The Common Good
August 2004

Democracy in the Balance

by Bill Moyers | August 2004

How do we nurture the healing side of religion over the killing side? How do we protect the soul of democracy against bad theology in service of an imperial state?

I trace my spiritual lineage back to a radical Baptist in England named Thomas Helwys who believed that God,

I trace my spiritual lineage back to a radical Baptist in England named Thomas Helwys who believed that God, and not the King, was Lord of conscience. In 1612 Roman Catholics were the embattled target of the Crown and Thomas Helwys, the Baptist, came to their defense with the first tract in English demanding full religious liberty. Here's what he said:

"Our Lord the King has no more power over their [Catholic] consciences than ours, and that is none at all. …For men's religion is betwixt God and themselves; the King shall not answer it; neither may the King be judge betwixt God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatever. It appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure."

The king was the good King James I - yes, that King James, as in the King James Bible. Challenges to his authority did not cause his head to rest easily on his pillow, so James had Thomas Helwys thrown into prison, where he died.

Thomas Helwys was not the first or last dissenter to pay the supreme price for conscience. While we are not called upon in America today to make a similar sacrifice, we are in need of his generous vision of religious freedom. We are heading into a new religious landscape. For most of our history our religious discourse was dominated by white male Protestants of a culturally conservative European heritage, people like me. Dissenting voices of America, alternative visions of faith, race, and gender, rarely reached the mainstream. It's different now. Immigration has added more than 30 million people to our population since the late 1960s. The American gene pool is mutating into one in which people like me will be a minority within half a century.

America is being re-created right before our eyes. The world keeps moving to America, bringing new stories from the four corners of the globe. Gerard Bruns calls it a "contest of narratives" competing to shape a new American drama.

The old story had a paradox at its core. In no small part because of Baptists like Thomas Helwys and other "freethinkers," the men who framed our Constitution believed in religious tolerance in a secular republic. The state was not to choose sides among competing claims of faith. So they embodied freedom of religion in the First Amendment. Another person's belief, said Thomas Jefferson, "neither picks my pocket not breaks my bones." It was a noble sentiment often breached in practice. The Indians who lived here first had more than their pockets picked; the Africans brought here forcibly against their will had more than their bones broken. Even when most Americans claimed a Protestant heritage and practically everyone looked alike, we often failed the tolerance test; Catholics, Jews, and Mormons had to struggle to resist being absorbed without distinction into the giant mix-master of American assimilation.

So our troubled past with tolerance requires us to ask how, in this new era when we are looking even less and less alike, are we to avoid the intolerance, the chauvinism, the fanaticism, the bitter fruits that mark the long history of world religions when they jostle each other in busy, crowded streets?

It is no rhetorical question. My friend Elaine Pagels, the noted scholar of religion, says "There's practically no religion I know of that sees other people in a way that affirms the other's choice." You only have to glance at the daily news to see how passions are stirred by claims of exclusive loyalty to one's own kin, one's own clan, one's own country, and one's own church. These ties that bind are vital to our communities and our lives, but they can also be twisted into a noose.

Religion has a healing side, but it also has a killing side. In the opening chapter of Genesis - the founding document of three great faiths - the first murder rises from a religious act. You know the story: Adam and Eve become the first parents to discover what it means to raise Cain. God plays favorites and chooses Abel's offering over Cain. Cain is so jealous he strikes out at his brother and kills him. Sibling rivalry for God's favor leads to violence and ends in death.

Once this pattern is established, it's played out in the story of Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and down through the centuries in generation after generation of conflict between Muslims and Jews, Jews and Christians, Christians and Muslims, so that the red thread of religiously spilled blood runs directly from East of Eden to Bosnia, Beirut, Belfast, and Baghdad.

In our time alone the litany is horrendous. I keep a file marked "Holy War." It bulges with stories of Shias and Sunnis in fratricidal conflict. Of teenage girls in Algeria shot in the face for not wearing a veil. Of professors whose throats are cut for teaching male and female students in the same classroom. Of the fanatical Jewish doctor with a machine gun mowing down 30 praying Muslims in a mosque. Of Muslim suicide bombers bent on the obliteration of Jews. Of the young Orthodox Jew who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin and then announced to the world that "Everything I did, I did for the glory of God." Of Hindus and Muslims slaughtering each other in India, of Christians and Muslims perpetuating gruesome vengeance on each another in Nigeria.

Meanwhile, groups calling themselves the Christian Identity Movement and the Christian Patriot League arm themselves, and Christians intoxicated with the delusional doctrine of two 19th-century preachers not only await the rapture but believe they have an obligation to get involved politically to hasten the divine scenario for the Apocalypse that will bring an end to the world. Sadly, Christians, too, can invoke God for the purpose of waging religious war. "Onward Christian Soldiers" is back in vogue and the 2lst century version of the Crusades has taken on aspects of the righteous ferocity that marked its predecessors. "To be furious in religion," said the Quaker William Penn, "is to be furiously irreligious."

THIS IS A TIME of testing - for people of faith and for people who believe in democracy. How do we nurture the healing side of religion over the killing side? How do we protect the soul of democracy against the contagion of a triumphalist theology in the service of an imperial state? At stake is America's role in the world. At stake is the very character of the American Experiment - whether "we, the people" is the political incarnation of a spiritual truth - one nation, indivisible - or a stupendous fraud.

There are two Americas today. You could see this division in a little-noticed action this spring in the House of Representatives. Republicans in the House approved new tax credits for the children of families earning as much as $309,000 a year - families that already enjoy significant benefits from earlier tax cuts - while doing next to nothing for those at the low end of the income scale. This, said The Washington Post in an editorial called "Leave No Rich Child Behind," is "bad social policy, bad tax policy, and bad fiscal policy. You'd think they'd be embarrassed but they're not."

Nothing seems to embarrass the political class in Washington today. Not the fact that more children are growing up in poverty in America than in any other industrial nation; not the fact that millions of workers are actually making less money today in real dollars than they did 20 years ago; not the fact that working people are putting in longer and longer hours just to stay in place; not the fact that while we have the most advanced medical care in the world, nearly 44 million Americans - eight out of 10 of them in working families - are uninsured and cannot get the basic care they need.

Nor is the political class embarrassed by the fact that the gap between rich and poor is greater than it's been in 50 years - the worst inequality among all Western nations. They don't seem to have noticed that we have been experiencing a shift in poverty. For years it was said that single jobless mothers are down there at the bottom. For years it was said that work, education, and marriage is how they move up the economic ladder. But poverty is showing up where we didn't expect it - among families that include two parents, a worker, and a head of the household with more than a high school education. These are the newly poor. These are the people our political and business class expects to climb out of poverty on an escalator moving downward.

For years now a small fraction of American households have been garnering an extreme concentration of wealth and income while large corporations and financial institutions have obtained unprecedented levels of economic and political power over daily life. In 1960, the gap in terms of wealth between the top 20 percent and the bottom 20 percent was 30-fold. Four decades later it is more than 75-fold. Such concentrations of wealth would be far less of an issue if the rest of society was benefiting proportionately and equality was growing. That's not the case. As an organization called The Commonwealth Foundation Center for the Renewal of American Democracy sets forth in well-documented research, working families and the poor "are losing ground under economic pressures that deeply affect household stability, family dynamics, social mobility, political participation, and civic life."

And household economics "is not the only area where inequality is growing in America." We are also losing the historic balance between wealth and commonwealth. The report goes on to describe "a fanatical drive to dismantle the political institutions, the legal and statutory canons, and the intellectual and cultural frameworks that have shaped public responsibility for social harms arising from the excesses of private power." That drive is succeeding, with drastic consequences for an equitable access to and control of public resources, the lifeblood of any democracy. From land, water, and other natural resources to media and the broadcast and digital spectrums, to scientific discovery and medical breakthroughs, and even to politics itself, a broad range of the American commons is undergoing a powerful shift in the direction of private control.

And what is driving this shift? Contrary to what you learned in civics class in high school, it is not the so-called "democratic debate." That is merely a cynical charade behind which the real business goes on - the none-too-scrupulous business of getting and keeping power so that you can divide up the spoils. If you want to know what's changing America, follow the money.

Veteran Washington reporter Elizabeth Drew says "the greatest change in Washington over the past 25 years - in its culture, in the way it does business and the ever-burgeoning amount of business transactions that go on here - has been in the preoccupation with money." Jeffrey Birnbaum, who covered Washington for nearly 20 years for the Wall Street Journal, put it even more strongly: "[Campaign cash] has flooded over the gunwales of the ship of state and threatens to sink the entire vessel. Political donations determine the course and speed of many government actions that deeply affect our daily lives."

It is widely accepted in Washington today that there is nothing wrong with a democracy dominated by the people with money. But of course there is. Money has democracy in a stranglehold and is suffocating it. During his brief campaign in 2000, before he was ambushed by the dirty tricks of the Religious Right in South Carolina and big money from George W. Bush's wealthy elites, John McCain said elections today are nothing less than an "influence peddling scheme in which both parties compete to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder."

THAT'S THE SHAME of politics today. The consequences: "When powerful interests shower Washington with millions in campaign contributions, they often get what they want. But it is ordinary citizens and firms that pay the price, and most of them never see it coming," according to Time magazine. Time concludes that America now has "government for the few at the expense of the many."

That's why so many people are turned off by politics. It's why we can't put things right. And it's wrong. Hear the great Justice Learned Hand on this: "If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: ‘Thou shalt not ration justice.'" He got it right: The rich have the right to buy more homes than anyone else. They have the right to buy more cars, more clothes, or more vacations than anyone else. But they don't have the right to buy more democracy than anyone else.

I know: This sounds very much like a call for class war. But the class war was declared a generation ago, in a powerful polemic by a wealthy right-winger, William Simon, who was soon to be Secretary of the Treasury. By the end of the '70s, corporate America had begun a stealthy assault on the rest of our society and the principles of our democracy. Looking backward, it all seems so clear that we wonder how we could have ignored the warning signs at the time.

What has been happening to the middle and working classes is not the result of Adam Smith's invisible hand but the direct consequence of corporate activism, intellectual collusion, the rise of a religious orthodoxy that has made an idol of wealth and power, and a host of political decisions favoring the powerful monied interests who were determined to get back the privileges they had lost with the Depression and the New Deal. They set out to trash the social contract; to cut workforces and their wages; to scour the globe in search of cheap labor; and to shred the social safety net that was supposed to protect people from hardships beyond their control. Business Week put it bluntly: "Some people will obviously have to do with less….It will be a bitter pill for many Americans to swallow the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more."

To create the intellectual framework for this revolution in public policy, they funded conservative think tanks - the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institution, and the American Enterprise Institute - that churned out study after study advocating their agenda.

To put political muscle behind these ideas, they created a formidable political machine. Thomas Edsall of The Washington Post, one of the few journalists to cover the issues of class, wrote: "During the 1970s, business refined its ability to act as a class, submerging competitive instincts in favor of joint, cooperative action in the legislative area." Big business political action committees flooded the political arena with a deluge of dollars. And they built alliances with the Religious Right - Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition - who happily contrived a cultural war as a smokescreen to hide the economic plunder of the very people who were enlisted as foot soldiers in the war.

And they won. Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in America and the savviest investor of them all, put it this way: "If there was a class war, my class won." Well, there was, Mr. Buffett, and as a recent headline in The Washington Post proclaimed: ‘Business Wins With Bush."

Look at the spoils of victory: Over the past three years, they've pushed through $2 trillion dollars in tax cuts. More than half of the benefits are going to the wealthiest 1 percent. You could call it trickle-down economics, except that the only thing that trickled down was a sea of red ink in our state and local governments, forcing them to cut services and raise taxes on middle class working America.

Now the Congressional Budget Office forecasts deficits totaling $2.75 trillion over the next 10 years. These deficits have been part of their strategy. The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan tried to warn us, when he predicted that President Reagan's real strategy was to force the government to cut domestic social programs by fostering federal deficits of historic dimensions. President Reagan's own budget director, David Stockman, admitted as much. Now the leading right-wing political strategist, Grover Norquist, says the goal is to "starve the beast" - with trillions of dollars in deficits resulting from trillions of dollars in tax cuts, until the U.S. government is so anemic and anorexic it can be drowned in the bathtub.

Take note: The corporate conservatives and their allies in the political and Religious Right are achieving a vast transformation of American life that only they understand because they are its advocates, its architects, and its beneficiaries. In creating the greatest economic inequality in the advanced world, they have saddled our nation, our states, and our cities and counties with structural deficits that will last until our children's children are ready for retirement; and they are systematically stripping government of all its functions except rewarding the rich and waging war.

And, yes, they are proud of what they have done to our economy and our society. If instead of producing a news magazine I was writing for Saturday Night Live, I couldn't have made up the things that this crew in Washington have been saying. The president's chief economic adviser says shipping technical and professional jobs overseas is good for the economy. The president's Council of Economic Advisers reports that hamburger chefs in fast food restaurants can be considered manufacturing workers. The president's labor secretary says it doesn't matter if job growth has stalled because "the stock market is the ultimate arbiter." And the president's Federal Reserve chair says that the tax cuts may force cutbacks in Social Security - but hey, we should make the tax cuts permanent anyway.

You just can't make this stuff up. You have to hear it to believe it. This may be the first class war in history where the victims will die laughing.

But what they are doing to middle class and working Americans and the poor - and to the workings of American democracy - is no laughing matter. It calls for righteous indignation and action. Otherwise our democracy will degenerate into a shell of itself in which the privileged and the powerful sustain their own way of life at the expense of others and the United States becomes another Latin America with a small crust of the rich at the top governing a nation of serfs.

OVER THE PAST few years, as the poor got poorer, the health care crisis worsened, wealth and media became more and more concentrated, and our political system was bought out from under us, prophetic Christianity lost its voice. The Religious Right drowned everyone else out.

And they hijacked Jesus. The very Jesus who stood in Nazareth and proclaimed, "The Lord has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor." The very Jesus who told 5,000 hungry people that all of you will be fed, not just some of you. The very Jesus who challenged the religious orthodoxy of the day by feeding the hungry on the Sabbath, who offered kindness to the prostitute and hospitality to the outcast, who raised the status of women and treated even the tax collector like a child of God. The very Jesus who drove the money changers from the temple. This Jesus has been hijacked and turned into a guardian of privilege instead of a champion of the dispossessed. Hijacked, he was made over into a militarist, hedonist, and lobbyist, sent prowling the halls of Congress in Guccis, seeking tax breaks and loopholes for the powerful, costly new weapon systems that don't work, and punitive public policies.

Let's get Jesus back. The Jesus who inspired a Methodist ship-caulker named Edward Rogers to crusade across New England for an eight-hour work day. Let's get back the Jesus who caused Frances William to rise up against the sweatshop. The Jesus who called a young priest named John Ryan to champion child labor laws, unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, and decent housing for the poor - 10 years before the New Deal. The Jesus in whose name Dorothy Day challenged the church to march alongside auto workers in Michigan, fishermen and textile workers in Massachusetts, brewery workers in New York, and marble cutters in Vermont. The Jesus who led Martin Luther King to Memphis to join sanitation workers in their struggle for a decent wage.

That Jesus has been scourged by his own followers, dragged through the streets by pious crowds, and crucified on a cross of privilege. Mel Gibson missed that. He missed the resurrection - the spiritual awakening that followed the death of Jesus. He missed Pentecost.

Our times cry out for a new politics of justice. This is no partisan issue. It doesn't matter if you're a liberal or a conservative, Jesus is both and neither. It doesn't matter if you're a Democrat or Republican, Jesus is both and neither. We need a faith that takes on the corruption of both parties. We need a faith that challenges complacency of all power. If you're a Democrat, shake them up. If you're a Republican, shame them. Jesus drove the money changers from the temple. We must drive them from the temples of democracy. Let's get Jesus back.

But let's do it in love. I know it can sound banal and facile to say this. The word "love" gets thrown around too casually these days. And brute reality can mock the whole idea of loving one another. We're still living in the shadow of Dachau and Buchenwald. The smoke still rises above Kosovo and Rwanda, Chechnya and East Timor. The walls of Abu Ghraib still shriek of pain. What has love done? Where is there any real milk of human kindness?

But the love I mean is the love described by Reinhold Niebuhr in his book of essays Justice and Mercy, where he writes: "When we talk about love we have to become mature or we will become sentimental. Basically love means...being responsible, responsibility to our family, toward our civilization, and now by the pressures of history, toward the universe of humankind."

What I'm talking about will be hard, devoid of sentiment and practical as nails. But love is action, not sentiment. When the church was young and fair, and people passed by her doors, they did not comment on the difference or the doctrines. Those stern and taciturn pagans said of the Christians: "How they love one another!" It started that way soon after the death of Jesus. His disciple Peter said to the first churches, "Above all things, have unfailing love toward one another." I looked in my old Greek concordance the other day. That word "unfailing" would be more accurately rendered "intense."

Glenn Tinder reminds us that none are good but all are sacred. I want to think this is what the founders meant when they included the not-so-self-evident assertion that "all men are created equal." Truly life is not fair and it is never equal. But I believe the founders were speaking a powerful spiritual truth that is the heart of our hope for this country. They saw America as a great promise - and it is.

But America is a broken promise, and we are called to do what we can to fix it - to get America back on the track. St. Augustine shows us how: "One loving soul sets another on fire." But to move beyond sentimentality, what begins in love must lead on to justice. We are called to the fight of our lives.

Bill Moyers, host of PBS' Now with Bill Moyers, has received more than 30 Emmy Awards for excellence in broadcast journalism. Moyers was senior news analyst for the CBS Evening News and Special Assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This article is adapted from Moyers' keynote address ( available by clicking here) at Call to Renewal's Pentecost 2004 conference this May in Washington, D.C.

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