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WORLDVIEW: The century of democracy? Don’t hold your breath

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–These are heady days for lovers of democracy.

Millions of Iraqis defied the threat of death from terrorist murderers — including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has declared war on “evil” democracy — to go to the polls in January. It’s the “biggest change since Babylon” for a land long accustomed to tyrants, declared one analyst.

The same thing happened in Afghanistan a few months ago. The Taliban and assorted thugs threatened to kill anyone who voted. Afghan voters lined up anyway for what is thought to be the first free election ever held in that land.

The Palestinians, weary of violence, have elected a new leader, Mahmoud Abbas, who seems committed (for now, at least) to peaceful coexistence with Israel.

In Ukraine, the citizen-backed “Orange Revolution” brought out masses of average Ukrainians to protest and occupy public squares until a rigged vote was overturned — and the rightful winner officially elected and sworn in as president.

In India, the world’s largest democracy, upwards of half a billion voters, spoke loud and clear last year. Stunning result: The ruling Hindu nationalist government –- confident of re-election — was turned out of office.

Even Saudi Arabia is holding local elections (only men can vote) for the first time in 40 years.

In his second inaugural address, President George W. Bush resoundingly reaffirmed the spread of liberty and democracy as America’s chief task in the world. He took inspiration from courageous Russian dissident Natan Sharansky — a former prisoner of the Soviets, a current member of the Israeli government and the author of “The Case for Democracy,” a clarion call for global liberty that Bush recommends as required reading.

Bush echoed America’s exporters of freedom and human rights — from Woodrow Wilson, who wanted to make the world “safe for democracy,” to John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

“The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands,” he said. “The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”

The liberation of formerly enslaved peoples has “lit a fire in the minds of men,” Bush said, predicting that “one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.”

Those ideals, as Christians know, find their original source in Scripture. Moses told Pharoah, “Let my people go.” Jesus Christ proclaimed sight to the blind and release for the captives held in darkness and chains. Ever since, liberators have taken inspiration from their words.

American evangelicals have a proud history of fighting for freedom -– particularly religious liberty -– at home and around the globe. Many Christians, including Southern Baptists, are valiantly battling human slavery and abusers of human rights abroad. The National Association of Evangelicals is launching a campaign to end dictatorships worldwide by 2025.

It’s a hopeful moment for human freedom. Democracy is on the move, a trend Christians should pray for and work for.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for universal liberty to arrive.
History has an “ebb and flow of justice,” Bush believes, “but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the author of liberty.” That is undoubtedly true in the spiritual realm. In the political realm, however, democracy as we know it has only been around for a few centuries.

Tyranny has a much longer track record –- and shows few signs of disappearing. When the Cold War ended and the United States emerged as the sole superpower, some euphoric analysts declared democracy would soon prevail everywhere. We’re still waiting.

China, which likely will match (or surpass) American power and influence within the next generation or two, shows little evidence of allowing real political freedom anytime soon. Zhao Ziyang, the one Chinese leader who seriously embraced democratic ideas just before the Tiananmen student movement was brutally crushed in 1989, recently died after 15 years of house arrest.

Russia, so hopeful for freedom after the fall of the Soviet Union, appears to be sliding back into authoritarian rule under Vladimir Putin.

In the ever-violent Middle East, Israel remains the single truly democratic state. Iraq could become the second, but don’t expect Jeffersonian democracy. The majority (and duly elected) Shiites might opt for strict Islamic law.

But these are no reasons for despair or cynicism. God is not bound by local politics. Consider China: Under degrees of Communist persecution ranging from moderate to murderous, perhaps the biggest Christian movement in church history has emerged there over the last generation. The Gospel is on the move throughout Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America. Often, the greater the tyranny, the faster the church expands.

Only the truth of Jesus Christ makes you truly free. Democracy isn’t enough, as our own flawed nation illustrates.

That applies everywhere — even in the land where Jesus was born. As Jim Sibley, coordinator of Jewish ministries for the North American Mission Board, told Baptist Press, “Ultimately, peace will not break out in the Middle East until the Prince of Peace reigns in the hearts of Jew and Arab alike.”

“There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant,” President Bush contended in his inaugural speech. “And that is the force of human freedom.”

Wrong. The only force that can effectively accomplish such change is the Gospel.
Erich Bridges is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board whose column appears twice each month in Baptist Press.

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  • Erich Bridges