COMMENTARY: In the new year, offering a prayer for democracy

My New Year’s wish is for the health and resurgence of democracy. What follows is a slightly edited version of a morning prayer I offered last month at the Appleton Chapel of the Memorial Church at Harvard University.

Let us say a prayer for democracy. But let us do more than pray. Let’s ask ourselves what it means to live by a democratic ethic. “Here on earth,” as John F. Kennedy said, “God’s work must truly be our own.”

We know that democracy, particularly in its liberal form, is embattled, facing threats within nations that have long been proud of their democratic traditions, and competition from systems that tout themselves as better able to deliver many of life’s good things.

But the greatest threat to democracy may be our own indifference.

Democracy properly encourages open-mindedness. But are we so open-minded that we are not willing to say, unequivocally, that a system providing for free speech, freedom of conscience, a free media, freedom of religion, and genuinely free elections is both morally and practically better than alternative systems? Are we so concerned about our tendency to deify our own culture and our own traditions, are we so turned off by the invocation of democracy in defense of wars we might have opposed, that we are unwilling to assert that democracy is worth defending across cultures and nations?

Democracy is and always has been imperfect in practice. Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident who became his country’s president, told Congress in 1990: “As long as people are people, democracy in the full sense of the word will always remain an ideal. One may approach democracy as one would a horizon, in ways that may be better or worse, but which can never be fully attained. In this sense, you, too, are merely approaching democracy.”

In embracing democracy, as the historian James Kloppenberg has written, we are standing up for three contested principles: popular sovereignty, autonomy and equality. We are also embracing three premises: deliberation, pluralism and reciprocity.

We know that in its liberal form, democracy must at times resist popular sovereignty — a majority of the people cannot vote away their own rights or anyone else’s. We know that our own quest for autonomy can conflict with our obligations to the communities to which we owe debts. We know that many democracies, including our own, are a long way from true equality.

Yet in the face of these tensions and imperfections, which values would we place above popular sovereignty, autonomy and equality — and also above deliberation, pluralism and reciprocity? If we would uphold these commitments, we should be prepared, with Havel, to defend the democratic ideal.

We should also be prepared to live it. For religious people, the grounding for democracy is a belief that all human beings are endowed with equal dignity by God. But one need not be religious to insist on the equal dignity of our fellow human beings. One need only be a small-d democrat.

A devotion to democracy thus ought to affect how we treat others. We often have to deal with hierarchies, but we should never internalize them. Those at the bottom of formal authority structures see things and know things that cannot be seen from on high. We should, as Pope Francis has said, seek the wisdom available only on the peripheries. We learn from experience — and from the news — that the distributions of virtue, compassion and judgment are not correlated with the distributions of power and wealth.

Democracy, finally, is rooted in two intuitions, about our aspirations to transcendence, which allow us to imagine a better world, and about our proclivities to sin and failure, which require limits on the power any of us can wield. Thus Reinhold Niebuhr’s aphorism: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

The conservative writer William F. Buckley Jr. once said that he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty. I no doubt have a higher opinion of the Harvard faculty than Buckley did, but the instinct behind his provocation should stay with us.

Democracy imposes a discipline. It demands that no fortunate group should ever claim, by virtue of its position or its educational attainments, the unchallenged right to impose its will on others. To invoke the late Benjamin Barber’s lovely phrase, the only aristocracy democracy fully sanctions is “an aristocracy of everyone.” It is the one sort of aristocracy worth praying for.

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