What Kind of Spirituality Does a Healthy Democracy Need?

Every culture has a spirituality, a spirit, a soul. Spirituality used in the context of culture refers to the life energy, the desire, the aching toward something. A true and good spirituality should ground a people, deepen them, make them wiser, keep them focused. Spirituality is evident in answers to the question, “What kind of people are they?”

Sometimes spiritualities produce competing goods. But not all spiritualities create paths to public goods. Some waken and clear space for what other perspectives might see as demons.

  • An individualist culture has a spirituality; it values liberty, self-made person, meritocracy, winners and losers, and government understood primarily in the negative (protect and defend). Its hell is the totalitarian.
  • A totalitarian culture has a spirituality—public conformity, with almost no sense of private life, control, the collective, the exterior governing authority. It is an instance of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Its hell is individual freedom that will result in anarchy.
  • An industrial culture has a spirituality—dominance over raw materials, elevation of society over nature. Its rejects the quaint inefficiencies, the lack of scalability, the expense and the lack of control of cottage work.
  • A crafts-person culture has a spirituality—working with nature, feeling the spirits of the wood or metals one is crafting into objects of art and use. Its hell is the impersonal, soulless, mass-produced industrial culture.

What kind of spirituality is needed for a healthy democracy? The answer, in part, depends on what kind of democracy one has in mind. The spirituality of a consensus form of democracy might be strong on the virtue of discovering and forging compromises. A winner-takes-all practice might value “politics is war, get over it” winners and “good” losers. A coalition government where the rights of political minorities are protected because today’s opponent may be tomorrow’s ally may have strong affinities to toleration and restraint.

Stack of books on the theme of democracy at risk.Readers of this blog know that I don’t think the U.S. today boosts a healthy democracy. In fact, I think that American democracy, seriously flawed as it has always been by white supremacy, is slipping into the mouth of an authoritarian hell. (I completely resonate with Michelle Obama’s speech last night about the urgency of this moment.)

But this is also an era of reckoning that could transform the nation for the better, if we can develop the necessary “spiritual disciplines” to undergird a “more perfect nation.”

I’m still developing my sense of what the spiritual practices per se are that are necessary for a healthy democracy. But, from my point of view and thinking in terms of desired outcomes, a healthy democracy would attentively cultivate:

  • Responsible citizens and corporations. Each person is raised to develop their capacity to govern themselves and to participate in democratic processes. In addition, the capacity to think in terms of corporate responsibility is well-developed. Freedom is always exercised in the context of responsibility.
  • Equality. Equality, mutuality, and reciprocity are as highly valued as freedom. (This value is a linchpin in terms of social and criminal justice, as well as how freedom and toleration/acceptance of differences is actually practiced. I agree with the cultural commentators who allege the claim of equality, when considered in terms of peoples of color, is a lie that threatens the entire U.S. democratic experiment.)
  • Education/lifelong learning. Communities fund and support a robust, effective system of public education that prepares people to think critically and reflectively.
  • Fairness. The voting process is characterized by free and secure elections, and attention to ensuring that every vote counts.
  • Agency. Citizen participation—including but not confined to voting, policy, and law-making—actually matters.
  • Speech. The culture of conversation and argument, both in local communities and in legislatures, is sufficient to have the arguments we need to have. High tolerance for conflict and well-developed skills in conflict management are expected.
  • Effective government. Government is large enough and well-funded enough to accomplish its ends.
  • Trust through accountability. The people are governed by officials who earn the public trust daily through practices of accountability, including well-functioning checks and balances.
  • Minority rights. The rights of political minorities are protected by the majority.
  • Toleration. There is a broad and deep tolerance of differences and appreciation for and protection of dissent, as well as for privacy, as well as for discomfort.
  • Justice. The criminal justice system, which is ever-attentive to the virtue of equality before the law, is aligned toward reform and restoration, as well as the protection of victims and the society.
  • Correction. There are well-developed, effective means of dissent, correction, and re-direction. Protests that call out injustice are accepted as essential.
  • Other-regard. “Who is my neighbor and how does one practice neighboring?” are circle-opening questions. People see themselves as members of communities and not simply as individuals.
  • Honesty and truth-seeking. The people and the government of the people tells themselves true and honest stories about themselves, and they develop public practices of social repair to deal with harm.
  • Informed decision-makers. Decision-making includes an effective dialogue of experts and informed local publics.
  • Public spaces. Public spaces are set aside and developed for the public good.
  • Social justice. The equity among stakeholders is sufficient to ensure participation in decision-making and social stability, as well as to evidence the value of equality.
  • Well-being. There is a rich mix of voluntary organizations, non-profits, private initiatives, and government to foster all these outcomes.
  • The long view. In meaningful ways, the past, future generations, and the health of the planet “get a vote” when legislation is conceived and when we cast our ballots.

Despite the length of this list, I’m sure I’ve overlooked something of value. That said, look at that list. Surely, it is a list of ideals which mere humans can approximate, more or less.

More would be better! Less is where we are.

As a lifelong Christian and as a lover of what this nation still could be, I wonder what the disciplines are—the consistent, soul-expanding practices—that would lead toward more public happiness. And I wonder what communities of faith and persons with moral-spiritual depth (who may or may not be members of communities of faith) could contribute to cultivating a spirituality that would undergird a transformed democracy.

Because sliding in the mouth of hell is no place to be!

We do not have to be here. But if I’m right about the desired outcomes for a healthy democracy, it is going to take a lot of uncomfortable work to create a better place.

Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here. In October, he will offering a free, online, public course dealing with the questions in this blog.

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