Morning Prayers, E.J. Dionne Jr.: "Let’s ask ourselves what it means to live by a democratic ethic"

E.J. Dionne Jr. speaks at Morning Prayers

E.J. Dionne, William H. Bloomberg Visiting Professor, Harvard Divinity School. Dionne spoke at Morning Prayers in Appleton Chapel Nov. 29. Photo by Gordon Hardy/Courtesy of the Harvard Divinity School.

“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” — Ecclesiastes 9:11 (King James Bible Translation)

Good morning. 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. For here on earth, as John 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 also competition from systems that claim to be better able to deliver many of life’s good things.

But the greatest threat to democracy may be our own indifference. Democracy is good because it breeds, in principle at least, open-mindedness. But are we so open-minded that we are not willing to say, flatly and 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 tendencies to deify our own culture and our own traditions that we are reluctant to assert that the freedoms we are enjoying right here, right now at this very moment ought to be universal? Are we so turned off by the invocation of democracy in defense of wars we might have opposed or by the genuine shortcomings of our own system that we are reluctant to invoke democracy as an idea that has application across cultures and nations?

Democracy is and always has been imperfect in practice. As Vaclav Havel, the Czech writer and 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 defending democracy, as our colleague Jim Kloppenberg has said, we are standing up for three contested principles, popular sovereignty, autonomy and equality, and embracing three premises, deliberation, pluralism and reciprocity. We know that in its liberal form, democracy necessarily at times resists popular sovereignty – a majority of the people cannot vote away their own rights or anyone else’s. We know that our own claims to 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 fully embracing equality.

Yet in the face of these tensions and imperfections, which values would we place above popular sovereignty, autonomy, and equality — and also deliberation, pluralism and reciprocity? If we would embrace 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. The Christian and Jewish scriptures emphasize our obligations to the least among us, to the widow and the orphan, to the stranger, the outcast and the imprisoned. The Exodus story placed the theme of liberation at the heart of Western culture – and beyond its boundaries, too. 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 commitment to democracy ought to affect how we treat others. As a practical matter, we often have to deal with hierarchies, but we should never internalize them. Those at the bottom of formal authority structures see things, know things, understand things that cannot be seen from on high. We should, as Pope Francis has said, seek the wisdom available only on the peripheries. We know from experience – and also from following the news – that the distributions of virtue, compassion and understanding are not correlated with the distributions of power and wealth.

Democracy, finally, is rooted in two intuitions, about our aspirations to transcendence and about our proclivities to sin and failure, which require limits on the power of any and every one of us. “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible,” said Reinhold Niebuhr. “Man’s capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary.”

The conservative writer William F. Buckley Jr. once said that he would rather be governed by the first 500 names in the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty. Buckley was not much of a small d-democrat and his comment said more about his view of the Harvard faculty, about which I no doubt have a higher opinion than he did.

But the instinct embodied in 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.” This is as it should be, for as Ecclesiastes teaches, time and chance happeneth to us all.”

Click here to read the Harvard Gazette's recent interview with Dionne