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The term, democracy, comes from the Greek demos, "people," and kratein, "to rule." From earliest usage it has been difficult to formulate a general definition. Aristotle, after noting four types of democracy, finally concludes, "It is a democracy whenever the free are sovereign" (Politics Bk. 4, ch. 4). Abraham Lincoln's classic words "government of the people, by the people, for the people" highlight the popular character of any government labeled "democratic." Nevertheless the reality is always circumscribed. From Aristotle to Lincoln slaves were not party to democracy. Often there are property and residence qualifications. Only in the past century have women been included in the franchise. Children and the imprisoned rarely participate politically.

Contemporary usage of the term also inhibits clear definitions. Definitions change with evolving political and economic systems. Political scientists point out that the most authoritarian governments still depend on some sort of "consent of the governed" for their power and authority and authoritarian governments frequently call themselves "democratic" or "people's" republics, using democratic strategies such as the nurture of public opinion and holding frequent elections as evidence of their being supported by the people. Socialist societies emphasize the economic component of democracy or public welfare in comparison to the more narrowly defined process of selecting representation. In other situations, although the formal designation of a government may be as a "monarchy" or "republic," it is also clear that the essential ingredients of "people's rule" are also present: universal suffrage, equality before the law, freedom of speech and discussion, majority rule, representative institutions, civil liberties, protection of minorities, open expression of dissent, skepticism about concentrated authority. Political scientists also counsel caution about exaggerated expectations regarding rule by all the people. There are such phenomena as elites who, with advantages of expertise and status, are able to wield greater influence and hence more power than others. It is difficult to make democratic processes genuinely beneficial to oppressed and marginalized people.

Democracy is a process by which power is derived from the people for directing the institutions of a social order. Such voluntarily delegated authority gives integrity to popular sovereignty but it also requires constant nurture and testing, normally by regular elections or other forms of referendum. The terminology usually relates to the various levels of government but as a process democracy is equally applicable to churches, corporations, educational institutions, and voluntary organizations.

A thriving democracy requires a congenial cultural milieu and sets of convictions which enable the process to have as much integrity as possible. Scholars noting some of the intimate connections between democratic practice and parts of western culture have asked whether there is a special relationship between Christianity and democracy. Such connections cannot be made glibly since democratic governments are a relatively recent historical phenomenon. Furthermore the allied benefits of democratic practice compared to other political traditions require very careful analysis. Freedom has to do with the degree of openness rather than an absolute difference of performance.

Yet noting these qualifications there are ways in which the experience of the Judeo-Christian tradition has contributed to some of the values associated with democracy. The repeated biblical search for a kingdom of righteousness has helped to establish a concern for a peaceful and just social order. The clash of the prophets with ancient Hebrew kings and the subsequent tensions of the Christian era have helped to establish the plural institutional base so essential to an operative democratic society as well as to insure the notion that the presumed sovereignty of rulers is confronted by the sovereignty of God. The conviction that all believers participate in developing the polity of the free churches may, as some scholars suggest, have nurtured the participatory process of governance which was transferred from the congregational meeting to the town meeting. Finally the Christian view of human potential and its limitations, caught in Reinhold Niebuhr's famous epigram "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary," suggests that democratic practice requires a healthy humility about the human condition.

Did the believers church or free church tradition contribute to the democratic experience? The insistence that the church be made up of individuals who make a personal and voluntary decision undercuts the well entrenched traditional unitary political-religious state. The sheer existence of such a church forces the development of an alternative political theory rooted in the separation of the institutional entities known as church and state. The believers churches' persistent claim to religious freedom, called by William Lee Miller "the first liberty," has helped establish open discussion so essential to democratic process.

These connections notwithstanding, most democratic thought is rooted in the liberal Enlightenment tradition of the 18th- and 19th-century West which emphasizes natural rights, rational behaviors, optimism about the human situation, and the superiority of modern secularity. John Locke (1632-1704), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) are more influential in the development of democratic thought than are Augustine (354-430), Martin Luther, and John Wesley (1703-91).

Because of persecution by political structures, the lack of experience in a democratic system and reservations about what priority political activity ought to have for the church, some of the most sectarian Mennonites and Amish have frowned on any involvement in the democratic process, often admonishing nonparticipation in voting and office holding. On the other hand the self-governing structure of Mennonite colonies in Russia and Paraguay included broadly based "male" participation while at the same time holding that constitutional monarchs would more likely grant a Privilegium (privileges) to a religious minority.

In recent years there has been a strong argument given that Mennonites should use the democratic system to influence government in positive directions. Mennonites currently hold elective offices in Western Europe and North America and the majority of Mennonites in these regions participate in using the franchise. They also serve in the civil services at many levels. While ambivalence remains about the effectiveness of political action, there is a considerable consensus that the church must find ways to witness within the political order to the will of God "on earth as it is in heaven."

See also Decision-making; Government; Polity.


Burns, Edward McNall. Ideas in Conflict. 1960.

Buultjens, Ralph. The Decline of Democracy. 1978.

Lasswell, Harold. Politics: Who Gets What, When, How. 1958.

Author(s) John A Lapp
Date Published 1988

Cite This Article

MLA style

Lapp, John A. "Democracy." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1988. Web. 23 Apr 2021.

APA style

Lapp, John A. (1988). Democracy. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 23 April 2021, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 222-223. All rights reserved.

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