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Faith and Good Governance – Is There a Connection?

Does Christian Faith, despite a long and varied tradition of Christian ethics, make a significant difference to good governance? If, as I suspect, the answer is “not very much”, why might this be the case – and what is to be done about it?

In theory, with its rich ethical traditions (biblical ethics, the love command, conscience, responsibility, not to mention the sophisticated and evolving sub discipline of Catholic Social Teaching) Christianity should be at the forefront of contributing to good governance. But, on closer examination, this does not seem to be the case. Let us look at some of the cornerstones of good government, honesty and transparency.

Transparency International’s 2021 Report notes that the ten least corrupt countries on Earth are: Denmark, Finland, New Zealand (joint first), Norway, Singapore, Sweden (joint fourth), followed by Switzerland, Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany.[1] In contrast, the bottom countries, perceived as most corrupt, are: Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Turkmenistan (joint 169th), Libya, Equatorial Guinea, (joint 172nd), Afghanistan, Yemen, North Korea (joint 174th), Venezuela (177th), Somalia, Syria (joint 178th), and at the bottom South Sudan (180th).[2]

What is significant about the success stories is that, except for Singapore[3], all these states are functioning social democracies, featuring regular elections, changes in government, full public health care, education and welfare services. They are also, according to the World Happiness Report, among the happiest countries on Earth[4].

And though not at the bottom, they are also among the most non-religious. While all but Singapore again are culturally Christian, some even having ‘state’ churches, religious practice is low and levels of self-declared atheism are high. Even those who do consider themselves religious are not very observant, or indeed noticeably adhere to church moral teachings in their private lives.

In contrast, many of the most corrupt countries (who also tend to score low on the Happiness Review), are also high in religiosity.[5] Similarly, most of these countries have at best unstable democracies (and often authoritarian regimes) with weak public health, education and welfare – the latter often run by corrupt bureaucrats for their personal gain.

Thus, one might validly conclude that Christianity (and other faiths) thrive in corrupt, authoritarian societies despite the promise of our system of ethics, which in broad brush strokes seems to be ‘anonymously’ present in the well-run social democracies that make up the happiest, most honest, but secular states.

Why is there this apparent contradiction? A Marxist reading of the data would suggest that this proves the dictum that religion is the opium, in the sense of painkiller, of the masses: keep them pious, keep them stupid, poor and sick, with a god who promises them heavenly reward if they do as they’re told in this life. While this is an overstatement, I think there is more in this than we as Christians would like to admit. When we look for example at religious preoccupations in many poor countries, at least until the emergence of liberation theology, the Church’s mission tended to be sacramental and charity, rather than justice, focused. Leadership did not challenge the political status quo, unsurprisingly since many of the church leadership came from the elites. Ethical questions often tended to be focused on sexual continence, opposition to birth control, and even the promotion of the right attitude to one’s elders and betters, in society as in the Church.

At a deeper level, the problem was -and is – rooted in Church governance, to varying degrees hierarchical, mirroring and sometimes legitimizing the notion of divine right of kings and chieftains.  Even with the Reformation, this did not significantly change, not least after the military defeat of Radical Reformers like Műntzer at the hands of European states whose actions were blessed by no less a Reformer than Martin Luther. It took the Enlightenment concern for liberty, equality and fraternity to shift large chunks of the world, mainly Europe and North America, away from monarchical rule. But sadly, this did not extend to European colonies or even to local chiefdoms who held ambivalent roles within the colonial system, but who shared to varying degrees a commitment to hierarchy.

What of the Church? After resisting change, it gradually started to shift, most notably observed in the evolution of Catholic Social Teaching (CST). CST accepted, however grudgingly, that the social order could change. One might even say that it acknowledged the egalitarian gospel of Jesus and a handful of reformers, Catholic and Protestant, who had hitherto been seen as dangerous radicals. But on internal change, the churches and in particular the Catholic Church resisted change until the ‘Roman Spring’ that was Vatican Il started to open to modernity and new ways of being church. Since 1965, we have seen a back and forth, between embracing participatory reforms and subsidiarity and reverting to top-down centralism.

The problem then is not religion per se but how religion, in our case Christianity, may mirror authoritarianism. In addition, deference to authority (secular and religious) rather than forming conscience and taking responsibility, and the emphasis on spiritual experience and the sweet hereafter over this world, has led to an escapist form of practice that while strong on worship (good for the church of course) underplays social engagement.

The rise of progressive Christianities[6] has challenged this but poses problems of its own. Some forms have used secular analysis (be that Marxism, feminism, or critical race theory) simplistically. Others have split the social problems addressed from the personal – and from a critical examination of the Church’s tendency to mirror the authoritarian and sometimes corrupt practices of states that progressive theologians challenge. And where progressive Christianity challenges the Church itself, the Church has used its often authoritarian muscle to obstruct them.

So then, if this is the case, what is to be done, particularly by Christian ethicists? We may have made this analysis, but the point is to change things. My first proposal is that our ethical analysis of society should be mirrored in our analysis of church structures and governance. We need to boldly support reform initiatives in the Church, particularly those like the Synod on Synodality current in process. In doing this we need a deeper insight into the historically conditioned nature of many current structures, practices and understandings of how the Church proceeds. This is the historical turn in moral theology that has already begun in our discipline[7], that must go even further. Secondly, our task should be to approach our theological analyses and moral proposals from a transdisciplinary perspective – embracing best available knowledge in science, politics, economics and social theory, not on a selective basis but integrated into our discipline[8]. Bad science is bad ethics: we cannot hide behind some specifically Christian or Catholic truth, known only to ourselves. CST has started to do this already, although at times our economic and political analyses have been superficial. Laudato Si did this too, in part. This must extend even to sacred cows in society and culture. Thirdly, this exercise must take us from our classrooms, seminaries and churches into the public square. After all, it is a well-known claim that action on behalf of justice is a ‘constitutive dimension’, i.e. non-optional and non-negotiable part, of the Christian faith.

[1]  Transparency International, Corruption Perception Index 2021 at

[2] Ibid.

[3] Though it is a constitutional democracy, with a functioning justice system et al, Singapore is fundamentally an authoritarian state.

[4] John F Halliwell, Richard Layard, Jeffrey D Sachs, et al, World Happiness Report 2022 (New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network 2022), accessible at:

[5] It is worth noting that the least happy countries – Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Lesotho, Botswana, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Lebanon, and Afghanistan – also generally score in the bottom half of the Corruption Perception Index, all have high levels of religious belief and practice.

[6] See, inter alia: Christopher Rowland, Radical Christianity (Maryknoll NY: Orbis 1988); Christian Smith. The Emergence of Liberation Theology: Radical Religion and Social Movement Theory. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1991).

[7] John Mahoney, The Making of Moral Theology (Oxford: OUP/Clarendon Press 1987); James F Keenan, A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century London: Continuum 2010).

[8] Mario Boies, “Towards a transdisciplinary approach to moral theology”, February 19, 2021; ( Last accessed: 23 June 2022; Basarab Nicolescu, Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity (Albany: SUNY Press 2002.