What's beyond politics.

Author:Stout, Jeffrey L.
Position:Correspondence - Letter to the Editor

The critical attention FIRST THINGS has recently accorded to my book Democracy and Tradition is welcome, but I cannot resist responding to Richard John Neuhaus' charge that my attitude toward American democracy is idolatrous ("Religion and Democracy: A Necessary Tension," Public Square, June/July). I am indeed committed to, and grateful for, both democratic institutions and the tradition of democratic discussion and reflection. But neither, in my view, is worthy of worship, and neither is the object of my ultimate concern. American democracy is not my religion. As I write in the book, "I am not recommending that we become preoccupied with our identities as members of a civic nation. In my view, this is merely one important concern among others. Indeed, a life lived solely or even largely as an expression of this concern would hold no attraction for me." At another point I explicitly warn against "idolatry" directed toward the people. At yet another, I argue that "democracy involves substantive normative commitments, but does not presume to settle in advance the ranking of our highest values. Nor does it claim to save humanity from sin and death.... Cooperating democratic citizens tend also to be individuals who care about matters higher than politics."

Gilbert Meilaender's review of my book ("Talking Democracy," April) takes a line similar to Father Neuhaus'. Professor Meilaender's argument depends on the significance he attributes to one of my epigraphs, in which Dewey claims that democracy "is a form of government only because it is a form of moral and spiritual association." I chose the epigraph to highlight a conception of democracy as an ethically substantive form of life, in which citizens relate to each other as moral beings. Democracy is not, in my view, merely a formal, procedural affair. It involves honoring one another as loci of responsibility and spiritual aspiration. That makes it "a form of moral and spiritual association," but it does not make it a religion.

What, then, about Fr. Neuhaus' claim that I "view religion instrumentally, and approve of it to the extent that it serves democracy"? As a non-Christian, I do take an interest in Christian commitments in part because of their political effects. That Fr. Neuhaus and I, like most readers of this journal, are interested in the political effects of Muslim commitments does not entail that we view Islamic religion merely instrumentally. My book does not counsel readers to...

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