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Scholar discusses democracy

Michael Busk | Friday, November 5, 2004

Prominent religious scholar Jeffrey Stout warned of an impending crisis in American politics caused by governmental imperialism and religious polarization during his Thursday lecture entitled “The Spirit of Democracy,” but assured listeners that they had the power to avert that crisis.

Stout, a professor of religion at Princeton University, detailed the problems of a large democratic government, like the United States’, which he said can become so bureaucratic and hierarchical that its primary goal changes from seeking to increase the good of its citizens to desiring only to sustain itself.

Such governments, Stout continued, almost inevitably become corrupt.

“They are resistant to being held responsible by the societies they are supposed to serve,” Stout said. “A form of government ceases to be democratic when the society around it ceases to be animated, both ethically and spiritually, by a concerted attempt on the part of citizens to hold one another and governmental officials responsible.”

“When we allow political advertising and the demagoguery on talk-radio and cable T.V. to replace public reasoning and a democratic spirit, the result tends to be government of the people, by the corporation, and for the corporation,” he said.

Although these problems are severe, Stout also said that their severity might make citizens to realize the dire situation of American democracy, causing them to do something about it.

“A heightened sense of crisis could either hasten the evisceration of democracy or shake the people from their slumber,” Stout said.

Stout also stressed that a real democracy must foster and protect the spiritual lives of those who live within it.

“By allowing all citizens to express their mostly deeply held aspirations and commitments … a free democratic community also implicitly affirms its members as spiritual beings,” he said.

Stout reminded his listeners that the First Amendment ensures a fine balance on matters of religion, both guaranteeing its free exercise and forbidding the government from imposing any form of it upon its citizens. Stout went on to say that the tension between free exercise and government imposition has found a battleground in young Americans.

“What is happening to the young people who would have joined the civil rights movement if they had come of age politically when I did?” Stout asked.

“When they get to college and law school, they are exposed to forms of political and moral philosophy that insist on the importance of keeping religion completely out of politics,” he said. “As a result, some of them become liberal secularists and others recoil and retreat into an anti-liberal form of traditionalism.”

Stout recommended against both of these extreme positions, warning that liberal secularists tend to mock religious values so important to Christians and other theists, while Christians and other theists can often push their own beliefs too far into the public sphere.

“I don’t think it will help for judges to display the Ten Commandments in their courtrooms or for our Congressmen to sing on the steps of the capital ‘God Bless America’,” he said.

Despite his critique of current American politics, Stout concluded hopefully, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. and urging listeners that in their freedom they had they power to make things better.

“Injustice needs our silence to maintain its grip on power,” Stout said. “Things would be different if you and I and others like us behaved differently.”