Keep Democracy Alive

“Keep Democracy Alive,” Bob Ryder


The (purpose) of the state… is to lead men to live by free reason; that they may not waste their strength in hatred, anger and guile, nor act unfairly toward one another. — Benedict Spinoza

“I am not here as a public official, but as a citizen of a troubled world who finds hope in a growing consensus that the generally accepted goals of society are peace, freedom, human rights, environmental quality, the alleviation of suffering, and the rule of law.”  Jimmy Carter – Nobel Acceptance Speech

“People ask me, what are you going to do for the election? No, the question is what are you going to do? You’re the antidote – your participation and your spirit and your determination, not just in this election, but in every subsequent election and in the days between elections.”  Barak Obama speaking at the University of Illinois, Sept 7, 2108

Outsiders can destroy airplanes and buildings, but only we the people have the power to demolish our own ideals.  It’s a fact of our culture that the loudest mouths get the most airplay, and the loudmouths are saying that in times of crisis it’s treasonous to question our leaders. Nonsense!  That kind of thinking allowed the seeds of a dangerous racism to grow into fascism during the international economic crisis of the 1930’s. It is precisely in critical times that our leaders need most to be influenced by the moderating force of dissent. That is the basis of democracy, especially when national choices are difficult and carry grave consequences. The flag was never meant to be a stand-in for information and good judgement.  We are a much nobler country than our narrowest minds and loudest mouths suggest. — Barbara Kingsolver (excerpt from the essay “And Our Flag Was Still There” published in “Small Wonders” p. 238)


Years ago, a colleague of Susan’s and mine shared an observation he’d learned at a continuing education seminar by the Alban Institute offered for clergy who serve in long term pastorates.  The simple imperative was, “Keep democracy alive.”  Now and then we come across one of those simple, compelling ideas that just sticks with us – this was one of those.  By that point in my career I’d only served a handful of years split between 2 different congregations, but the thought made intuitive sense to me.  It was easy to foresee how longevity – accumulated without care – might lead to autocracy and the stifling of shared leadership and creativity in a congregation. Keep democracy alive – lately that prescription has been close to the front of my thoughts.

That adage occurs to me largely because of the scars our national democracy has accumulated in recent years.  Politics are never perfect, and goodness knows no major political party is without grievous faults that have brought shame upon the flag over the history of our republic.  But the willful self-dealing and self-promotion that characterizes our politics as of late, the nepotism and demagoguery, the obstruction and divisiveness, the flagrant disregard for fairness and equal representation and the rule of law at every level of government is a sacrilege against our sacred adventure in government of, by and for the people.  The call to “keep democracy alive” seems not only like a word to the wise for clergy who serve many years in the same congregation.  It feels like a 911 call to concerned citizens of a nation drifting once again toward the rocks.

That mandate to “keep democracy alive” is both simple and perennial.  As another well-known adage tells us, “Freedom isn’t free.”  Though that phrase is usually invoked as an expression of appreciation for sacrifices bourn by the women and men of our armed services, and sometimes as a simplistic justification for war, it is equally prescriptive for grassroots participation in the democratic process.  Democracy is a high-maintenance project – freedom isn’t free. Participation is both our birthright and our responsibility.  Of course, we have to show up at the polls on election day, but that’s only part of it. As yet another political saying notes, “decisions are made by those who show up.”  We need to make our voices heard clearly and consistently by communicating with our elected officials between elections.  We need to show up at town hall meetings.  We need to show up for peaceful, well-organized protest events. We need to pay our taxes and demand that they be spent wisely.  We need to support candidates with financial campaign contributions and volunteer to canvas neighborhoods and districts.  We need to prevail upon legislatures to jettison obsolete and unfair elements of the electoral process like the electoral college and gerrymandering districts for partisan advantage.  We need to demand that polling places be made widely available and easily accessible. We need to demand that the insidious practices of voter suppression and unlimited secret corporate contributions to political candidates be ended.  We need to demand our votes be counted transparently and accurately and that they be protected rigorously from tampering by foreign governments.

And as much as than any of that, we need to engage in civil dialogue guided both by critical thinking and default respect, finding common ground and sharing humanity with our neighbors of different opinions and political affiliations and ethnicity and socio-economic status. We need to regard one another as fellow seekers pursuing shared values of freedom and mutual support.  This is true in all aspects of our lives – our workplaces, our families, our congregations.

I was saddened earlier this week as I overheard a conversation involving a woman I know through my other job.  This is a lovely woman, kind and sensitive and generous, someone I admire for her resilience and perseverance as she navigates life with impaired hearing and severe arthritis.  If you were stuck on the side of the road, this is the kind of person you’d hope would be the next to come along.  So I was stricken when she engaged in some rather thoughtless political discourse regarding the supreme court nomination that’s been in the news recently, taking part in victim-blaming women who are victims of sexual assault.  As I think about it, what bothers me most is that I’m fairly certain she doesn’t really feel that way deep down.  If my friend came across someone in person who’d experienced sexual assault and was able to talk openly about it, I know she’d be filled with compassion for the victim and outraged at the perpetrator.  The calloused attitude I heard her express is – I hope –  a result of her being manipulated by cynical political professionals whose only goal is to keep and increase power by getting us to turn on one another.

Yet my hope was bolstered a few days later when Susan had a meaningful experience with a nice young woman who came to our door canvassing for a political candidate’s campaign. Susan told her she intended to vote for another candidate, but that she genuinely appreciated this woman making the effort of going door to door to help the candidate she supports, and Susan thanked the woman for her work. The woman thanked Susan in return for her intention to vote and take her part in democracy, regardless of which candidate she supported.  At that point, Daisy came to the door to say hello, and the woman told Susan she has a black lab of her own at home – also named Daisy. It was a nice reminder that we have so much more in common with each other than we have differences, particularly as those in power seek to divide us.

Our nation was brought into being by representatives who, in opposing tyranny, signed their names to a document concluding,

We, therefore, the Representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly Publish and Declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States; that they are absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political Connection between them and the State of Great-Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of the divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

That is the ideal to which we are called.  Democracy is potentially much more than a form of self-government, more than a means by which to negotiate priorities and elect leadership to carry them out however nobly or cynically.  Democracy is a spiritual exercise by which we cultivate the best aspects of human nature, our own and our neighbors’.  As we move through our days, cultivating a default mode of curiosity, critical thinking and respect for our neighbors, reaching below the currents of divisiveness and cynicism, we do our part to keep democracy alive every bit as much as when we attend a rally or cast a ballot.

Over the next several weeks our nation will be getting closer to mid-term elections. Things are going to get uglier and even less civil than they are now – in the news, on front lawns adorned with signs supporting candidates, in political ads, and on social media. What if we turned these next few weeks into a spiritual exercise of our own, cultivating the best aspects of human nature, our own and our neighbors’, by actively seeking ways to unite rather than divide?

The question I want to leave you with this morning is very specific – if you don’t have an answer to this question, please share your other thoughts over coffee after we conclude. What I’d like to hear from you are ideas for practical things you can do in the coming weeks to promote civility within our democracy, reaching below the currents of divisiveness and cynicism. Susan’s exchange with the woman canvassing our neighborhood yesterday is a fine example of what I’m asking for.  What are ways you can elevate our current discourse that will be healing and uniting for the common good, mutually pledging to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor?