Democracy in peril?

January 22nd, 2019

Is democracy failing?

Across the globe on any given day, you can find headlines tolling the bell for democracy. A September 2018 Cyprus Mail headline blared, “The Stains on Our Democracy.” Around the same time, an article in The Philippine Star morosely declared, “Democracy Died Today.” In countries around the world, similar questions are being asked constantly about the health of democracy, indicating that there’s real cause for concern.

The Atlantic, October 2018 cover

The same sentiments can be found painted on recent covers of magazines in the United States. The October 2018 issue of The Atlantic asked, “Is Democracy Dying?” in letters that took up a third of the cover. The bulk of the issue was occupied by nine articles addressing that very same question in various forms. A September 2018 issue of The Economist focused on David Runciman, author of the book How Democracy Ends. Since May 2018, Foreign Policy has published articles on the failing state of democracy in India, the Congo, Turkey, the United States, Malaysia and Italy.

While these concerns may be reaching a fever pitch in the current environment, questions about the health of democracy are nothing new. In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, a French sociologist, toured America and wrote about his observations regarding the strengths and vulnerabilities of the fledgling democracy. In his classic work Democracy in America, Tocqueville argued that the individualism he saw in Americans could potentially prove detrimental to democracy. He also voiced concern that the growth of individualism would lead to despotism if concern for the greater good faded. If many of the headlines today are to be believed, then Tocqueville’s cautious claims, though a few centuries premature, may have been well-grounded. 

Why should we care?

While Christianity can and does function under many different forms of government, democracy with its emphasis on freedom and equality is arguably the most congenial to Christian values such as love of neighbor, compassion for the poor and justice for all people.

Parker J. Palmer’s book Healing the Heart of Democracy has influenced my own thinking about why Christians should care about the health of democracy. Palmer is a Quaker and serves as an elder, educator and writer. He’s also the founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. In his book, Palmer deals with the following fundamental question: “How can we create a politics worthy of the human spirit, one that has a chance to serve the common good?”

In response to this question, Palmer defines citizenship as “a way of being in the world rooted in the knowledge that I am a member of a vast community of human and nonhuman beings that I depend on for essentials I never could provide for myself.” This sense of connection provides the bedrock for our concerns about the common good. This desire to work for the common good, and subsequently to be a good citizen, can also be found at the heart of Jesus’ teachings in his commandment that we should love our neighbors. However, if our definition of neighbor is too narrow or if we are too individualistic, then we may never bring about this collective vision of the common good. Without this collective work, the health of our democracy is under threat.

What we can do: Practice hospitality

What can people of faith do in their communities of faith to address this concern about the health of democracy? In his book, Palmer says that congregations have the “power to form us inwardly in ways that can undermine or enhance our capacity to play a creative role in a democratic society.”

Palmer reports that clergy sometimes ask him “to help their ‘homogenous white congregations’ embrace more of the diversity that characterizes our society.” His response often comes as a surprise to them: “There is no such thing as a ‘homogenous white congregation.’ There are only groups of white people pretending that they have no critical differences among themselves for fear that their ‘community’ would crumble if they opened their real lives to one another.”

Palmer wants to be clear that he’s not downplaying the importance of racial diversity. Instead, he’s simply pointing out that many congregations, regardless of racial or ethnic diversity, are unwilling to “embrace their own invisible differences.” Palmer continues, “Parishioners will become more compassionate toward democracy’s diversity as they become more compassionate toward the diversity within their own ranks.” 

What we can do: Encourage voice and agency

Palmer names a number of “habits of the heart” (a phrase coined by Alexis de Tocqueville) that help us sustain democracy. One vital habit is “an ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.” All of us can find contradictions in our own behaviors and in the world around us, especially in the workings of our government. However, Palmer writes, “When we choose to engage, not evade, the tension of our differences, we will become better equipped to participate in a government of, by, and for the people.”

This kind of engagement and participation requires another heart habit — “a sense of personal voice and agency.” Palmer points out, “Many of us lack confidence in [our] own voices and in our power to make a difference. We grow up in educational and religious institutions that treat us as members of an audience instead of actors in a drama, and as a result we become adults who treat politics as a spectator sport.” Palmer encourages communities of faith to strengthen the personal voice and sense of agency among their members by becoming more participatory and less dependent on clergy as an authority. 


Five habits of the heart

Parker J. Palmer’s book Healing the Heart of Democracy highlights these “habits of the heart” for sustaining democracy:

1. An understanding that we are all in this together. Human beings are interconnected with one another and with all life forms. Palmer says we must embrace the fact not only that we’re dependent upon and accountable to one another, but also that this includes the stranger, the “alien other.”

2. An appreciation of the value of “otherness.” Though we’re an interconnected species, we’re tribal and tend to categorize people in terms of “us” and “them.” Palmer reminds us that this doesn’t have to mean “us versus them” and that we can learn much from the stranger.

3. An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways. Life is filled with contradictions, within and outside ourselves, which can create tensions. Instead of allowing these tensions to contract our minds and hearts, we can choose to expand them to embrace different understandings of ourselves and the world around us. As our own lives become enhanced, so do we enhance the lives of other people.

4. A sense of personal voice and agency. Many people lack confidence in their own voices and their ability to make a difference, but it’s possible for them to find their voices and experience the satisfaction that comes from knowing they’ve contributed in some way to making a positive change.

5. A capacity to create community. We need a community around us, small or large, in order to help us find the courage to speak out and act as citizens. Palmer uses the example of Rosa Parks, whose single act of personal integrity resulted in widespread social change because of community response. 

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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