Wednesday, November 02, 2022

Democracy as a Religious Principle

presented at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois
October 30, 2022

Opening words
“We no longer claim that a genuinely religious government can be democratic, but that it cannot be otherwise.” - Abdolkarim Soroush

Responsive reading 

#594 “Principles and Purposes for All of Us”

I thought I’d start by reading you some criticisms of democracy and party politics from other times and places.

The first known usage of the phrase “Vox populi, vox dei” (The voice of the people is the voice of God.) comes from a letter the Saxon scholar Alcuin of York wrote to the Emperor Charlemagne in 800 AD,

“And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the tumult of the crowd is always close to madness.’

In Gulliver’s Travels, which Jonathan Swift published in 1726, a Lilliputian explains local politics:

“for about seventy moons past there have been two struggling parties in this empire, under the names of Tramecksan and Slamecksan, from the high and low heels of their shoes, by which they distinguish themselves.

“It is alleged, indeed, that the high heels are most agreeable to our ancient constitution; but, however this be, his majesty has determined to make use only of low heels in the administration of the government, and all offices in the gift of the crown, as you cannot but observe; and particularly that his majesty’s imperial heels are lower at least by a drurr than any of his court… The animosities between these two parties run so high, that they will neither eat, nor drink, nor talk with each other.”

Another Lilliputian political division could not be tolerated at all.

“It is allowed on all hands, that the primitive way of breaking eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger end; but his present majesty’s grandfather, while he was a boy, going to eat an egg, and breaking it according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers. Whereupon the emperor his father published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs.

"The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us, there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown. These civil commotions were constantly fomented by the monarchs of Blefuscu; and when they were quelled, the exiles always fled for refuge to that empire.

“It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy: but the books of the Big-endians have been long forbidden, and the whole party rendered incapable by law of holding employments.”

Around the turn of the 20th century, journalist Lincoln Steffens toured America’s biggest cities and described the corruption of their political machines in articles that got reprinted in his 1904 book The Shame of the Cities.

“When I set out on my travels, an honest New Yorker told me honestly that I would find that the Irish, the Catholic Irish, were at the bottom of it all everywhere. The first city I went to was St. Louis, a German city. The next was Minneapolis, a Scandinavian city, with a leadership of New Englanders. Then came Pittsburg, Scotch Presbyterian, and that was what my New York friend was. ‘Ah, but they are all foreign populations,’ I heard. The next city was Philadelphia, the purest American community of all, and the most hopeless.”

Steffens found that he could not blame political corruption on any particular group, or even the politicians, who were just businessmen of a sort. The problem was the voters.

“If we would vote in mass on the more promising ticket, or, if the two are equally bad, would throw out the party that is in, and wait till the next election and then throw out the other party that is in — then, I say, the commercial politician would feel a demand for good government and he would supply it.”

But the electorate wouldn’t do that, leading Steffens to this conclusion: “The misgovernment of the American people is misgovernment by the American people.”

An election is coming up, and I’m a political blogger. So you can imagine how much I’m tempted to launch into a rabble-rousing campaign speech. I have opinions, I have a podium 
— it just seems obvious.

But I’m going to try to restrain myself, not because there’s anything wrong with talking politics in church — I’ve certainly done it before —  but because I believe that religious institutions are at their best when they offer us a chance to step back from our habitual arguments and examine issues from a broader perspective. Not just “What are we going to do these next ten days?”, but “What are we doing with our lives and why?”

So today I want to talk not just about this election, but about democracy.

Unitarian Universalism has made a religious principle out of democracy. Our Fifth Principle commits us to “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” The responsive reading we did elaborated on that: “We believe that all people should have a voice and a vote about the things which concern them.”

Such a principle may not be unique among religions. You heard in the opening words that even some Muslims more-or-less agree. But it is unusual.

Most American Christian churches make at least some claim to patriotism, so around the Fourth of July their ministers may praise our democratic system of government. But they see democracy, at best, as a very human system far inferior to living under God’s direct supervision. So the Christians who long for Jesus’ earthly return expect him to rule a Kingdom of Heaven, not ask for your support in a Republic of Heaven. They say “Jesus is Lord”, not “Jesus for President”.

That’s in line with a view of government that goes back to the earliest empires, in which legitimate authority descends from Heaven like a lightning bolt, and hits the highest point: the King, who then transmits authority down the social pyramid.

St. Paul, a Roman citizen, wrote: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” European kings claimed to rule by the grace of God, and Chinese emperors by the will of heaven. Some rulers, like the Pharaohs, were gods themselves.

Churches have been similarly hierarchical, and many still are. God’s wisdom is revealed to a Pope or Prophet, who transmits it to bishops and priests, who pass it down to the people.

Then Gutenberg happened.

So yes, my local pastor might be one conduit for God’s wisdom to reach me. But if Bibles are cheap enough, and ordinary people can read, then we could also learn from Moses or read the words of Jesus himself. By meditating silently in my own home, I might ask God to inspire me directly, without any middleman.

Before long, Protestant sects were promoting personal communion with God as the ideal, and hearing God’s message from someone else as a second-best alternative. In time, many denominational bureaucracies have become more administrative than spiritual. They publish hymnals, vet ministers, and support missionaries in distant lands, but they don’t mediate between the individual and God.

Hierarchical political models were undermined as well. So the Declaration of Independence says that the Creator endows everyone with rights, and “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”.

In other words, what comes down from Heaven isn’t like a lightning bolt that energizes one specially privileged point, but more like rain that falls everywhere. And from the fertile soil of the People, leadership springs up.

But the down-the-pyramid model of authority has never gone away, even in America, and there’s still one obvious exception to democracy: children. We don’t let children vote, and their parents are allowed to carry them kicking and screaming out of candy stores. The consent of the governed is not required.

That exception may make practical sense. But it also creates a loophole: You can justify ruling people without their consent by arguing that they are like children to you. So slavery and colonialism were justified by the claim that non-white races are childlike, and it is the white man’s burden to look after them. Women were also seen as childlike, requiring the oversight of their fathers or husbands. Monarchy styles itself as a father-and-children relationship, which is why kings are called “sire”.

Because of these competing impulses extending the franchise to new groups of people 
has always been contentious. On the one hand, men without property, or non-whites, or women were clearly being governed, so the government should be seeking their consent. But the powers-that-be always argued that the people in question were insufficiently wise or mature    or educated or committed to the nation or to the common good. So adding them to the decision-making class would produce worse outcomes for everyone.

At times, even Americans have believed that we had taken democracy too far. Way back at the Constitutional Convention, Roger Sherman argued: “The people, immediately, should have as little to do as may be about the government. They lack information and are constantly liable to  be misled.”
Smithsonian curator Jon Grinspan’s recent book The Age of Acrimony describes the late 1800s as a time of crisis and self-doubt for American democracy, full of riots, assassinations, lynchings, corruption, and elections with dubious results. One author he cites from that era is Francis Parkman, a historian so distinguished that the Society of American Historians still awards the Parkman Prize for the best history book of the year. In 1878, not long after the disputed presidential election of 1876 had to be decided by a congressional commission, Parkman wrote an essay called “The Failure of Universal Suffrage”:

“When a man has not sense to comprehend the questions at issue, know a bad candidate from a good one, or see his own true interests — when he cares not a farthing for the general good, and will sell his vote for a dollar — when, by a native instinct, he throws up his cap at the claptrap declamation of some lying knave, and turns with indifference or dislike from the voice of honesty and reason — then his vote becomes a public pest. Somebody uses him, and profits by him.”

Present-day Americans say it with less flourish, but I often hear the same sentiments, sometimes coming out of my own mouth: “How can so many voters be taken in by such an obvious conman? How can they believe such ridiculous claims? Can we really trust our fellow citizens to make decisions that affect us?”

Someone is using them, and profiting by them.

So, understanding those concerns, how can we revere democracy as a religious principle?What does our principle even mean?

Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that we worship democracy. The voice of the people is not the voice of God. So no matter how big a majority a president or party assembles, those leaders are not infallible.

The Founders were not prophets, and the Constitution is not a holy document. We had to amend it  to abolish slavery and give women the vote. And there are parts I would still like to change.

In short, Democracy in general, and American democracy in particular, is a human institution subject to human failings.
Recognizing that fact is not an indictment of democracy, because the same is true of every form of government. A king or a dictator can be foolish — look at Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. An aristocracy can be corrupt, and is often oblivious to suffering in the lower classes. A board of the most qualified experts can get something wrong and refuse to acknowledge its mistakes.

Unitarians understand that every form of government is fallible. As Winston Churchill said: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government — except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Democracy has religious significance not because it is perfect, but because the very idea of government presents a moral problem: If some of us are going to make decisions that are binding on the rest of us, that power has to be justified in some way. It’s not enough for the decision-makers to be stronger than everyone else, or to point to a divine command no one else can hear or verify. If government is going to be binding on all of us, then our own voices and our own judgment have to be engaged somehow. “All people should have a voice and a vote about the things which concern them.”

Now, I have to do an aside here, because libertarianism offers an alternative response to the moral problem of government: Maybe all government is immoral, so we should have as little as possible. Libertarians achieve that minimization by shrinking the mission of government to the protection of life and property. And they present that option as if agreeing to the current distribution of wealth and property were not such a big thing to ask.

I’ll just point out one thing: I own no beachfront property, so every beach in the world belongs to someone else. When did I consent to that?

More seriously: Every day, people are born into the world who have no claim on any part of this planet we supposedly share. And yet, they are supposed to respect whatever property the rest of us claim. Why should they?

I believe that if we expect people to respect the property system, we owe them some stake in that system. Many years ago I described that debt to you in more detail, in a talk called “Who Owns the World?” I still don’t see any way to make good on that debt without a government far more extensive than a libertarian would countenance.

So democracy remains the best solution we have to the moral problem of government. That’s how our religious movement has wound up committed to an institutional structure that we know has flaws.

Through our other principles, we’re also committed to the value of each person, to justice, equity, and compassion, and to truth. So we don’t get to deny democracy’s flaws, or to paper over the bad things that get done in the People’s name. When Japanese-Americans are sent to detention camps, or Jim Crow laws force Black children into inferior schools, we don’t get to ignore those injustices. We don’t get to say “All the boxes of democratic process were checked, so too bad for you.”
When confronted with all the ways that democracy can lead to immoral government, our response shouldn’t be “That can’t happen” or “Too bad if it does”, but “Let’s see that it doesn’t.”

In other words — and I consider this the single biggest thing I want you to remember from  this talk — our devotion to democracy commits us to a program far beyond elections and voting. Understanding the ways democracy can fail, we need to do everything we canto make sure that it does not fail.

Some safeguards are already built into the Constitution. Democracy can fail through the tyranny of the majority, when 51% of the people feel empowered to treat the other 49% however they like. The Founders anticipated that problem, so the Constitution limits the powers of government, and the Bill of Rights, at least on paper, protects the smallest minority of all, the individual.

Democracy also fails when the majority is thwarted, when people are prevented from voting or made to jump through unnecessary hoops. Or when their votes are gerrymandered into districts that produce predictable outcomes. Or when places like the District of Columbia or Puerto Rico are denied representation because their voters are the wrong color or speak the wrong language.
Those are not just political issues, they are moral issues.

Democracy fails when large numbers of people feel that they have no stake in the system and no chance to better their lot in life. So let’s see that everyone gets a stake and a chance.  

Democracy fails if the People are ignorant, the problem Francis Parkman pointed to. So let’s see that they aren’t. That’s how our commitment to democracy turns into a commitment to education.

And not just any kind of education. Imagine you lived in a monarchy, and someone had entrusted you with the education of the future king. Would you be content to fill his head with facts, so that he could pass a multiple-choice test? Or would you teach the future sovereign to think clearly, to understand what a fact is and what it really means to know something? To tell the difference between truths supported by evidence and shapes that someone points to in the clouds? Of course you would. And if the People are to be sovereign, then that’s the kind of education we should want for everyone. All of us.

Democracy fails when the People lose faith that their hopes and fears matter or that anything can be done to address them. We can see that now in our young people, who regularly see students just like themselves gunned down in school hallways and are told that nothing can be done. Or when they foresee the potentially devastating effect climate change will have on their future and are told that it’s not a priority.

So we must not be afraid to envision bold projects and we also must not be too proud to accept achievable compromises rather than do nothing. We need to take the steps we can while never losing sight of where we need to go.

Democracy fails when the People become cynical, when they see corruption in high places and think, “That’s just how things are. If we elected someone else it would be no different.” That’s what Lincoln Steffens was pointing to in The Shame of the Cities. Officials were corrupt because their voters aimed no higher, and thought the best they could hope for was to get a share of the spoils.

We see that today, when evidence of crimes is presented in prime time, but many voters shrug, because they have convinced themselves that the other side commits crimes too. So we must always aim high, refuse to spread accusations we know are false, and never be content to wink at wrong-doing because our side benefits. Whether or not our opponents trust us, we should be trustworthy.

And yes, I recognize the temptation to do unto others what we feel has been done to us. But we also need to appreciate that democracy is not a zero-sum game. Every time moral standards slip, the cynics are proven right, and democracy itself suffers.

Finally, and most difficult of all in today’s environment: Democracy fails when the people divide into tribes, when what matters is not “What is true?” or “Who has the best plan?” or “What is our best path forward together?”, but “What side are they on?” Are they white or black? Christian or Jew? Republican or Democrat? Do they wear their heels high or low? Break their eggs from the big or small end?

I don’t mean to trivialize the differences between our political parties, which are real and important. I voted before I left Massachusetts, and all for one party. But it’s also important that our parties not become like the parties of Lilliput, who “will neither eat, nor drink, nor talk with each other”.

That doesn’t mean we have to compromise on what is true or false, right or wrong. It doesn’t mean saying “Maybe you’re right” when we don’t believe it, or ignoring crimes in high places simply to avoid riling the other side. But it does mean that we need to remember our Universalism, and refuse to write people off simply because they don’t see what we see. We need to hold onto our faith that no one is beyond redemption and that — no matter how stubborn they are or how many times they have been hoodwinked — no one is completely incapable of seeing Truth.

Leaders may act in bad faith, but many follow them in good faith, believing what they have been told. The solutions they ask for may be wrong, but the problems they see in their lives may still be real, and deserve our compassion.

I know how hard it can be to look past the name-calling, trolling, and bullying to try to understand the genuine disappointments and hurts fueling that behavior. I’m not always up to that task myself. We all have our limits and must protect ourselves from abuse. But when we close off those connections and harden our boundaries, democracy suffers.

In ten days, we’re going to have an election. It is an important election, and (as much as anyone) I hope that my side wins. But I also hope that we never lose sight of the longer view: that for democracy to succeed, ultimately the People must win.

All of us.

Closing words
“The greatest way to defend democracy is to make it work.” — Tommy Douglas

1 comment:

Kim Cooper said...

Lovely. I did half a sermon on democracy Sunday before last. My theme was "Democracy is about equality" and I pointed out that all of the other forms of government do not believe in equality. And that we believe in equality, though we don't always achieve it.
The dichotomy between people who believe in equality and people who believe in hierarchies, authoritarianism, is what is tearing us apart. I wish I knew a cure for it.