equal share in defining the common good.

The defence of pluralism has usually been constructed in secular terms, and therein lies its weakness. It can be derided as secularism and the ‘moraI bankruptcy of the West.’ But there is a powerful religious defence. The Bible contains just one description of a unitary social order. It speaks of a time when all humanity shared a single language and a common speech. There was no religious, cultural or ethnic diversity. The name the Bible gives to it is Babel. The Tower of Babel is our eternal symbol of the hubris of attempting to construct a uniform society. After Babel, it is our duty to realise that God has created many languages and civilisations, many paths to His presence. Our task is to be faithful to our own heritage while being a blessing to others, willing if we are of the majority faith to make space for others to pursue their own vision of the truth, and willing too, if we are of a minority faith, to ‘seek the peace and prosperity of the city’ to which the Lord has carried us, knowing that in its welfare lies the possibility of ours (Jeremiah 29:7).

Religions are at their best in constructing communities of shared vision, societies of the like-minded. They are at their worst in tolerating diversity. Religious passion tends to sectarianism, and sectarianism translated into political reality leads to the ethnically cleansed or Judenrein state. Against such a tendency, one must invoke the highest biblical principle of all: the transcendence of God.

God makes a covenant with the children of Israel. But He makes other covenants. ‘Are not you Israelites the same to me as the Cushites? says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?’ (Amos 9:7). God is universal, but religions are particular. Hence Solomon’s remarkable prayer at the dedication of the Temple: ‘As for the foreigner who does not belong to Your people Israel … when he comes and prays towards this temple, then hear from heaven, Your dwelling place, and do whatever the foreigner asks of You, so that all the peoples of the earth may know Your name and fear You, as do Your own people Israel’ (I Kings 8:41-3). And hence the prophetic vision, not of the conversion of the nations, but of a world of co-existence and peace.

Just as there is political, so there is religious totalitarianism, and it comes from eroding the distinction between religion and God. God is the covenantal partner to particular forms of religious living. But beyond this He is the author of all being in its irreducible diversity. A plural society tests to the limit our ability to see God in religious forms which are not our own.