Q. What right do we have to criticise a democratically elected government? Surely Judaism believes in loyalty to duly appointed leaders.
A. Judaism does not support the early Christian doctrine, “Render unto God the things that are God’s and to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matt. 22:21). We do not distinguish between the spiritual and temporal. We do not accept that Caesar (i.e. the government) is a law unto itself.
Despite Jeremiah’s advice, “Seek the peace of the city” (Jer. 29:7) and the rule in Pirkei Avot, “Pray for the welfare of the government” (Avot 3:2), the government is not always right. It is not true that the king can do no wrong.
Loyalty has to be given and laws obeyed, but not unthinkingly. We do not suspend moral judgment and accept every government policy simply because the government is the government. When necessary we have to echo the words of the three youths in the Book of Daniel, “Be it known to you, O King, that we will not serve your gods, or worship the golden images you have set up” (Dan. 3:18).
In totalitarian places and times, it was almost impossible to topple a regime that imposed unjust rules upon its subjects, and resistance to government decrees could well require martyrdom. In democracies, however, the power of the ballot box enables citizens to replace a government of which the majority disapproves. Yet there may be a long wait until the next election, and in any case a government might survive even though the moral strength is with the minority.
But here another principle of democracy comes into play – the right to free association and free speech. When a government policy conflicts with the eternal verities grounded in the Bible, democratic means of protest and persuasion are available.
Governments do listen and are not without a sense of the right thing. Agreed, those who protest too much can sometimes suffer victimisation, however subtle. But even if there is a risk in speaking out, we cannot live with our conscience if we opt for a quiet life and remain silent.