Sacred Democracy-The Moral Blueprint
by: Philip Damon - Sacred Democracy Posted on: May 08, 2013
This article is co-published with Living Democracy.
Editor’s Note: Phil Damon, who taught writing and spiritual literature at the University of Hawaii for 34 years, takes us through a meditation on the relationship between morality and democracy. Which, he asks, “is more primary? Which is more grass-roots, ground-up, and sustainable? And, which is more subversive?” Read the Dirt will be co-publishing select Sacred Democracy columns by Damon.
By Philip Damon
Welcome to the opening entry of the column I’ll be calling “Sacred Democracy,” a term that may sound subversive, given our national fetish over separation of church and state. Meanwhile candidates drape themselves in the trappings of religious affiliation, as churches wield enormous influence in the proceedings of our democracy. It does turn out, moreover, that sacred democracy now and then shows itself in ways that are considered by church and state to be “subversive,” and for eerily similar reasons. Therefore, if I refer as I go along to “the sacred” (highly likely) I hope I won’t be misunderstood to mean “the church.” The sacred can certainly be found there, but it’ll also be found everywhere else.
For me (and others like me, I’ve found), the presence of the sacred is what makes a democracy viable, at the profoundest levels. The celebrated hallmark of democracy is the participation of its citizens at the ballot box. Yet it is often underemphasized, or even completely forgotten, that universal suffrage relies for its success on the quality of mind of those of us casting our ballots. Winston Churchill was known to say, the best way to assess the efficacy of (any) democracy is to spend five minutes with the ordinary voter. Somewhere in there lies a contradiction in terms—but also the very heart of the sacred.
Democracy tends to be thought of in our culture as a secular institution. This is partly to protect the nominal separation of church and state, yet it also protects even the smallest sects from being trampled upon by state religions. If we were asked which of our institutions is most emblematic of democracy, our imperfect best answer might well be the churches, certainly more than schools, businesses or the military. Besides the jingoist rhetoric, what’s so democratic about any of them? Just as likely we’d think of the White House, or capitol buildings and governors’ mansions with government employees at work inside them. In our democracy, of course, who those employees are depends mainly on how and why we cast our ballots. What attitudes were we laboring under as we did so?
Another distinction to make when considering democratic suffrage is the quantity-quality one. In my secondary civics texts, popular elections were enough of a reason to call a nation democratic. Yet does access to the ballot box truly suffice as a standard for measurement? We see a lot of shaky election results around the world, and the integrity of our own electoral system has perhaps never been under any greater challenge than it is now. Voting as we know it seems far less than enough to declare a democracy. Wouldn’t ours at least need a leveler playing field among its citizens to be considered of, by, and for the people? What would a democracy truly look like? Surely more than just a system.
Because at some point, doesn’t it raise the bar for every citizen? If democracy is akin to freedom, can we have either, without a commitment to a greater responsibility?
If all our democracy asks of us is to exercise the right to vote (as it grants us the right not to exercise that right), and if it can only offer us morally suspect candidates in thrall to a culture on fire with distrust and discord, then we’ve got neither democracy nor freedom. We’ve got alienation and license, and a democracy built on either foundation is unsustainable. Thus the question following the raising of the bar: responsibility to what?
Well, our experience of democracy, however short that falls of the ideal, subtly and slowly suggests to each of us citizens (in training) that it’s never as much about what we do, as it is about the attitude we bring to the doing. Since much intentional deception goes into framing the issues of public policy, an attitude of critical discrimination is our primary need—even if it tends to be disillusioning, which is the painful price we always pay for knowledge, which itself is an essential component of freedom. Those that profit from manipulating our freedoms are masters at pandering all our disillusionments away.
So we learn that raising the bar is fitfully done. We’re reminded of it by inner and outer attitudes of imbalance (us or them, win or lose, friend or foe, all or nothing), which prevent us from feeling the wholeness and belonging we’re due as citizens of democracy. Yet from the first tastes of our imperfect democracy we’re becoming citizens of a much more inclusive humanity, even if only at baby-step levels, as we still attempt to leverage advantages in favor of us and ours, in imitation of what we see being done all around us. All of our willingness to unfairness aside, a solidarity with others is being cultivated and enlivened inside us. Is it a form of the “integral evolution” we’ve heard Ken Wilber most recently talk about, or does it go back even further, to the early followers of the perennial philosophy? All we know is we’re beginning to see fairness as an unconditional quality—after wishing it first for our group only, then for other groups that attracted our sympathy, and finally for anyone who walks on the planet. It isn’t only suffrage that has gotten us to this place, either. This is where the sacred side of our nature reaches out into the secular.
If we consider the folks in our history and others that stood up against institutional unfairness—at risk to social positions but also to mortal lives—it’s a wonder any were victorious. Their heroic victories won democratic rights and freedoms for themselves and millions of alienated others. Most campaigns were fought like the battles of World War I, trench to trench over many bitter years, often on behalf of single groups at a time. How much of an evolutionary leap must it have been for each of them, to awaken internally to an injustice and then to dig their foxhole on the moral front lines? Which do you suppose came first, the sacred impulse or the secular action? Or perhaps a better question: Could either have occurred without being influenced by the other? Or an even better one: Faced in our time with arguably the greatest of all challenges to personal freedom, are we now ready for the two to join forces, in a democracy of selfless action and unconditional love?
Here we are, after all, 226 years from the drafting of our Constitution, yet in many ways farther from all of us having a fair deal. Is it just the way of the world? Is it enough to say there’s always unfairness in that world, and those are just the breaks? What gives?
It’s true that when we study the history of our “system of justice,” from before the Constitution all the way until now, it becomes depressingly clear that our laws have been systematically rigged in favor of the privileged few—the proverbial .1 percent—making a shameful travesty of the official story of our celebrated democracy. Yet this describes just the obvious, top-down structure of our situation. It’s also necessary when answering these questions to recall that no American has been denied rights by the state and its moneyed enablers alone. Many citizens opposed dis-enslavement, or the suffrage of women and blacks, or the freedom to sit in soda fountains and classrooms. It wasn’t only politicians and policemen. It was other citizens of democracy, who viewed injustice as part of the natural order. These citizens were, and still are, us. And they rose from the ground up.
Given such a shaky state of affairs then, what would even constitute the moral blueprint of a genuinely living democracy? Well, as usual, it comes down to that same pair of human approaches, the secular and the sacred, and how they can be brought into resonance with one another. It is indisputable that the secular holds sway in our culture, even with the religious lip-service of so many churches. Yet it and the sacred have been intertwined through history, as each is indispensable to a just and fair society—however distinct the human levels on which they’re called to operate. To simplify the differences, we can say the secular blueprint guides us to pass laws that are just as we educate our young toward ethical choices. The sacred, though, radiates ever and ever outward, as it is cultivated within us: an impulse of unconditional love—from, and to, every human heart.
Either approach is valid when necessary, and many would say the former is more attainable, though it is what we’ve been trying for centuries. Yet which is more primary? Which is more grass-roots, ground-up, and sustainable? And, which is more subversive?
Photo: Ann Damon
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