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Democracy: can these dry bones live?

Democracy: can these dry bones live?

To mark the publication of his forthcoming book, ‘Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity’, we are running a series of blogs by Theos Associate Fellow Jonathan Chaplin exploring the relationship between democracy, liberalism, secularism and Christianity.

While reports of the death of democracy may be exaggerated, few would dispute that it is hardly in the rudest of health. Addressing the US Aspen Security Forum in March 2021, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab warned of democracy’s global retreat, predicting that the total wealth of the world’s autocracies would soon exceed that of its democracies. We face the prospect, he said, that ‘tyranny is richer than freedom’.[1]

An empirical study from the Centre for the Future of Democracy, Global Satisfaction with Democracy 2020 offers a similarly bleak diagnosis, reporting that democracy worldwide is in ‘a state of deep malaise’:

‘In the West, growing political polarisation, economic frustration, and the rise of populist parties, have eroded the promise of democratic institutions to offer governance that is not only popularly supported, but also stable and effective’.[2]

In 2019, the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement found that people’s opinion of the UK’s system of governance was the lowest it had been for 15 years, that more people were pessimistic about the country’s problems and more willing to entertain radical solutions and that feelings of political powerlessness were intensifying.[3]

Theological voices have also entered the fray. Before Brexit was even a small cloud on the horizon, Church of England bishops warned in a pre–election letter Who Is My Neighbour? (2015) that, ‘All political parties struggle to communicate a convincing vision. People feel detached from politics’ and that ‘there is a growing appetite to exploit grievances, find scapegoats and create barriers between people and nations’.

The bishops lamented that parties are ‘failing to offer attractive visions of the kind of society and culture they wish to see, or distinctive goals they might pursue’. Instead, ‘we are subjected to sterile arguments about who might manage the existing system best’.[4]

This has generated a ‘retail politics’ in which parties ‘tailor their policies to the groups whose votes they need, regardless of the good of the majority, whilst lobbyists, pressure groups and sectional interests come armed with their policy shopping lists and judge politicians by how many items they promise to deliver’. This is ‘politics as an extension of consumerism’.

In his 2020 encyclical Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis delivered an even bleaker indictment, lamenting that terms like ‘democracy’ have been ‘bent and shaped to serve as tools for domination, as meaningless tags that can be used to justify any action’.[5]

It is true that the surge of enthusiasm at the prospect of restored British national identity since 2016 injected a sudden burst of energy into British politics. It might appear that this has at least put one ‘convincing vision’ of the country back centre–stage.

Certainly the utilitarian prospectus offered by the Remain campaign failed to animate the skeleton of national democracy. It was all too easily out–narrated by an emotionally resonant appeal to reclaim Britain’s lost sovereignty and seize again the reins of its national destiny. That produced a turnout of 72%, higher than the 2015 general election, if only garnering a majority of barely 4%.

But it is deeply questionable whether this signals a decisive move away from ‘retail politics’ and a revival of the ‘conviction politics’ that Margaret Thatcher rightly championed in the early 1980s (whatever you think of her actual convictions).

This is partly because our adversarial, winner–takes–all electoral and party systems still force politicians, as the bishops put it, to ‘tailor their policies to the groups whose votes they need, regardless of the good of the majority’. They must disproportionately cater to various niche segments of the electorate in the hope of cobbling together the necessary, often marginal, majorities or pluralities to win a local or national contest.

Not even UKIP or the Brexit Party was able to put living flesh on the dry bones of participatory democracy, in spite of enthusing millions of restless voters behind their cause. Neither had any interest in turning supporters into empowered party activists who would shape the future of the party (or the country).

Their leaders operated in classic ‘populist’ mode, deploying manipulative media and social media messaging to rally large numbers of disaffected but largely passive voters behind a charismatic leader offering a myth of national rebirth – but without bothering to define in any detail what the reborn nation would actually look like or admit who might feel excluded from it. Arguably, the Tory party, which has now reoccupied their electoral territory, has done little better.

Some instead point to the massive increase in party membership occurring under Jeremy Corbyn, powered by the grass–roots socialist movement Momentum. There is no doubt this was temporarily exhilarating. The Corbynite surge successfully capitalised on the commendable eagerness of many younger ‘registered’ party supporters to throw themselves into ad hoc campaigning blitzes on one issue or another.

But it did not lead to a substantial, sustained increase in the number of informed and committed party activists prepared to do the year–in, year–out grunt work of leafletting, canvassing, recruiting, forming policy and running party organisations in unpromising constituencies.[6]

Reviving sustained participation in our enfeebled party system is only one aspect of the democratic renewal we need. But, like many of the system’s other glaring vulnerabilities, it requires us to go back to basics. What, after all, is democracy for?

To reply that it exists to allow voters to press government to deliver on their ‘interests’ – individual, associational, or identity–based – is an impoverished answer. Such particularist demands, some of which may be quite legitimate, must be incorporated into larger, integrative visions that balance a wide array of just claims and promote the political common good of the whole nation (and other nations). There seem few signs yet that any of the main parties know how to do this well.

Such reanimated visions of the common good could begin to counter the debilitating electoral consumerism in which our politics seems trapped. They are what a ‘conviction politics’ worthy of the name – a democracy where ‘faith’ matters – must aspire to. It is what political parties and movements keen to put flesh on our dry democratic bones must begin to offer to citizens. Contra Dominic Raab, our greatest fear should not be that tyranny will be ‘richer than freedom’. That is a materialist analysis. The greatest fear is that free democracies will have forgotten why they cherish freedom and democracy at all.

Communities of faith, however small in number and influence, are nevertheless well–placed to make a potentially significant contribution to this project of democratic renewal. Contrary to the short–termism fed by our managerial age, there will be no quick fixes available. It will be the work of a generation – a ‘long obedience’.

Such an approach requires a far–reaching re–evaluation of why and how we might recover the place of faith – religious and secular – in the arenas of democracy, so that we might also contribute to the rebuilding of trust in (a better form of) democracy itself. We need to look at how we can harness for good faith’s powerful moral energies while containing its pathologies. And we need to show how this involves an even bigger task – of clarifying both the rights and the wrongs of secularism and liberalism, and setting out how faith can inspire constructive, non–defensive expressions of democratic participation that can live creatively, if critically, with deep diversity. I will be exploring these themes in subsequent blogs.

Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity is published by SCM in April.  

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[2] The Centre for the Future of Democracy, Global Satisfaction with Democracy

2020 (Cambridge: Bennett Institute for Public Policy, 2020), 3.





[6] Labour Party membership peaked at over a million in the early 1950s, fell below 200,000 by 2010 but topped 500,000 after 2016 under Corbyn. Nearly 40% of this latter figure consists of ‘registered supporters’ or ‘affiliated supporters’ (members of an affiliated trade union). Membership of UK Political Parties, House of Commons Library Briefing Paper No. SN05125 (9 August 2019).



Jonathan Chaplin

Jonathan Chaplin

Dr Jonathan Chaplin is a member of the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University and a Senior Fellow of Cardus, a Canadian public theology think–tank. He was first Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics from 2006–2017. He is a specialist in political theology and he has taught at higher education institutions in the UK, Canada and the Netherlands. He is author of two Theos reports, and of ‘Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity’ (SCM 2021).

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Posted 23 March 2021

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