What Does Democracy Require of Us?

What Does Democracy Require of Us? October 24, 2012

On March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln stood before the crowd at the United States capitol building to deliver his second inaugural address.  Lincoln was addressing a nation nearing the conclusion of a long and bloody Civil War that took 600,000 lives.  The speech was far from triumphant.  It was a meditation on one of the most tragic moments in American history.  It would have been easy for Lincoln to cast scorn and punishment down upon the defeated Confederacy.   This, after all, is what the religious leaders of the day had been doing since the outbreak of war in 1861.  Northern ministers believed that the inevitable Union victory was confirmation that God was indeed on the side of the North.

But Lincoln wasn’t so sure.  After all, both sides in this conflict read the same Bible and prayed to the same God.  “The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.  The Almighty has his own purposes.”  Lincoln would not settle for easy theological answers.  He appealed instead to the mystery of God.  And he made sure that no one in the North would use the Civil War to bring further division to the country he loved.  Lincoln knew that there were politicians in his own political party who were ready to exploit this tragedy for political gain.  These “Radical Republicans” were prepared to humiliate southerners by making it very difficult for them to return to the Union.  With this in mind, Lincoln urged the nation to approach the post-war settlement “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”  All Americans, Lincoln suggested, were to blame for this ugly war.  The hands of both the North and the South had been dirtied by slavery.  It was now time for national repentance.  Lincoln implied that his northern politician friends should be careful to take the plank out of their own eye before they passed Reconstruction legislation to remove the speck from the collective eye of the former Confederacy.  Citing Matthew 7:1, he was careful to remind the American people to be cautious about judging the South: “but let us judge not that we be judged.”

Not only was Lincoln charged with the responsibility of bringing the South back into the Union in the wake of the Civil War, but he was also faced with the task of restoring, and then preserving, American democracy amidst the culture war—between North and South, Republicans and Democrats—that was on the horizon.  He asked the nation to work together in an act of reconciliation to “bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.”  Anger and vengeance would do little to promote the kind of civil society necessary for democracy to flourish once again in the United States.  Lincoln would not be alive to see the disastrous culture war that historians refer to as “Reconstruction.”  To the detriment of the nation, few political leaders took Lincoln’s advice.  It is only in hindsight that we celebrate his famous words.

There is a lot that was different about the country that Abraham Lincoln addressed the first week of March, 1865 and the country that we live in today.  But there are also a lot of similarities.  Lincoln knew that our democratic culture would not be sustained by the kind of political and cultural vitriol that he was witnessing in the wake of the Civil War.  As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of this tragic event in the American past, democracy is no longer being threatened by secession, slavery, or a bloody Civil War, but it is being threatened by our failure to resolve our differences in a civil fashion, work for the common good, and develop the kinds of social virtues necessary for our republic to continue to function.   We have failed to live up to the democratic values that we supposedly hold so dear.

Lincoln was calling us to our better angels.  He knew that in order for a democracy to thrive—even flourish—citizens needed to learn how to live together with their differences.  Today, sociologists, cultural critics, and public intellectuals call the kind of society Lincoln talked about in his Second Inaugural Address a civil society.  A civil society is a society in which citizens foster a sense of community amid their differences.  Such a society, as writer Don Eberly describes it, “draws Americans together at a time of social isolation and fragmentation.”   A successful democracy rests on our ability to forge these kinds of connections and behave in a civil manner toward each other.

A democracy needs citizens, individuals who understand that their own pursuits of happiness must operate in tension with obligations and responsibilities to a larger community.  Citizens realize that their own success, fate, and ability to flourish as human beings are bound up with the lives of others.  Such a commitment to the common good requires citizens who are able to respect, as fellow human beings and members of the same community, those with whom they might disagree on some of life’s most important issues.  It requires empathy, or the willingness to imaginatively walk in the shoes of our neighbor.  As Mary Ann Glendon puts it, “A democratic republic needs an adequate supply of citizens who are skilled in the arts of deliberation, compromise, consensus-building, and reason-giving.”

The sixteenth-century writer Montaigne once said that “every man calls evil what he does not understand.”  Our everyday lives will always be filled with disagreements and misunderstandings, but a democratic society will only survive if we are able to live civilly with them.  We are correct to believe that in the United States we have a “right” to our opinions and beliefs, but there are also times when we must rise above private interests and temporarily sacrifice our rights for the great good of the larger community.  Such a view of the common good, which the late Pope John Paul II called “solidarity,” requires that we see others, even those who we may believe are “evil,” as neighbors and a “sharer on par with ourselves in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God.”  Parker Palmer put an alternative spin on Montaigne’s quote when he said: “the more you know about another person’s story, the less possible it is to see that person as your enemy.”

Because we all have our own views and opinions, civil society requires conversation.  We may never come to an agreement upon what constitutes the “common good,” but we can all commit ourselves to sustaining democracy by talking to and engaging with one another.   As Palmer puts it, “Democracy gives us the right to disagree and is designed to use the energy of creative conflict to drive positive social change.  Partisanship is not a problem.  Demonizing the other side is.”  The inner working of this kind of democracy is described best by the late historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch in his book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy.  His description of the mechanics of democratic conversation is worth citing in full:

The attempt to bring others around to our point of view carries the risk, of course, that we may adopt their point of view instead.  We have to enter imaginatively into our opponent’s arguments, if only for the purpose of refuting them, and we may end up being persuaded by those we sought to persuade.  Argument is risky and unpredictable, therefore educational.  Most of us tend to think of it…as a clash of rival dogmas, a shouting match in which neither side gives any ground.  But arguments are not won by shouting down opponents.  They are won by changing opponents’ minds—something that can only happen if we give opposing arguments a respectful hearing and still persuade their advocates that there is something wrong with those arguments.  In the course of this activity we may well decide that there is something wrong with our own.

Doesn’t a flourishing democracy require this kind of conversation?

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  • Craig

    Open-minded discussion will still leave us short of consensus on the fundamental matters. This raises the fundamental question: what does it mean to duly respect our fellow citizens as we wield the political power to coercively affect them (in ways about which we fundamentally disagree)? Do we approach politics as a mere contest of power? Or does civility require of us a substantive kind of self-restraint? What kind of restraint? If each party is allow to interpret the restraint required of itself according to its own contested ideology, then we won’t realize civility.

  • If America ever had an “ideal” president, Lincoln was it. He is the most beloved of them all. The one virtue for which he is remembered would be his compassion and mercy upon his enemies. Of his Second Inaugural it is said, “The speech was far from triumphant. It was a meditation on one of the most tragic moments in American history. It would have been easy for Lincoln to cast scorn and punishment down upon the defeated Confederacy. This, after all, is what the religious leaders of the day had been doing since the outbreak of war in 1861.” Instead, he appealed for forgiveness and acceptance of those who were his sworn enemies; even of those who would shortly take his own life. QUESTION: When Christ shall have finally subdued all his enemies, shall he be less merciful and inclusive than Lincoln? Or, at his victory celebration, shall he curse them and damn them to suffer eternal conscious torture in a so-called hell?

  • johnturner

    I use the 2nd Inaugural Address in the classroom at every opportunity. It’s useful for thinking about the political conflict that lay behind the Civil War (why does AL blame the North and the South for the sin of slavery; what was the position of the Republican Party about slavery at the war’s outset?), questions of theodicy (why did God permit slavery to persist in the United States for so long and then choose to punish the country so severely?), and reconciliation / justice. And to think, all that in just a few spare paragraphs.

  • John C. Gardner

    The Second Inaugural is a wonderful document and piece of theology. Although Lincoln was not an orthodox Christian(cf A. Guelzo and Mark Noll on this issue) he did move towards a very profound view of the causes of the War. We need more sophisticated thinking on our common Christian faith and its relationship to politics, history and life. One recent work which is quite well done is Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis and the recent work by Rable. Thanks for this wonderful post.

  • numenian

    As I see it, “What does democracy require of us?” can only be asked and answered in a secular venue; there is no biblical response, except to warn against such entanglements. America, to begin with, is rooted in the violation of Romans13, or, if you will, conceived in sin (“You will know a tree by its fruit..” and for those not keeping track of such things, slavery, a government policy of genocide, the Civil War, sweat shops, company stores, segregation, concentration camps for Japanese Americans, Race riots, Hollywood, rampant drug use, torture, the Patriot Act, abortion, and gay marriage just to name a few, overlooking such things as supporting or helping put into power dictatorships that grossly mistreated its citizens).

    There were no amendments to submit to the governing authorities, see Israel circa 30CE. Jesus did not say “No taxation without representation”: he said, “Render unto Caesar…” The Jews were being literally taxed out of existence by tyrannical and pagan Rome. If said were justification for rebellion, Jesus would have given it. Thus we can conclude that the arguments for the American Revolution are secular, based on humanistic or pagan ideas, not scriptural ones. Remember: do not return evil for evil.

    If there were truly any cause to take exception and rebel against the great injustice and unfairness practiced by this “governing authority” or any other state, we must admit to a failing in our Savior. He could say ignore the tyranny of Rome because we are not just primarily but only “citizens of heaven.” This is not just some flowery expression to mean we belong to God; it is a statement about the exact nature of our status in the world.

    The One Rule of citizenship is delivered by Paul: Love of neighbor. Our sole allegiance is to God and out of that allegiance–through, by, and of grace–we are to love our neighbor like unto loving him. This is what is required of us in any country, under any governing authority. How we submit is by the love for the kingdom of heaven, which God reigns. This is our freedom in Christ.

    In direct response to the article:
    “…but it is being threatened by our failure to resolve our differences in a civil fashion, work for the common good, and develop the kinds of social virtues necessary for our republic to continue to function. We have failed to live up to the democratic values that we supposedly hold so dear.”
    It is in the democratic values being held dear, and how so many “patriots” conceive of those values, that we have our present lack of civility. Both sides view the other as betraying those beloved values, thus rancor. The right no longer addresses its crowd with “fellow Americans” or “citizen”: they use the term “patriots” to indicate they are on the side of those values and the other side is not. This divisiveness can only be there by dividing our allegiance between a worldly power and heaven.

    Christians are to be concerned only with the One Rule of proper citizenship: Love of neighbor, which is patriotism (“love and zeal for its interest”) for the kingdom of God. Their are no standards to hold dear. The only thing of true and lasting value is to be hidden in Christ, the standard-bearer.

  • jerry lynch

    We are strangers in a stranger land, aliens, foreigners to all governments as citizens of heaven. So we have a one-size-fits-all approach to every government on our earthly visa: Love of neighbor (note: enemies are neighbors as well). This is what God requires of us and is our only concern. From this, we submit to the governing authorities only to the extent it does not violate this One Rule, as outline in Romans13. If the governing authorities do violate this One Rule, we are under no obligation to submit. Yet neither are we to rebel. As Jesus did, we practice nonviolent civil disobedience. This is not to be a demand for our rights nor intended to be against the governing authorities; it is simply honoring our Father, done both for the benefit of the oppressed and the oppressor. Within this One Rule, we are required not to return evil for evil, to turn the other cheek, and go the extra mile.