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Jul  2015 02
Nurturing Leaders Who Can Nurture Democracy

I love my country. I do not love the way we are practicing democracy. Too many churches are not helping.

The early critics of democracy claimed there was no difference between democracy and a mob. The response from America’s architects saw that danger. They argued that democracy requires an educated, informed, moral citizenry and the active protection of minority rights by the majority.

An ignorant, ill-informed, morally unformed citizenry might seek to crush political minorities rather than to make space for them, thus creating resentment and putting the lie to the alleged values of liberty and justice for all.

You might challenge my perception, but I see our cake and circus society, filled with attractive distractions, with so few people voting, and with a national-soul-troubling inability to deal effectively with persistent social issues as falling far short of our democratic ideals.

I don’t blame the branches of government. I don’t blame Citizens United, as terrible as that decision and the money game in politics has become. The Constitution of the U.S. begins with “We the People…” The buck stops with us.

And the churches are not helping. What do I mean by that?

First, a brief word on whether or not churches should help democracy. Let me provide a picture from the edge. There is an extreme form of Christianity some scholars call Dominionism. Dominionists believe that God is sovereign over all nations (okay, I believe that, too) and that all nations are legitimate only to the extent that they allow and promote the one true religion, Christianity (now, you’ve lost me).

They understand the U.S. to be a Christian nation. Period. Any departure from Christianity renders a law invalid. While there are few true Dominionists, less strict versions of this viewpoint can be widely found in understandings of church and state that privilege Christianity. Such versions of Christianity do not care about democracy. They care about winning for one side and one perspective.

For the rest of us Christians, we could help democracy in the U.S. become less of a besotted mob, which seems to want to push out “enemies” than make space for “opponents,” and more of the country we were created to be. Some of you will read the following ideas and say, “We’re doing that.” Great! Keep at it. Let’s see if we can multiply.

Here are a few ways I believe we could help:

  • Teach that every human being is created in the image of God; this is the Christian basis of human dignity.
  • Teach and practice that relationships rather than individuals are the bases for life.
  • Practice civil discourse, which is a practice of conversation and argument when parties deeply disagree, are committed to staying at the table, and seek common ground or a living compromise.
  • Counter the American myth of innocence (e.g., that we are good and therefore cannot do anything bad) with basic Christian teaching on sin. This will also require expanding the common American understanding of sin as associated with sex but not connected to matters such as war, poverty, immigration, taxation policy, incarceration, equal opportunity, and race.
  • As an example of countering the myth of innocence: Tell the truth, warts and all, by listening to and amplifying voices that have been silenced or quieted. I learned little about the Trail of Tears in all my schooling. Here in Oklahoma, I’ve now heard many times from people who grew up here that they did not learn about the 1921 massacre of African-Americans by white people in Tulsa (the Tulsa race riot).
  • Remind people a few times a year of the wonderful, profound phrase Abraham Lincoln once used regarding America: God’s “almost chosen people.” A great antidote to presidential campaign speeches.
  • Hold candidate forums during elections. Identify the moral issues facing your community and press the candidates for their moral stances.
  • Offer Christian interpretations of what “with liberty and justice for all” means.
  • I think the core message of Jesus is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. With Jesus’ teachings on family and with parables such as the Good Samaritan in mind, the way I expand the second half of that phrase is “Your family is bigger than you think.” Imagine what both church ministries and a kind of public policy would mean if we acted on that understanding, “Your family (and thus your obligation to care) is bigger than you think.”

The list is incomplete. What would you add?

I am not arguing that contributing to a healthy democracy is the churches’ number one job. Worshiping God as revealed in the way of Jesus the Christ is primary. But would the U.S.A. be a stronger and better democracy if Christian churches actively did more of the activities I name above?

In terms of leadership, do you know someone who could help form a people who could strengthen democracy?

Happy 4th of July.

PRAYER: Gracious God, bless this nation and every nation with leaders who will cultivate vital conversations, vital communities, and the goods of public life as defined by the Hebrew prophets who judged societies by how the powerless were treated.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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