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Toni Schönfelder
A lifetime of innovation

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Toni Schönfelder
A lifetime of innovation

The 9th Annual Templeton Lecture On Religion and World  
by Max L. Stackhouse  
The defeat of fascism, the victory of anti-colonial  
movements, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late  
20th century made it appear possible that democracy would  
spread worldwide, accompanied by a fuller realization of  
human rights, a global economy that benefits more of the  
worlds people, and a reduction of military threats to the  
worlds security. That "end of history" view may yet prove  
to be the most probable global direction -- some 120 nations  
adopted democratically oriented constitutions for the first  
time in the last half century. But there are many reasons  
to be concerned about the character of a democratic future.  
Some of the newly independent nations have become one-party  
states hovering on failure. Some Islamists have repudiated  
democracy altogether and advocate a return to Caliphate  
governance under sharia. Russia sometimes seems bound to  
resume a czarist model of centralized political control; and  
China is adamant in resisting democratic movements.  
Moreover, some oppose the idea of human rights, one of the  
pillars of democracy, claiming that its implicit assumption  
-- that humanity consists of autonomous individuals -- is a  
modern secularist invention. Still others protest the  
currently emerging global economy, viewing it as a threat to  
sovereignty and a design of the rich to exploit the poor.  
And many fear endless attacks by shadowy, stateless  
terrorist networks or by ethnic factions, both of which  
challenge democratic prospects by inducing such a  
preoccupation with security that democratic freedoms are  
In this situation, the worlds most dynamic democracy and  
only superpower is expected to be not only the worlds  
policeman, but also its godfather, bringing peace,  
prosperity, and democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq and  
solving every other problem that appears on the horizon,  
from Haiti to global warming to the AIDS crisis in  
subsaharan Africa. This charge could tempt the nation into  
a new imperialism. Even as the United States is criticized  
for not engaging the problems of the world, it is condemned  
for intervening everywhere and seducing the worlds youth  
away from their own cultures.  
The deeper difficulty is that Americans do not have a clear  
moral or spiritual view of what we are about, of why we  
believe what we believe and do what we do. How can, should,  
or may we use our power, and why? And what is the source of  
that power?  
Suppose that the U.S. succeeds in planting democracy  
throughout the world. One might see this as either cultural  
imperialism or a justifiable conversion of an unholy tyranny  
to a just system that corresponds to the deepest levels of  
human nature and the highest discernible sense of divine  
intent. That sense might of course simply be the reigning  
consensus among the currently powerful nations. Does that  
consensus have, or need, a deeper grounding, an ultimate  
source and norm of truth and justice that can guide how  
humanity ought to live?  
Historically, advocates of democracy believed that it did.  
The late medieval "conciliarists" who displaced popes and  
overrode emperors thought so, as did the Reformers and the  
Puritans. We know that the deists and theists who advocated  
the Bill of Rights thought so. And the U.S. didnt hesitate  
to establish democratic regimes in Cuba and the Philippines  
at the end of the Spanish-American War, in Germany and Japan  
at the end of World War II, and in South Korea after the  
conflict there.  
Is there in fact a basis for democracy that is deeper than  
the fact that it has apparently mostly worked better than  
other forms, at least in the West? How can we make the case  
for it today, especially with globalized media, technology,  
economy, culture, and religions that are beyond the control  
of any one government?  
Critics regularly charge that America is an imperialist  
nation bent on ruling the world, ready to override other  
societies with its massive multinational corporations. No  
doubt some Americans have such interests, but most see their  
nation as rooted in "that order which we call freedom," with  
a mission to help others form open societies, adopt  
democratic values, and establish human rights in a  
flourishing economy. We have sometimes failed in this  
mission, but most agree on the mission.  
However, religious leaders, theologians, political leaders,  
and commentators have failed to enunciate the basis for our  
mission, or identify ways to reform it when it goes wrong.  
Can we justly clarify what it is that makes us ready to send  
our young men and women to kill and die for democracy?  
No civilization has yet endured that did not have a  
religious vision at its core. History is littered with the  
rubble of empires that fell as much by spiritual emptiness  
as by economic and military weakness or external pressure.  
But the enduring civilizations have had religious cores that  
touch the hearts and minds of the people, becoming the moral  
architecture to guide the leaders and evoke sacrificial  
commitments. These enable the societies continual renewal.  
It is not that everyone agrees with the religious vision, or  
has to, but that there is a framework within which debate  
takes place.  
One cannot imagine trying to understand the politics of  
China or India without reference to Confucianism or  
Hinduism, or the systems of government in Southeast Asia or  
the Middle East without understanding Buddhism or Islam, or  
what is going on in the EU without reference to the legacy  
of traditional Christendom (even if the EUs current  
advocates resist any reference to religion in its new  
constitution). Nor can we understand the U.S. without an  
awareness of Protestantisms historic influence -- or of the  
failure of its mainline traditions to define the urgent  
social issues -- and of the rise of Evangelicalism and  
Pentecostalism, on the one hand, and post-Vatican II  
Catholicism, on the other, as they seek to offer other  
perspectives on the ultimate issues. It is not the duty of  
religious organizations to make public policy, as some try  
to do; but it is their responsibility to seek to influence  
peoples consciences so that their political decisions will  
be informed by moral and spiritual convictions.  
Harvard professor Samuel Huntington has pointed out that  
many have tried to interpret the world as if religion were  
not central to societies and politics. But he argues that  
life cannot be understood exclusive of religious ideas, as  
they are incarnate in the dominant values of the culture.  
Indeed, Huntington speaks of the irrelevance of purely  
secular thought to contemporary politics, holding that  
politics is and must be religious:  
During the twentieth century, a secular century, Lenin,  
Ataturk, Nehru, Ben Gurion, and the Shah (for instance) all  
defined the identity of their countries in the secular  
centurys terms. That has changed, the Shah is gone, the  
Soviet Union is gone, and in its place is a Russia that in  
public statements identifies itself quite explicitly with  
Russian Orthodoxy. In Turkey, India, and Israel, major  
political movements are challenging the secular definition  
of identity. Politicians in many societies have found that  
religion either is crucial to maintaining their legitimacy  
as rulers or must be suppressed because it presents a  
challenge to that legitimacy.[1]  
Societies do tend to have common features in the sense that  
we can study them comparatively and see how they similarly  
adapt to similar conditions and interests. Yet, societies  
develop differently because they are bent in different  
directions by distinctive religions; regulating convictions  
have become woven into cultural values.  
Some of the regulating convictions that shape democracy  
become clear when we speak of human rights, which are  
affirmed by the vision behind democracy, notwithstanding our  
horrible record with regard to slavery and womens rights,  
and the betrayal of our own principles in wartime, from the  
early struggles with Native Americans to Abu Ghraib in 2004.  
Still, the conviction that humans have rights has prevailed  
again and again. Indeed, even in dark moments, prophetic  
voices have drawn on Biblical roots to demand the  
recognition that each person is made in the image of God and  
thus has inalienable rights -- even the criminal, the enemy,  
the heretic, the prisoner, and the terrorist.  
As Michael Perry, one of the nations leading authorities on  
law and morality, has put it, "some things should never be  
done to anyone; and some things should be done for  
everyone."[2] That is why the authors of Americas  
Declaration of Independence and the UNs Declaration of  
Human Rights could appeal to Biblical principles to advocate  
rights. They are "self-evident truths" that shape  
consciences, civilizations, and history. When one appeals  
to human rights in the face of tyranny, torture, servitude,  
arbitrary arrest, extortion, discrimination, or religious  
persecution, one has played a valid moral trump, and the  
people have the basis to demand a law code and to form  
judicial process as a recourse and remedy. The awareness of  
such principles gives hope for democratic vitality under  
just law.  
A second feature of society that gives hope for democracy  
has to do with economic life. Capitalism is the most  
efficient and productive economic system yet to be devised,  
and it is sweeping the world. It improves the well-being of  
most people, including the poor. Not only parts of South  
America and the "little tigers" of East Asia, but also the  
two most populous nations of the world, India and China,  
have turned to versions of capitalism, making it likely that  
the World Bank and UN millennium goal of halving world  
poverty within ten years can be met. However, these same  
trends will also increase inequality. A great many are  
raised a little, and a substantial number are raised a good  
bit, but only a few are raised a great deal, widening the  
gap between the wealthy and the still struggling. A free  
society does not demand enforced equality of economic  
status, but it must work to equalize opportunity.  
The formation of new middle classes and the rising  
aspirations of those who have grasped the lower rungs of the  
ladder increase the prospects for democracy. People with  
some financial means and even relative security are better  
able to educate their children, adopt new technologies,  
develop more stable lifestyles, and migrate out of  
dependency. They gain some command over their destinies,  
demand their freedom from restrictive constraints, and  
become more concerned about developing excellence in various  
areas of their lives -- professional, educational,  
environmental, and institutional. They deal with others  
with greater integrity and seek to provide goods or services  
that make them contributing members of society.  
But the formation of new middle classes does not guarantee  
democracys development. Only some parts of the middle  
classes begin to extend economic opportunities, form  
communities of commitment, and exercise citizen  
participation. The prospect that the new middle classes  
will seek to extend democratic possibilities depends on  
their "calling." It is one thing to have a job and a  
career, it is quite another to see what one does in all the  
daily rounds of life as being under the scrutiny of a God  
who cares how we live and has purposes for our lives. Max  
Weber probably had it about right when he argued that this  
doctrine of vocation in the world played a distinctive role  
in bringing about the asceticism that generated the modern  
middle classes and its quest for excellence and  
Todays massive conversions to Pentecostalism in Latin  
America and Africa, and to Evangelicalism in Asia replicate  
the earlier Reformation dynamics, though usually without the  
same doctrinal apparatus. This is also the case with the  
growth of parallel movements in America, in the "mega-  
churches" that puzzle the mainline churches that are  
declining in membership. Those given the opportunity to  
move toward the middle classes are questing for a new  
ordering of their lives, and these movements are drawing  
people into bonds of discipline and are often less tolerant  
of libertine lifestyles, that are having a notable political  
There are two key doctrinal points here that support  
democratic prospects: first, that humans are made in the  
image of God, and second, that God calls each person to live  
a godly life that is manifest in the development of  
excellence in all areas of worldly life. These doctrinal  
points are incarnate in the now public dynamics that are  
globalizing our world, one working through the attempt to  
articulate principles of justice, the other appearing in the  
forms of increased productivity and disciplined lifestyles.  
One aids democratic prospects from above, one from below.  
Both form a new middle.  
I believe democracy does have a theological base, but a less  
direct one. It usually depends on a basically mechanical  
and statistical procedure whereby each person votes to  
determine leadership or policy. That procedure involves  
only two agents -- individual votes, cumulatively tabulated,  
and the state, the organized body that manages the election  
and accepts its results. The Terrors of the French  
Revolution and of the Red Guards Cultural Revolution remind  
us of the perils of the mobocracy into which mere populism  
can degenerate, while the fact that both Hitler and Stalin  
both claimed to be elected reminds us of what statism can  
If a democracy is to have an inner moral fiber, it must have  
several other things besides voters and the state, an  
independent legal system that recognizes the voters human  
rights and civil liberties, and a free economic system. It  
must also have:  
* schools that teach critical thinking;  
* media that provides information and inspiration from a  
range of perspectives;  
* stable families that nurture responsible persons and  
inculcate moral habits and spiritual insight;  
* political parties that voice the needs and hopes of  
the people and form the "loyal opposition" when they are  
not in power;  
* voluntary associations that take up causes or perform  
services that need attention but are not the obvious  
duty of the government; and  
* above all, independent religious communities able to  
treat both the political and social aspects of life from  
a transcendent point of view.  
In short, a viable democracy depends on a division of powers  
not only within the government, but among the institutions  
outside state control in a viable civil society. This  
demands a separation of church and state, with the religious  
organizations providing an organized moral and spiritual  
center of loyalty that does not allow interests to be the  
only basis of politics.  
Civil society is strongest where multiple religious  
institutions are well developed. Democracy as a political  
design was first mentioned in ancient Greece, but it did not  
flourish there: it fell every time it was tried to tyranny,  
mobocracy, plutocracy, or imperialism, for the character of  
ancient Greece religion could not sustain a moral core.  
Democracy only flourished after the church became a center  
of loyalty and began to form schools, hospitals, guilds,  
parties, and associations for fellowship and service, in  
what was a long and slow, but providential, process.  
Other forms of democracy, most notably deriving from the  
French Revolution and influencing in various ways the German  
Enlightenment, the Russian Revolution, and the secular  
democrats of the Americas, renounced the idea that religion  
was a necessary part of democracy. Secular democrats  
attempted to establish a state-guided democracy based on  
what Rousseau called the "general will." Religion would be  
removed from public discourse, even prohibited from public  
display (as we have seen in the recent banning of the  
wearing of headscarves by Muslims and nuns, in schools and  
government offices).  
This development was partly understandable, for there are  
forms of religious dogma that do not defend human rights and  
that inhibit economic development. And there are movements  
claiming roots in the Christian church that are anti-  
intellectual and sectarian. These groups hate pluralism and  
engender enclaves of self-righteous piety that worship a God  
who only condemns the world.  
But their critique of bad religion banishes too much. The  
French Revolution yielded Napoleon, Germanys enlightened  
philosophers easily succumbed to fascism, the Soviet  
"peoples democracy" fell to Bolshevism, and the secular  
populists of the Americas became prey of liberationist  
ideologies. As they say now in Latin America, the church  
opted for the oppressed, and the poor opted for  
Evangelicalism. Not only must religion be taken seriously,  
but also the kind of theology that is willing and able to  
touch the heart and address public issues must be seen as  
necessary for the future of democracy. A profound theology  
will press us toward a democracy ordered in a way that  
accords with Gods law and purposes. That poses the  
critical issues.  
All of us have a personal faith, a theology, a set of  
personal convictions about ultimate reality; and millions of  
people belong to some organized wing of their religious  
tradition. Each tradition has a distinctive way of defining  
the ideal political order. Some are more capable of  
supporting the conditions under which democracy flourishes  
than others. Most have some national or international  
religious body, or chief representatives, who periodically  
issue statements that have direct political implications --  
ethical issues framed by a theological tradition tend not to  
stay under the steeple.  
Today, the debate about the morality of the Iraq war is very  
alive, with theological convictions about "just war"  
doctrines just below the surface. The question has arisen  
whether human rights are being compromised for the sake of  
security and national defense. The issue of the extent to  
which government should control corporations ecological or  
outsourcing practices is also on the agenda, as well as the  
propriety of limiting abortion or stem-cell research. An  
open debate about these theologically laden issues is vital  
to democracy.  
Public theology has the task of engaging in public dialogue  
on such ethical issues. The Judeo-Christian tradition  
offers two deeply rooted Biblical themes that undergird the  
"principled pluralism" that presses society toward the kind  
of democracy that is the necessary supplement to the idea of  
the image of God, on which human rights rest, and to the  
idea of vocation, on which professional integrity rests.  
These are the recognition of sin and the possibility of  
Recognizing sinfulness implies awareness that humans and  
their societies are all imperfect. Thus, every idealistic  
quest for harmony of all the parts will lead to pride and  
totalitarianism. The consolidation of power in the hands of  
the few tempts humanity to an arrogance that corrupts the  
powerful and either exploits or makes passive the rest.  
Accordingly, power must be distributed and thereby limited.  
If each sphere of civil society is well developed, the  
various spheres can correct one another or cooperate to  
reform the whole.  
That cooperation invites the possibility of forming  
covenantal relationships. Daniel Elazar, one of the great  
scholarly gems of the last century, traced this idea through  
the Wests history and documented how, from its roots in  
ancient Judaism, it was adopted and adapted by certain  
strands of Christianity and found resonance in many  
cultures, engendered a passion for a pluralistic democracy,  
and opposed both the hierarchical authoritarianism found in  
most classical cultures and the balkanizing atomism of  
modernity. The idea of covenant is based on the formation  
of communities of commitment for purposes that include but  
transcend our human material interests.  
Christianity contributed to this concept the idea of love as  
the inner spirit of covenantal bonding. That is what forms  
character and reforms society in this life, even though  
perfection is impossible and forgiveness is necessary.  
Christians believe that this is what Christ manifest and  
what is working among us in all the spheres of common life.  
It is what gives us faith that, in spite of sin, evil will  
not prevail. Being realistic about sin and confident in the  
possibility of love allows Christians to believe that there  
is a moral and spiritual heart of a democratic society and  
political order.  
If these theological motifs are, as I believe, already  
present deep within democratic life, they need to be made  
conscious for democracy to flourish and spread. A serious  
public theology will have to engage the great world  
religions to find out whether they have comparable concepts  
and prospects and where they may be able to adjust such  
motifs for the emerging global civil society. This is  
another area, for many the newest one, where our theology  
must be public.  
[1] "Religion, Culture, and International Conflict After  
September 11," Ethics and Public Policy Center  
Conversations, June 17, 2002,  
[2] The Idea of Human Rights, Oxford, 1998, p. 35.  

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