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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Jefferson and the Principle of a Democratic Republic

This is the 500th year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. An opinionator in the WP asserted that the US was founded on Protestantism. But the foundation of the American Republic is a bit more nuanced than that.

The Protestant Revolt against the tyranny of Rome was a major contributor towards modernity including personal inspiration and interpretation, free assembly, elimination of mediating sacred priesthoods, and a break with authority. The first sociologist Max Weber showed the link between Calvinism and capitalism. And modernity--with which Roman Catholicism finally made peace through Vatican II—is a major contributor to republicanism.

Thomas Jefferson, though not exactly a Protestant Christian, was a thoroughly modern man. He was devoted to reason and science over superstition. He read voraciously and was a constant learner. He advocated power of common persons gathered in assembly over authority of monarch or dictator or priest. He was a paragon of civility in argument and public service. He exemplified principle based on nature over private opinion and beliefs.

The key principle of a democratic Republic is the dignity and equality of all human beings. This is the foundation of a structure of human rights that contains chambers for voluntary civic associations, all ordered through a government chosen and run by representatives elected by popular vote. The main principle of unity for a democratic Republic is not cultural identity—not background, religion, beliefs, or ethnicity. It is choice starting with the fundamental choice to be a citizen of a Republic that recognizes that all persons, no matter how different otherwise, are equal (not the same) and have rights to life, liberty, and happiness.

The standard of religious liberty was one of Jefferson’s crowning achievements that flows from the founding principle of a democratic Republic. This is both freedom to practice whatever religion one chooses and freedom from religion so that no person has to adhere to any one religion or any religion at all. The principle of universal human dignity and equality surpasses and indeed overcomes cultural sameness. A democratic Republic is inclusive of cultural, ethnic, sexual, religious identities not exclusive. It is a unity in diversity, not assimilation—e pluribus unum.

Jefferson demonstrated that the ideal was more aspirational than actual. While he introduced and supported ordinances against slavery, he retained his slaves like a smoker who promotes anti-smoking ordinances to change his own personal practice. Even that, however, recognized the institutional nature of racism rather than making it a simple personal attitude problem.

Jefferson, though a private family man, taught how vigorous public institutions sustained privacy. By putting public order and public good ahead of private profit and private goods, household goods (economy) were secured. And yet he was distrustful of the northern federalists; their national bank, their standing army, and their proclivity towards strong rulers might undermine the republic and its principle. Autonomous states, he felt, were a check on the tension towards strong man rule. A tension that exists today.

Jefferson recognized that “happiness” in the Declaration was both private and public. Private happiness is economic prosperity—fulfillment of the needs of life. But public happiness is respect and recognition that is achieved in the public arena.  He was much more concerned with reputation
than money—commonweal than private wealth.

But the central tension that has reached its culmination in the politics of America today is that of cultural identity over against the central principle and ideal of universal dignity and equality. Consider Martin Luther King’s words quoted at his memorial: “If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation. This means we must develop a world perspective.” The MLK monument stands in a straight line between the Lincoln and Jefferson monuments. All three are reaffirmations of the central principle of a democratic Republic.

And it is that principle which is under siege by the populist nationalists, white supremacists, America Firsters of the ruling government today. The union is challenged in a straight line from slave state conciliation, Jacksonian populism, southern confederacy, fascism, anti-immigrant, Jim Crow, American exceptionalism—all again reaching a new culmination in Steve Bannon’s influence on Trump. The promotion of The Wall, the threat to Dreamers, the contempt of diverse races and lifestyles, the rewarding of predators are all signs of reaction against democratic Republicanism. Other democratic Republics throughout the world are also being challenged by their own version of cultural nationalism.

The point of decision for citizens of democratic Republic is whether they really have faith in persons and their future and their ability to know and decide for the public good. Not in the absract, but in the here and now. Not in the immeasurable cosmos, but in my situation in my community.
What even complicates our situation more is the passing of modernity—the basis of the democratic Republic. Many of modernity’s assumptions are being undermined. We are moving into what I have called a transmodern age which is both a challenge and an opportunity to the progress of humanity and humanity’s world.

Science has disproven the certainty of science itself. Neuroscience has challenged the notion of free-will which grounds our justice system, social, racial, legal, and criminal justice. “All men are created equal” is repudiated by the rejection of creation by evolution. The unity of nature in some sort of absolute has been precluded by our understanding of thinking as categorizing and analogy through images. That means objectivity and truth apart from relationship is an illusion. The world and reality itself can only be discovered and revealed through human symbolic interaction with its environment. Faith is no longer the retention of a belief system, but the doubting and critiquing of all belief systems including one’s own. In addition, the exponential expansion of technology is leading to a new social singularity that extends life indefinitely and allows artificial intelligence to enhance or even replace humanity.

Moreover, tribalism, nationalism, and even globalism is probing beyond itself. We are seeking to integrate respect for the individual with socialism, tradition with opportunism, spirituality with materialism. We are enthralled with our present condition and our transcendence. We are moving to a post-religion society and yet are concerned with meaning and purpose.

None of this was contemplated by Jefferson and his modern colleagues who imagined and built the first democratic Republic. Who is the transmodern man to replace Jefferson, the primordial modern  man of politics? What is the transmodern Republic to replace the American democratic Republic that Jefferson built? Right now, we are in a period of reaction in which forces fearing the change we are undergoing want to go back to imagined more comfortable times when white Europeans were ascendant, when men were men, when Christian values were appreciated. That, of course, is impossible.

So, what is our vision for humanity?  Who do we want to be? How do we want to govern ourselves? Or do we?

The outcome is not inevitable. We do not have the luxury of a supreme being who decides. We must take responsibility. We have to decide whether we have faith in the future and each other or not.

I think Thomas Jefferson would agree with that. He made his choice as a fully modern person. We have to make ours as transmodern persons.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Spirituality of Universalism

Richard Dawkins, renowned evolutionary biologist and atheist preacher, urged that skeptics, agnostics, atheists, and other religious non-believers need to have a support group or congregation like churches provide religious believers. In America, it is kinda lonely being a non-believer.

It takes faith to be a scientist--or artist, teacher, student, social worker, even shop keeper for that matter. It takes faith to be inquiring, skeptical, anti-supernatural, and pro-science-over-superstition people.  Faith in the future, in the human prospect, in open society politics, in liberal education and critical thinking, in democratic republican values, in the possibility of progress, truth through reason and collaboration.  Faith in others. It is not belief in any particular expression, doctrine, or institution. It is faith in the ongoing process of expressing, teaching, and building institutions that make a world and society free and open to keep inquiring, keep challenging, and keep renewing expressions, teachings, and institutions.

It is faith because we can find as much evidence to be cynical and credulous as we can find evidence to be inquiring and critical. I submit that faith is transcendence, the choice to transcend, to go beyond our beliefs. We have a fundamental option here. And as we choose and live out our choice of faith, it helps to be traveling the road to the future together.

It sure helps to have a soul-mate, a life partner to reinforce that need. Bernie and I, born and educated in Roman Catholicism, value our tradition of globalism, of Christian fellowship, of social justice, and of sacramentality. But we confront a great contradiction in the Roman Catholic institution that has fixed dogmas which exclude women from leadership and choice, deny use of technology for family planning, prohibit sexual orientation, govern by hierarchy, resist science when it contradicts orthodoxy, claim to be the only Way, and disseminate patently superstitious, even silly, beliefs. Most of all the Church enshrines a dogmatic and absolutist belief system that contradicts transcendence and faith.

Bernie and I have moved a lot. In all our new places, we searched out communities that were transcending, that were not stuck in dogma, that were willing to question all beliefs, inclusive of people of any culture, religion, life-style, sex, and orientation, and that were welcoming to all. We found such communities sometimes within a Catholic and sometimes within a Protestant or Jewish tradition and thrived in them. We didn’t find one when we moved to Fresno; and we explored the Unitarian-Universalist church. When we moved to DC, we found a UU Church that most met our desires and faith.

The UU church does not have a set doctrine or set of beliefs. UUs do share principles with strong values which are not expressed in concrete, but are rather guides to how we treat people in our local and global community.  The first being respect for the dignity of every human being. Out of this comes universal inclusion and social justice. The UU community is not Christian, Jewish, Protestant, Evangelical, Muslim, Hindu, or any religion. Though anyone can participate without rejecting their tradition. In other words, there are Catholic UUs like me, Jewish UUs, Protestant UUs, Muslim UUs, atheist UUs, and so forth.  

I usually stress the Universalist or inclusive metaphor. The Unitarian metaphor, like the One God metaphor, can be interpreted arrogantly as though there is one way to human fulfillment. But both metaphors are aspirational—stressing unity within and from diversity, e pluribus unum. This, in my parlance, is a political unity, not a cultural one. By “political” I mean, collective human choice and action based on mutual respect for the dignity of all. Solidarity, not assimilation, is our project.            

Therefore, Dr. Dawkins, there are places to which we can retreat even in private where we can discover personal support and even spirituality for those of us who have and celebrate diverse languages, cultures, and belief systems—even for those of us committed to faith and transcendence without gods, without supernatural beings, events, and places. Agnostics, atheists, nontheists, skeptics, and heretics. What motivates and unites us is not our certainty, but our willingness to doubt and seek for the good of each other in the public sphere. Beliefs diversify us; and that is good. But faith brings us together in solidarity beyond the diversity.  And that's even better.