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Democrats Revive Our Civic-Religious Traditions

by John Fea on Jun 9, 2007

As Republicans have long done, Democrats are beginning to speak openly about their religious faith, as they did so last week during a nationally televised forum sponsored by CNN and Sojourners, an evangelical social justice ministry. It’s now clear that the two parties differ sharply in their views on faith’s meaning and significance. Democrats have a much better handle than their rivals on the role religion should play in the public arena.

For many Republicans, particularly those conservative evangelicals who make up the Religious Right, faith is important when it comes to moral issues such as abortion and homosexual marriage or when it’s used to defend the notion that America was founded as a “Christian nation.”

But Democrats have brought faith to bear on many more issues than the Republicans, thus offering the possibility of a much richer religious dialogue. Equally important, they are employing religious belief in a way that better reflects the Founding Fathers’ practice of fusing Christian belief and civic humanism.

The founders believed that republics survived only when people were willing, at times, to place the needs of their country over their own personal interests or passions. Civic humanists called such behavior “virtue.” Personal sacrifice for the common good would provide a necessary check to the selfishness that could easily arise when people become obsessed with individual rights.

Civic humanism and Christianity have always worked well together in American life. Eighteenth-century political leaders knew that the promotion of religion was one of the best ways of instilling virtue in the people of the republic. A religious people would be most equipped to work for justice and equality. Christians willing to sacrifice their lives to God would also understand what it means to lay aside their own wants and desires for their country.

This is why George Washington, in his farewell address in 1796, said “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

The historic melding of civic humanism and Christian faith was evident as the three Democratic frontrunners to spoke candidly about the role religious belief plays in their lives and policies. John Edwards, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton expressed convictions rarely spoken by Democrats — a party that has been defined, at least in the last several decades, by its secularism.

Obama talked about “having a set of responsibilities towards others, not just towards myself.” When he added that such mutual responsibilities “have to express themselves through our government” he was engaging in the language of civic humanism. He then seamlessly connected this sense of caring for one another with both our common humanity and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “beloved community” of faith.

Similarly, Clinton, in response to a question from a Catholic priest about the problem of “narrow and excessive individualism” sounded a great deal like some of the United States’ founders: “We have to build a political consensus. And that requires people giving up a little bit of their own turf, in order to create this common ground.” She also said that in order to deal with America’s dependence on foreign oil and the threat of global warming to “God’s creation,” we cannot “just let business as usual go on. And that means something has to be taken away from some people.”

Edwards talked about poverty as a moral and religious problem that could be solved with the help of “urban ministries” and “faith-based groups.” He was not as explicit as Obama and Clinton about the need for sacrifice, but a spirit of civic humanism seemed to pervade much of his thoughts.

In their quest to restore unity in America and catch up with the Republicans on faith issues, the Democrats, whether they realize it or not, have found the right formula.

Of course, civic humanism and religious faith must always remain in tension in American life. Faith can easily get co-opted by civic humanism, resulting in the loss of religion’s prophetic voice in society. Or civic humanism can be co-opted by faith, resulting in the kind of “Christian America” that many of today’s Republicans attempt to defend.

Civic humanism and the extension of faith to the problems facing all members of the national community just may be what the Democratic Party, and the United States, need at an hour like this.

John Fea teaches American history at Messiah College in Grantham, Penna., and is a writer for the History News Service.