Theologies of Democracy in a New Century

E.J. Dionne, Jr.

[Based on the author’s keynote address May 3, 2007, at the “Faith and Citizenship: A Public Conversation” conference at Yale Divinity School]

There’s a word for the subject we are addressing here: intimidating. The issue encompasses not just our own struggles with religious freedom and religion’s role in American public life. It also presumably means the role of Islam in world politics and Islam’s attitudes toward freedom, tolerance, and pluralism. It means the rise of Hindu nationalism in India and the struggles between Hindu nationalist, Muslim, and secular forces in the largest democracy in the world.

It means the conflict between secularism and Islam in Turkey. It means discussing the battles between the Catholic Church and the socialist government in Spain, the complex relationship between Catholicism and government in Poland, and debates in Israel over the formal role of Orthodox Judaism. It means talking about the struggle for religious freedom in China and in many other nations in which religious liberty is curtailed or denied. It means the reemergence of the Orthodox Church as a power in Russia following the fall of communism, the role of liberation theology in Latin America, the influence of the established church in Britain (or lack thereof), and the use of government money to support churches in Germany.

The task the Niebuhrs and John Courtney Murray took on in the 1940s and 1950s—to develop what might be called a theology of democracy—is once again urgent.

And—God help me—this is just a partial list of the issues before us.

There are great paradoxes in this discussion. We could hold a conference around a single statement by one of my students this semester in a religion- and-politics class I teach at Georgetown. The student wrote, and I paraphrase here: “In the West, we feel obligated to justify our religious goals in secular terms. In many Islamic societies, secular goals must be justified in religious terms.”

If we confine ourselves to Christianity, the problem is difficult enough. One of Yale’s finest scholars, H. Richard Niebuhr, began a lecture on Religion and the Democratic Tradition at Berkeley Divinity School in October 1940 with these words: “To speak again of the relations of Christianity and democracy is to venture on ground well-trodden by angels and fools.”

Niebuhr explained the desire of so many of us to find links between democracy and our own traditions—in his case and mine, Christianity—this way: “We tend to become so devoted to Christianity that we do not inquire too diligently into its character; we love democracy so dearly that we do not ask it too many questions about its heredity, its religion, its virtues and its vices. We find beauty in both because we love them, as well as love them because they are beautiful. Defensiveness increases confusion in this realm.”

As always with both Niebuhr brothers, Richard was acutely aware of the paradoxes and contradictions involved in answering the question he was facing. On the one hand, he saw the danger of pretending that democracy was divinely ordained. “When the divine absolute is acknowledged,” he wrote, “all human absolutes appear as dangerous usurpers of the Kingdom of God.” He noted that if Lincoln’s phrase “of the people, by the people and for the people” were taken literally—as Lincoln himself did not take it, Niebuhr quickly added—“then Christian faith must question it as an adequate definition of government.”

Niebuhr went on: “No people can live in the world of God who live for themselves, who consult only their own desires in making laws, who are their own last court of appeal, their own beginning and their own end.”

Yet in the end, perhaps reflecting the fact that he, like many of us, perceived beauty in both Christianity and democracy, Niebuhr concluded, “Democracy is a gift which is added to men who seek first the Kingdom and its righteousness.”

Here’s how Richard Niebuhr reached that conclusion: “The positive relation between Christian faith and democracy,” he wrote, “is more a moral than intellectual one. Whenever confidence in the rule of God is vital in a society it leads to the limitation of all human power, to increased participation by the people in government, to the willingness to grant liberty to men, and to the political recognition of human equality. Whether or not these are the marks of true democracy, they are the features of the political organization of nations which have been influenced by Jewish and Christian faith.”

Now I agree passionately with Niebuhr on this, and yet I do so bearing in mind his own admonition: that perhaps I do not want to see any conflict between the traditions of Christianity and Judaism and the tradition of democracy because I love both so fervently. Christians and Jews certainly did not always revere democracy as most Christians and Jews do today. At the very time Niebuhr spoke, a significant wing of German Christianity was defending dictatorial rule that led to genocide. My own Catholic Church was far more open to democracy after Vatican II and the papacy of Pope John XXIII than it was before.

It is thus important for us to try to be clear on a number of questions. How successful and how permanent is the reconciliation of Christianity to democracy, toleration and pluralism? Is Niebuhr correct that a belief in a sovereign God necessarily leads to a view that limits the power of the state, including a theocratic state? How would we answer these same questions about the Jewish tradition? And if, indeed, the links between Christianity and Judaism and democracy are strong and durable, what are we to make of the present and possible future connections between democracy and the orientation of the other great monotheistic religion, Islam?

Islam vs. Democracy?

We already know that Islam can be compatible with democracy. Muslims play a vital role in democracies in which they find themselves a minority—India notably, but also the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, among other places. We also know that Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, has enjoyed some real successes in its struggle toward democracy; that Pakistan, with the world’s second largest Muslim population, has had moments of democracy; and of course that Turkey, despite past and current problems, has also made democracy work.

Yet there is a great debate on how successfully Islam can accommodate itself to modernity and democracy as a theoretical and theological matter. True, many once doubted Roman Catholicism’s ability to make such an accommodation, and perhaps the Catholic example is a heartening one. Yet Catholicism itself was greatly affected by the Reformation and the Enlightenment: it had, and continues to have, a dialectical relationship to modernity.

In thinking about this, I went back to an important 1986 essay by Fouad Ajami on what he called the “impossible life” of Muslim liberalism. Ajami wrote:

A whole literature of Moslem apologetics had stressed the compatibility between Islam and democracy, Islam and tolerance, and so on. All of that literature was part of a long intellectual dialogue that these modernists had carried on with Western intellectuals and critics. They were busy debating with the foreigner; they looked past the popular sensibilities of the masses, past the intolerance of religion and the obscurantism of the religious institutions. And thus they were not ready when Islam refused to take a bow, to deliver its exit lines.

It seems to me that the task both Niebuhrs and John Courtney Murray, among others, took on in the 1940s and 1950s—to develop what might be called a theology of democracy—is once again urgent. It remains urgent for Christians and Jews, but it is also vital work for our Muslim sisters and brothers.

Related to this is the work those of us must do in the West to address the question of what religious pluralism looks like when religious diversity explodes within free societies. Will Herberg’s famous book from the 1950s about American pluralism, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, would now have to be called Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, Confucian, Baha’i. And I know I’m leaving some people out even in that ungainly if inclusive title.

How are free societies to manage religious freedom? There are many models, but two very distinctive ones—the American approach and the French approach. Consider the 2003 controversy in France over the ban on Muslim head scarves and other conspicuous religious symbols in the country’s public schools. President Jacques Chirac’s stand on the issue called forth some startling ironies.

On a weekend in December of 2003, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi condemned the Chirac government for “an extremist decision aimed at preventing the development of Islamic values” in France. Meanwhile, thousands of French Muslims demonstrated in favor of the veil. The Associated Press reported at the time that some Muslim girls in France were thinking of attending Roman Catholic schools so they could continue to wear their head scarves.

Astounding, no? The French government’s heavy emphasis on secularism was, of course, rooted deep in the country’s history, in a reaction against Catholicism’s dominance of the state before the French Revolution and the church’s opposition to liberal values into the early part of the twentieth century.

Chirac actually deserved some credit at the time for linking his decision with a necessary call for a renewed “fight against xenophobia, racism and anti- Semitism.” He acted in response to both liberal and right-wing fears. French liberals worry about the rise of anti-Semitism and the challenge that head scarves pose to women’s rights. The far right has gained ground by exploiting prejudice against Muslim immigrants.

Two Kinds of Secularism

But Chirac’s problem was made more difficult because the French version of secularism is different from its American variant. The American approach provides more room for settling conflicts of the sort France and others among our European friends now confront. One does not have to be a chauvinist to see certain advantages to the American approach.

Both France and the United States see their respective governments as “secular” in the sense that they do not sponsor any particular faith. But as the historian Wilfred McClay has noted, there are at least two kinds of secularism. One is largely “negative,” aimed at protecting religion from government establishment and interference. The other sees secularism as “an alternative faith” that “supersedes the tragic blindness and destructive irrationalities of the historical religions.” People are free to act on their religious beliefs in private, McClay has written, “as long as they do not trouble the rest of us with them, or bestir the proverbial horses.”

McClay is critical of this view and prefers the “negative” approach because it limits the government’s claims and respects religion’s contribution to the public realm. On the whole, the United States has operated within this limited framework, while French secularism has been more aggressive in pushing religion to the margins of public life.

The difference between the approaches has already played itself out on the schools issue. In 1995 the U.S. Department of Education issued guidelines that drew a distinction between the rights of individual public school students and the duty of teachers and school administrators. Students were free to wear religious garb and symbols, to pray voluntarily on school grounds, and to read the Bible or other holy books at study halls. But school officials had the duty not to endorse any particular religious doctrine, nor could they coerce students into participating in any religious activity. The balance, President Bill Clinton said at the time, demonstrated that the Constitution “does not require children to leave their religion at the schoolhouse door.”

The guidelines became a bit more ambiguous after the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1997, but the idea behind them is still right. Government institutions should not sponsor religion but must respect the consciences of individuals who operate within them. Later guidelines protected the rights of religious federal employees.

The American tradition cannot simply be transposed to France or other nations. And before Americans crow, we should reflect on the expressions of religious bigotry in our own history. But the conflicts that confronted Chirac and face other Western nations suggest that America’s limited form of secularism may well, as McClay has written, provide “an essential basis for peaceful coexistence in a religiously pluralistic society.” The more limited American secularism is in fact rooted in a basic respect for religious traditions and not in hostility to religion.

These discussions put heavy stress on individual rights. But where does community fit in here, the idea of common bonds and common duties? What can we say about the requirement described in the Christian tradition as an obligation to “the least among us,” and in the Jewish tradition as tzedakkah, the obligation to act charitably toward others, and tikkun olam, the obligation to repair and improve the world around us?

The quest for community, I believe, is at the bottom of so much of the recent commotion about religion’s role in the public life of our country. One of the central facts about the United States since the 1960s has been the disestablishment of white Protestantism as one of the central organizing forces of American moral and cultural life. The election of John F. Kennedy marked the full entry of Roman Catholics into the mainstream of American civic life. The civil rights movement sought to right historic wrongs done to African Americans. The 1960s saw the sweeping away of many long-standing social and economic barriers against Jews, and new movements to defend the rights of immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and the Caribbean.

The new discourse about religion in public life is more inclusive, in theory at least, and far more open. But with the decline of the cultural influence of white Protestantism came the loss of a civic glue that the old Protestant values provided.

The Waning of The Religious Right?

I will not pretend here to provide a magical recipe for a new civic glue. I do think that some of its ingredients can be found in the writings of the Niebuhrs, Philip Selzick, Robert Bellah, Michael Walzer, Bill Galston, Amitai Etzioni, Jim Wallis, and Bryan Hehir—and, indeed, in the theologies of justice developed in the civil rights movement and in African American churches, beginning but not ending with Martin Luther King, Jr.; in the rich tradition of Catholic social thought; in aspects of the Protestant Social Gospel, though with the important corrections offered by Reinhold Niebuhr; and in the new enthusiasm within modern evangelical Protestantism for environmental stewardship and an engagement with the poor.

There has never been a better moment for a new religious conversation, especially one organized around the theme of community. We meet at a moment when the religious winds are changing. The future of religious engagement with American public life will not, I believe, be defined by the events of the recent past. Beginning in the late 1970s, much of the public discourse assumed that religion lives on the right, an assumption that shaped how religion was covered in the mass media. Once, the media had paid much attention to a broad range of religious figures—from Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, and Karl Barth to John Courtney Murray, Billy Graham, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Starting in the late 1970s, the focus of interest narrowed. To be sure, Pope John Paul II got his share of attention. But in the United States, the attention lavished on Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and later James Dobson suggested that to be religious was to cling to a rather narrow set of social and political views. The public voice of religion, as reflected in the supposedly liberal mass media, was deeply inflected with a particular brand of southern, conservative evangelicalism.

But in the new millennium, new religious voices are rising to challenge stereotypical views of religious faith. I speak here not only of Wallis, Amy Sullivan, Bob Edgar, and others on the side of religious progressivism. There is also Rick Warren, a religious and political conservative who nonetheless insists that if Christians do not care about the poorest among them in the world, they are not being true to their faith. There is Rich Cizik, a loyal conservative official of the National Association of Evangelicals, who has fought tough internal battles to stand up for the idea that a concern for life must entail a concern for the stewardship of the Earth and an engagement with the problem of global warming. There is Bono, who once said he could be considered a man of the cloth only if the cloth were leather. He, too, challenged Christians to stand up for the poor.

And religious liberals who had spent much time reacting to the Religious Right in the 1980s—sometimes by arguing against religious engagement in politics altogether—found their voices as people of faith insisting on a different interpretation of their traditions and of the scriptures, including the insistence that whatever else one might try to make of Jesus’ politics, it is highly unlikely that he would put cuts in capital gains taxes and the repeal of inheritance taxes at the top of his political agenda.

The era of the Religious Right is over. Its collapse is part of a larger decline of a certain style of ideological conservatism that reached high points in 1980 and 1994 and collapsed in 2006. The end of the Religious Right does not signal a decline in evangelical Christianity. On the contrary, it is a sign of a new reformation among Christians—Warren and Cizik are representative figures—who are trying to disentangle their great movement from a political machine. This historic change will require liberals and conservatives alike to abandon their sometimes narrow views of who evangelicals are and what they believe. And it will encourage conservative evangelicals to reopen lines of communication with more progressive Christians, and with others on the center and left of politics.

Dreams and Paradoxes

If we’re honest, we will always see the paradoxes and ironies of religion’s relationship to public life. Religion can create community, and it can divide communities. It can lead to searing self-criticism, and it can promote a pompous self-satisfaction. It can encourage dissent and conformity, generosity and narrow-mindedness. Religion’s finest hours have been the times when intense belief led to social transformations, yet some of its darkest days have entailed the translation of intense belief into the ruthless imposition of orthodoxy.

But the history of the United States, at least, despite our many outbreaks of prejudice, nativism and self-congratulation, is in large part a history of religion’s role as a prod to social justice, inclusion, and national self-criticism.

I’d like to close with two views of religion’s public role suggesting that at its best, it is prophetic and challenging, often dangerous to the powers-that-be and friendly to those who are oppressed and heavily burdened.

The first is from Michael Walzer’s fine book Exodus and Revolution. Walzer argues that the Exodus story has provided Western thought with one of its central themes, of “oppression” and “deliverance,” of the idea that “the door of hope” always remains open. “We still believe,” Walzer writes,

or many of us do, what the Exodus first taught … about the meaning and possibility of politics and about its proper form: — First, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt.

— Second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land.

— And third, that the way to the land is through the wilderness. There is no way to get from here to there without joining together and marching.

And listen to the historian Richard Wightman Fox, reflecting on the work of Reinhold Niebuhr and the historian Christopher Lasch. Both, Fox said, understood that

religion can be seen both as a democratic social power—a capacity to build community—and as a tragic perspective that acknowledges the perennial failing of human beings to make community endure. … Religion allows people to grapple with the human mysteries that neither science nor politics can address. But it also provides a force that science and politics can call on in their effort to understand and transform the social world.

Fox, I believe, explains why we are destined to visit, over and over, the relationship between religion and our aspirations to pluralism, freedom, justice, and democracy. Only by doing so will we be able to respect the serious moral commitments of believers and unbelievers alike. Only by doing so will we preserve free expression and religious liberty. And only by doing so will we create the “beloved community” that was Martin Luther King’s dream, and remains our aspiration.

E.J. Dionne, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., is also a Washington Post syndicated columnist and faculty member at Georgetown University. His books include Stand Up Fight Back: Republican Toughs, Democratic Wimps, and the Politics of Revenge (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004).