Bloom Briefing 21: On Democracy and Faith

Welcome to the 21st edition of The Bloom Briefing: Notes from the Resistance. There is only one piece of my writing this week: On Democracy and Faith. I expect that many of you will take exception to one part or another of this composition, and I look forward to receiving your critiques (or approbation).

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On Democracy and Faith

America’s Founding

It is a common refrain among many conservatives that America is a Christian nation. This is, of course, false. The Founders were Christian (though many of them identified with the idea of Deism – that God put earth into motion and let things play out without intervention), but they explicitly codified that the United States would not have an established religion. This is the ‘Establishment Clause’ of the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Nonetheless, Christian ideology is woven into the fabric of American life, both in practice, and in self-conception. We are “one nation, under God” when we pledge allegiance to the flag, as all children do in school every day. Every time we pay in cash we hand over a bill or a coin that includes the phrase, “in God we trust.” Presidents and other politicians end nearly every speech with an exhortation that “God bless America.” Make no mistake – this is not some abstract god. It is a Christian one.

At the same time, the enduring American metaphor of self-conception, how we understand ourselves as a nation and as a people, is American Exceptionalism. American Exceptionalism dates back to John Winthrop’s recitation to intrepid colonists headed for Massachusetts that the new colony would be “as a city upon a hill.”

The metaphor, from the Sermon on the Mount, is meant to evoke the idea that that those witness to the Sermon would spread the light of God. They should be as a city on a hill because such a city “cannot be hidden.” We Americans, are to be exemplars before the world, beacons of the light of democracy, shining forth the truth of the good word of democracy to all corners of the globe.

Nearly all Americans imbibe from the goblet of American Exceptionalism to the point of saturation. The concept that there is something measurably different and inherently positive about America’s station in the world is not just taken as true, but is made sacred. We hold it as a nearly self-evident truth that our way of life, by which we principally mean our system of government, is superior.

Thus it is the case that our shared predilection for liberal democracy is borne not out of rational comprehension that liberal democracy is the superior form of government, but out of faith. From a Christian teaching sprang American Exceptionalism, which drove and continues to drive our abiding faith in the democratic experiment.

That our adherence to liberal democracy should be principally grounded in faith is not such a bad thing. A faith-based commitment to something is often a stronger commitment than a commitment predicated only on a belief in the superiority of the arguments. Furthermore, the best arguments in favor of liberal democracy are eminently complex. They are not the kind of arguments one should expect everyone to be able to recapitulate with precision.

A faith-based commitment to liberal democracy is, despite its Christian foundation, what allows for folks of all faiths to ascribe to a shared ideology. Liberal democracy itself is neither Christian nor Atheist, neither Jewish nor Muslim, neither Hindu nor Buddhist, yet those who call America home treat their faith in democracy as they treat their faith in religion.

We construct temples to deities of this ideology: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, King. We erect memorials to the defenders of the faith, those who fought and gave their lives so that we may practice our faith. We enshrine Holy Scripture in Washington so that keepers of the faith may make their pilgrimage. We celebrate all of the above with national holidays of recognition.

This shared faith in America itself is what binds society together. It is what compels even those who decry American Exceptionalism as nothing more than chest-thumping jingoism to work tirelessly in defense of liberalism and democracy. An enduring faith in the capacity of our nation for continual improvement as an exemplar to the world is the bedrock of America’s social fabric.

Russia Undermining Faith in Democracy

The importance of our faith in America itself is why the Russia story is such a big deal. When we talk about the threat from Russia as an attempt to “undermine faith in liberal democracy” we are referring to Russia’s attempt to strike at the heart of our society. Russia is not seeking to destroy America with violence, but with a concerted effort to undermine the shared creed that unites us as a people.

Dishearteningly, this Russian campaign has been working.

Disinformation on social media that has made its way into widely consumed news sources has struck a blow at the notion of truth itself. Fox News (and other right-wing news sources) have exacerbated this problem by broadcasting openly biased fact-free information. A divergent understanding of the truth leads to incomprehensibly divergent worldviews that are difficult to synchronize even with shared faith.

Moreover, by meddling in the election, Russia attempted to undermine our faith in the democratic process itself. Not even in their wildest dreams did they think they would make Donald Trump president, but by sowing doubt about the process itself, they recognized that they could hurt American confidence in its own democracy.

But Russia is not the only source of declining faith in American democracy. There are threats from here at home as well.

Domestic Threats to Faith in Democracy

Many conservatives have pointed out student protests against hate on college campuses pose a threat to the liberal part of liberal democracy. They argue that such protests threaten the vigorous free speech necessary to sustain productive academic inquiry. Invectives against “Social Justice Warriors” often focus on the way in which they attempt to shut down discussion with a kind of moral bullying.

It would be foolish to argue that there is nothing to these critiques of the campus left. There is truth to these critiques, but that truth often fails to grasp an even larger threat to faith in democracy: the reason for these protests in the first place.

It strikes me that the principal argument of the campus left (and much of the off-campus left) is that liberal democracy itself – or at least the American incarnation of liberal democracy – fails to adequately safeguard the rights of specific marginalized groups. Women earn less than men and suffer gender-based violence. Latinos are racially profiled when they are asked for their papers. African Americans are incarcerated at appalling rates for minor crimes under statutes that have been created to achieve precisely that end, and they are victims of egregious police brutality in a way other groups are not.

The liberal part of our liberal democracy often shrugs off these injustices as being the byproduct of various people’s free choices. We are told that women earn less because they choose less lucrative careers and take more time off for child-rearing so their lesser earning is justified. We are told that most undocumented immigrants are Latino, so our profiling of them is justified. We are told that African Americans are gang bangers and drug dealers so our violent policing of them is justified.

But even if all of these claims had more substance than the discriminatory stereotypes they are, we would still be left with the reality that the consequence of our current system of government is to be wildly unequal in its treatment of different classes of people. As a member of such a class of people, forced to overcome additional barriers to full and equal participation in society, one can’t help but experience this as a shortcoming of the society – and thus liberal democracy – itself.

It is possible to believe that liberal democracy is a moral good, but that it doesn’t benefit all of society equally, or perhaps more accurately, that there is a higher burden of participation in liberal democracy for some people than for others. How do we tell the two girls on the train in Portland that Jeremy Joseph Christian could shout racial slurs and hate speech at them all he wanted but that he hadn’t done anything criminally wrong until he pulled a knife on the men who intervened and not expect that they might be less than committed to the liberalism that made Christian’s hate speech legal?

This isn’t to say that we should prohibit hate speech (though that’s certainly an option that merits more consideration than many would wish to give it). But it is to say that the free speech hawks who repeatedly criticize the campus left’s attempts to disrupt the lectures of those they deem to be racist misdiagnose the gravest internal threat to liberal democracy.

The protests against speech are symptom not cause. It’s not the superficial attack on the liberalism of free speech – easily criticized and more easily rebuffed – that poses the threat, but rather its root cause: an understandable diminution of faith in liberal democracy among those who are repeatedly victim to a quotidian racial aggression and discrimination that liberal democracy defends. It is this more insidious threat which I believe to be the most severe.

If a wavering faith in liberal democracy is manifest in the protests of the campus left, it is even more so in our most recent election. I’m not sure if there’s anything more emblematic of a declining faith in liberal democracy than the election of a president openly hostile to the First Amendment. He has threatened protesters with physical violence, attempted to enshrine a religious test for entry into the country, and repeatedly threatened the press.

Racial, gender-based, and religious antagonism is the internal scourge undermining faith in liberal democracy which we all ought to confront head on. The election of a racially antagonistic, sexually predatorial, xenophobic, Islamophobic president is only the latest symbol of the severity of this impulse.

And in case you thought this a recent phenomenon, a majority of white voters haven’t voted for a Democrat for president since the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The preservation of whiteness, it seems, is more important to than an inclusive society.

We live in grave times indeed. As the right has continued to stretch the fabric of civil society, it is beginning to fray more than just around the edges. One is forced to contemplate what level of reconciliation there can even be. How can the left forgive the election of so hateful and rapacious a man? What will walk the right back from an acquiescence to authoritarianism when its elected officials have shown a willingness to compromise democratic principles for short-term policy wins? How do we regain a shared trust in democratic governance?

If the preservation of our faith in liberal democracy is to be sustained, the Russia inquiry must proceed without interference. We must uncover the extent to which the Trump campaign was aided by Russia.

But we must also achieve near universal recognition that racism, sexism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia are afflictions at the very core of our country. Conservative leaders and conservative media must stop motivating racial animus. Progressive leaders must continue to insist on this not for its instrumental political value but for its unquestionable moral virtue.

If America is live up to John Winthrop’s entreaty, we must finally overcome the racism that is our original sin.

Additional Reading:

If you read one thing this week, make it writing genius Rebecca Solnit’s essay in Lit Hub. To say what it’s about would be a disservice. It’s about everything.

At The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf wrote an interesting history of conservatives’ relationship with Fox News and Sean Hannity.

At Vox, Ruy Teixeira authored an assessment of emergent belief in liberal values.

The Economist published a review of a new article that shows how the uber-wealthy are most likely to cheat governments out of tax revenue.