There’s no escaping the news that we are polarized into warring camps. Some of this may be noise from a fear-mongering press. However, there is plenty of evidence that, by the standards of U.S. history, we do have a serious problem finding our common ground these days.
Compare two events: The Civil War almost divided us into two democracies, but neither side questioned democracy itself. In comparison, this past year citizens attempted to set aside democracy through an armed invasion of the Capitol. Their goal was to force Congress to void a popular vote sanctioned by our legal system, in favor of appointing the president.
As this “stop-the-steal” train continues to roll down the political tracks, it is fair to ask whether democracy remains our national destination. In fact, do we even agree on what democracy is? For the answer to be “yes”, we must shift our focus from what divides us to what we hold in common.
Humanity has always used religion to define what we hold in common, as a basis for internal social solidarity. Our own history features a continuous stream of Christian revivals uniting citizens in the face of new challenges. Indeed, there are many voices today advocating a Christian renewal for resolving our differences.
The catch, however, is and has always been that none of our religions or religious traditions can provide the common ground required for an inclusive democracy. This is because a religion can only provide solidarity for an entire political system by establishing itself as a theocracy; the religion and the political system become one. This is true whether we are talking about communities, states, or nations.
This is not a recipe for inclusive democracy. The reasons for this are straightforward. Religion creates an ‘us’ defined by a commitment to a sacred reality that is superior to other options. This ‘us’ necessarily creates a ‘them’ out of everyone else, a them that serves inferior false gods. Each generation of American history clearly illustrates this fragmentation process.
Some claim that our nation was established as a Christian nation, if not by formal decree, then by intent. In fact, however, the creation of a united democratic society required, first of all, divesting the new nation from any and all of the state religions of the former colonies. The solution? No state-sanctioned religion at all.
In the years after the founding, competing white Protestant denominations worked to create a religious foundation for the new nation, often through the frontier revival tradition. This loose unity formed in response to a ‘them’: indigenous peoples; non-Protestant immigration, especially Irish Catholics; and a growing nonwhite population, both slave and free.
This religious quasi-unity was short-lived. As we approached the Civil War, white Protestant religions of all varieties fractured over the issue of slavery, some of them into Northern and Southern branches.
After the war, black Protestantism emerged as its own American religious tradition. This was at least partially the result of the unwillingness of white Protestants to embrace nonwhite men and women on an equal basis.
In the first decades of the 20th century, white Protestantism fragmented in the face of massive immigration of mostly non-protestant, non-English speaking peoples. Some denominations created a Social Gospel movement to minister to the new arrivals. Some denominations became part of the Nativist movement trying to send the immigrants “back home”.
By the middle of the century, the Kennedy era signaled a fleeting, Camelot moment for Catholic and Protestant unity. But by the Reagan era, Protestantism and Catholicism had each split into today’s opposing liberal and conservative camps, each camp subdivided further into sectarian groups. For instance, within the conservative camp some Protestants do not yet consider their Catholic colleagues to be true “Christians”.
These are only a few of our historic religious divisions. All of our religions and their traditions may be committed to their role as part of the American nation, but none of them provides the basis for national unity, either individually or as a collective.
So, what does? How do we achieve and maintain the social solidarity required for a successful, complex modern Democracy in a challenging international environment? While the answer may not be any particular religion or religious tradition, we may gain direction by considering how religion produces internal solidarity.
Emile Durkheim reduced human religious expression to these elements: beliefs, values and rituals regarding the sacred that serve to form a moral community. The essential dynamic common to all religions, and the key to their capacity for producing social solidarity, is to recognize some things as sacred, and to use these sacred things in order to organize a moral community.
This can be transposed directly to modern democracies. Our national common ground must be the beliefs, rituals and values essential for strengthening and maintaining an inclusive democracy. These beliefs, rituals and values must be our most sacred national possession. They are not just one important element of our national life together; they are the most essential element of our national life together, the element that makes the United States possible.
Secondly, our Democracy must become inclusive, in order to avoid the dark side of religion, the creation of an inferior ‘them’. Consider the sacred ritual of voting, for example. In American history, the power of states to discriminate has only been limited by federal laws prohibiting a few, specific discriminations. In an inclusive democracy, every citizen of age would have the right to vote, proactively facilitated by the government.
Religion has historically been the ultimate source of legitimacy and solidarity in human societies. The legitimacy and solidarity of our Democracy requires us to appreciate democracy’s sacred importance, and to dedicate our resources and energies to the meaningful access of every citizen to all dimensions of this sacred gift.
Dan Stuhlsatz is a founding member of the None of the Above Society.
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