Democracy is a fragile thing, says Tim Farron MP. Christians must value it, engage with it and pray for change


Source: Reuters

Vladimir Putin has just won his fifth term as Russian president in an election that was about as rigged as you could imagine. None of his three cardboard opponents had any chance of winning. All other significant rivals have been ‘withdrawn’, jailed, exiled, or are dead.

Protests in Russia have been courageous but muted. People gathered outside ballot centres to demonstration their discontent - as proposed by Alexei Navalny, Putin’s outspoken rival who recently died in a Russian penal colony. But when armed guards show up on people’s doorsteps with ballot boxes, as reported in the Russian-occupied Ukrainian town of Berdyansk, there’s not much anyone can do.

Claiming that he won over 87 per cent of the vote with a 74 per cent turnout, Putin will be in power until 2030. This allows him, to some extent, to further legitimise his actions in general, and his war on Ukraine in particular.

UK Christians can learn from the faithful resilience of the Russians seeking peace and justice

It’s a reminder that we must not take our own democracy for granted. For all our electoral system’s flaws, we do have some influence over who’s in power and are free to voice disagreement without fearing for our safety. We have a peaceful transfer of power after elections, and the rule of law, to which even the most powerful in our society are subject.

In Romans 13, Christians are called to submit to the governing authorities that God has established. But perhaps we forget the privilege of being able to choose these authorities, and how British politics has been shaped by Christianity. As writers such as Tom Holland and Glen Scrivener remind us, Western values of equality, justice and the rule of law were not established by accident.

The Russian context

Yet Putin makes use of spiritually imbued language to justify the war in Ukraine, drawing on historical Russian identity – Russian Orthodox Christianity – that has persisted from the fall of Constantinople through the secularism of the Soviet Union. He has called Russians to war in defence of traditional values from the threat of Western liberalism.

He has received support (or lack of condemnation) from prominent figures, such as Patriarch Kirill, who has spoken of the Church’s importance in “maintaining and strengthening…spiritual ties” with those living in states that are part of “historic Russia”. As Ben Ryan at Theos notes: “‘This narrative [is part of] a growing trend in which the Moscow Patriarch and President mutually reinforce one another.”

However, the Patriarch does not speak for the whole Russian Orthodox Church, let alone the Russian people. Many Russian Orthodox clergy outside Russia have actively opposed the war, condemned the Patriarch’s support, and provided for Ukrainian refugees.

As Elle Hardy wrote for Unherd: “Russians do seem to be turning to God [though not exclusively to Christianity] of their own volition” in the wake of the violence and instability. During his 2021 trial Alexei Navalny, spoke of having been a “militant atheist” and converting to Christianity. Navalny spoke of a peace that came from knowing that, however many victories Putin was able to contrive, God is in control and will have the ultimate victory. One day, Putin will answer to him.

Navalny also found encouragement in the Bible’s clear call to political engagement. Quoting Matthew 5:6: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied”, he said: “I’ve always thought that this commandment is more or less an instruction to activity.”

Resilient faith

We can learn from the faithful resilience of the Russians seeking peace and justice for all people through action and prayer. They are not swayed by the state’s scaremongering that says in order to save yourself, you must dominate others. They have held to the truth of universal dignity and love for neighbours and enemies alike.

We should thank God for our political freedoms, including freedom of speech. Let’s advocate for the marginalised and vulnerable and steward our words wisely, speaking with kindness, mercy, grace and truth. Being grateful for our democracy, let’s engage and be watchful for complacency; wary of becoming so comfortable that we don’t notice when defending national tradition is used to obscure the image of God in our neighbour and justify harmful policies.

Western values of equality, justice and the rule of law were not established by accident

In 2024, 64 countries go to the polls, and the EU elects its Parliament. Up to 49 per cent of the world population gets to vote - many in geopolitical hotspots such as Taiwan, the US, India and Pakistan. Many will be far from free and fair. Democracy is a fragile thing.

At the same time, autocrats around the world are gaining confidence. The 2024 Bertlesmann-Stiftung report on Democratic Quality and Good Governance classed four more nations as autocracies, all in different regions and contexts. An emboldened Putin will surely lead to emboldened despots in other places, too. The world is becoming less free and more dangerous.

In the comparative mundanity of a UK election, this increases our responsibility to engage and vote. Let’s research the candidates, pray for them, weigh their commitments and hold whoever wins accountable. In our churches, let’s consider which issues need addressing locally and take action.

Like Navalny, we see the Bible’s call to pursue righteousness, holding to God’s promise to satisfy our hunger. We can be strengthened in the knowledge that God is sovereign and no despot is too corrupt or terrifying for him. Mary sings in Luke 1:52: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble”. We can sure that he will continue to do that.