Monday, December 15, 2008

Reminders to Mr. Obama about Why We Elected Him: Rebuild Democracy

Several blogs today carry thought-provoking reflections on the fundamental challenge of Obama’s presidency: the challenge to craft a new, more inclusive narrative of democracy for the nation. What’s interesting is that these postings were obviously written in independence of each other.

Yet they dovetail nicely. They challenge the new president to begin doing more than appointing gurus and plugging holes in the leaking dikes of our economy—to go beyond pragmatic tinkering with our political and economic systems to the much more important task of articulating a new vision for the nation.

As David Morris asks in an Alternet article entitled “Sunny Post-Partisanship Sounds Nice, but What's Obama's Larger Vision?,” “What is Obama's overarching vision? What is the philosophical framework that will animate his administration and guide his cabinet officers? . . .” (

Morris notes that Reagan inaugurated a new era in American political life precisely because he “began to teach Americans a new narrative about their country and themselves.” Reagan convinced a majority of Americans that government was the problem. He ushered in an era of do-it-yourself, no-holds-barred deregulation whose bitter fruits we’re now tasting. He was able to do this because he told us a new story about ourselves that many of us wanted to believe, one that capitalized on aspects of our national narrative that we thought we needed to reappropriate as Reagan came to power.

In Morris’s view, Obama’s success as a president depends on his willingness to move beyond liberal pragmatism to spinning a story about who we are as a people, and who we have the possibility to become, a story grounded in our national experience:

If Obama wants to set America on a new path, he needs to make clear what that path is. He needs to offer a new and compelling narrative that helps Americans understand what went wrong over the last generation and what we need to do to make it right.

This is a point I’ve been pressing on this blog. As my series of postings about the need to find common ground between gays and African Americans in Obama’s America argues,

The success of Obama’s platform of change for the nation depends—and crucially so—on his ability to retrieve and articulate a vision of human rights and solidarity that revives key themes of American participatory democracy that have been assaulted by almost half a century of neoconservative rule (

We have lived through a period of sustained assault on our democracy. This assault was grounded in the misleading, nostalgic myth of frontier virtues that Reagan exploited as he dismantled institutions key to the preservation of solidarity and crucial for the maintenance of a strong commitment to human rights in our democracy.

From Reagan forward (and, yes, through the neo-conservative Democratic presidency of Clinton), serious damage has been done to our society. To the foundations of our society, of our participatory democracy. It will take more than pragmatic tinkering to repair the damage done to our social and economic institutions—and more significantly, to our national psyche.

We must find a way to repair and revive democracy—an inclusive democracy that wholeheartedly welcomes everyone to a place at the table. I strongly concur with David Morris’s recommendation to our new president: the way forward is centered on his ability to develop a narrative about who we are as a people and who we have the possibility to be, and to make that narrative foundational as he addresses our social, political, and economic problems.

Michael Sean Winters offers a similar proposal today on the blog of America magazine
( As he notes, Mr. Obama “needs to set a large goal and inspire the nation to meet it.” Winters proposes that Obama provide “presidential inspiration” by find[ing] episodes in the history of the nation that give a sense of direction to our future.”

Winters notes parallels between the challenges facing Obama and those that confronted Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he became president. As he points out, from his inauguration forward, Roosevelt worked to craft a narrative of “essential democracy” for the nation—one that provided a new sense of direction for a nation undergoing severe economic turmoil. Winters concludes that, ". . . like FDR and JFK he [Obama] must give concrete policy expression to the rhetoric of hope."

A rhetoric of hope, centered on a narrative of what essential democracy is all about: in a posting on his Daily Dish blog yesterday, Andrew Sullivan provides an interesting analysis of the interplay between fear-based religion and the social evolution necessary if we are to create a truly inclusive participatory democracy (

Sullivan’s posting, entitled “Christian Fear Or Christian Love?,” notes that some manifestations of faith thrive on fear. Some forms of religious expression have a strong need to identify demonic Others, to target, punish, and expel those others.

In Sullivan’s view, when these are Christian manifestations of faith, they distort the fundamental message of Christianity, which is about an all-inclusive love that continuously reaches out to those regarded as Other to bring them inside social, economic, and ecclesial circles. Andrew Sullivan proposes that at the heart of this process of inclusion is a process of social evolution: social groups are involved in an ongoing process of evolution that is all about the evolution of consciousness.

This is a process that can be abetted. The process of evolving a new, more inclusive consciousness on which social evolution depends can be accelerated, Sullivan proposes. We can provoke necessary leaps in the evolution of consciousness by moving deliberately from the ethic of fear to the ethic of love.

Andrew Sullivan offers an ingenious proposal for the importance of gay marriage to our democratic society—to the evolution of consciousness that sustains our participatory democracy:

Which is why gay marriage is important, beyond its importance to the individuals involved: the inclusion of the gay community -- the full inclusion -- within the human family is a necessary catalyst to this leap, just as the full inclusion of, for instance, the African-American and female communities have been necessary: A house divided against itself cannot stand; neither can it leap. This is where America can, and should, lead by example.

Full inclusion: as long as we allow some groups to linger on the margins, included but not really included, treated as human but not treated as fully human, gifted with human rights but not gifted with the full range of human rights, we produce fissures in the foundations of our democracy. In refusing to extend full human rights to each marginalized group as social awareness of the stigmas endured by that group causes us to see the effects of marginalization of that group, we weaken our democracy. Because a viable participatory democracy depends on an ethic of solidarity and of human rights that demands the full inclusion of all . . . .

Andrew Sullivan’s quote for the day yesterday provides, to my way of thinking, a profound illustration of why the full inclusion of gay citizens—the willingness to accord all human rights to gay citizens—is imperative if our democracy is to be set back on its track now ( The quote is from a statement Frank Kameny made in 1969, defending the right of homosexuals to get security clearances from the Pentagon.

Kameny notes,

When, as happens in case after case, a man who has lived for years an honorable, honest, productive, useful life, respected and properly so by those around him, relied upon, given responsibilities and trusts which he has consistently shouldered and met---when such a man is suddenly called irresponsible, untrustworthy, unstable, reckless, poor judgment and the like, has his integrity impugned, all because in his most personal private life he is unconventional---when this happens, he is justifiably outraged, at the very least.

Yes! Society (and the churches) cannot have it both ways. Society (and the churches) cannot claim that they value the human rights of every citizen, while they callously withhold essential human rights from some citizens. People cannot claim to love their gay brothers and sisters, and then turn around and treat gay human beings as less than human, withholding human rights from gay human beings.

I fully understand Kameny’s outrage at his discovery of how the nation really regards gay citizens, when it suddenly and capriciously denies legitimate requests for human rights by those citizens. Few experiences in life are so soul-shaking as the experience of going along with one’s everyday life, assuming that those around you respect your hard work and your integrity, and then discovering that you have been deluded. That, all along, those with whom you live and work, who go to church and talk about the love of Christ, really haven’t accepted or included you all along.

I know. I have had that experience.

That, all along, they have regarded you as somewhat less than human, because of what they imagine your private life to be about. Because they reduce your humanity to sexuality—to the "sexuality" suffix of that word “homosexuality” that they have imposed on your life and your personhood. And because they imagine that sexuality as somehow different from their sexuality, as dirty and aberrant and a polluting presence in their “Christian” society.

This is precisely the shocking discovery the Jewish citizens of many European communities made in the Nazi period, when they found that Christian neighbors beside whom their families had lived for over a thousand years, with whom they had traded and worked, with whom they had collaborated to build their societies, had never regarded them as human in the same way the Christian neighbors regarded themselves as human. It is soul-crushing to experience this.

And gay citizens experience it all the time, when we lose our jobs solely because we are gay, and are lied to and about because we are gay, and are suddenly cracked over the head with baseball bats because we’re perceived to be gay, and are not promoted or treated with dignity at work because we are gay, and are not welcome at the table of the Lord because we are gay, and cannot be ordained because we are gay, and are told we do not have the right to marry because we are gay.

As Kameny notes, these dehumanizing attitudes center on the hidden assumption that gay citizens are dispensable, that we can get along better without the gays, that we do not even have to confront our guilt for destroying gay human beings when we have put them out of sight, out of mind: “You callously destroy people, needlessly, and then forget about them."

Yes. I understand. I have lived that reality. And it is, as Kameny concludes, outrageous, particularly when those doing this to you claim to be Christian.

It is outrageous because the Christian worldview does not countenance discarding human beings. The Christian worldview imagines that every human being ever made is intimately connected to every other human being, that our salvation may depend on our willingnes to acknowledge those we've tried to put out of sight, out of mind. On our willingness to recognize that we need those we have demonized, punished, and expelled.

As does the worldview of participatory democracy. To form a healthy participatory democracy, we must stop doing this. To anyone at all. Because a viable democracy needs all of us, every one of us. Not just some of us. And because we undermine the humanity of everyone in a democratic society when we undermine (or allow others to undermine) the humanity of anyone.

There are no throw-away human beings in the sight of God. There are no throw-away people in a healthy democracy.