Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Value of Democracy

The Value of Democracy

This weekend and the fourth of July marks a pretty big celebration around here. I know I’m planning to have a few friends over to go to the beach and Barbeque. We pause every year on the 4th of July to commemorate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. We celebrate our country in all of its uniqueness. That’s just about an affinity for red white and blue. It’s about celebrating our county as a democracy.

Democracy, especially as we use the word isn’t so much about a particular form of government as it is about and ideal. Of course we know the word comes from Greek: (dēmokratía) "rule of the people". In its simplest form, a government in which all the people participate equally in making decisions. It is a lovely concept, and it’s one that we don’t practice. Having that type of equal participating in making community decisions is lovely for a group of about fifty people. But, with over 310 million people that we have in the United States, making decisions is a little more complicated.

When we talk about democracy as something we celebrate or hold dear we’re not talking just about a form of government, we’re talking about something much broader. This reality came to light for me in college. As a political science major, I took a class called “Democracies and Democratization.” We looked at what’s the best way to describe and rank democracies around the world, and what are the things that lead countries toward being more democratic. What I got out of it was, well, that it’s not as black and white as my grade school civics class taught. In fact there’s a whole lot of grey.
Beyond a government where the people vote on occasion, there’s not much agreement on exactly what makes a democracy. What about equitable distribution of wealth, access to education, peaceful turnover of government, freedom of speech, free markets, having the word “democracy” in the name of the country, freedom of religion?

I found a couple of pictures for you to make this point. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Electoral_democracies.png This first picture is a map created by Freedom House. The countries designated in blue here are electoral democracies. This is the black and white picture, or blue and white as the case may be. There are few surprises here.

A more interesting map comes from a think tank through “The Economist.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Democracy_Index_2010.png This map ranks how democratic different countries are. We see the palest blue countries get a higher score (with Norway being the most democratic country, while the darker blue countries scoring lower, with North Korea being the least democratic.

When we talk about democracy, especially when we celebrate it, we are talking more about an ideal than a simple governmental structure. We are talking about the ideal of a society where people are treated equitably and each person has an opportunity to make their concerns heard. It’s an ideal, and like any ideal, it’s not black and white. Not something that you suddenly are or are not. Democracy is something that we strive for. It’s something that takes a degree of vigilance, as we constantly yearn for a more perfect community, with more equality, more justice.


Democracy is sort of like faith that way. It involves a sense of longing for something more. People don’t often talk about faith this way because it sounds a little negative. But, there is an aspect to faith that is a yearning, a longing that is never quite fulfilled. I guess it’s about having hope, in a better world, or in God, or personal growth.
What is it you long for in your faith? What are you seeking? Is it personal relationship with God? Is it human connectedness that you seek? Maybe you long to have the mystical experiences of awe and wonder that come in a flash of insight. Do you long to heal and connect with the Earth, the source of us all? There has to be something that you’re longing for, or you wouldn’t be here. Perhaps worst of all, without longing for something better you wouldn’t have much hope. Faith is hoping, it is longing for something better.

And that longing can be tiresome. Sometimes that personal moment of transcendence and enlightenment that you long for, just never happens. Sometimes you’re disappointed by the people you see around you, and your hope in humanity withers a bit. Maintaining a longing for our ideals can be exhausting. It requires a certain level of vigilance. Not in the sense of being overzealous, but in the sense of patiently waiting, holding vigil through the night, waiting for the morning, waiting for a better day to arrive. Our faith takes a certain amount of vigilance to sustain, and so does democracy.

Just as our faith is both a sense of longing and a sense of comfort, so it is with the value of democracy. As July 4th roles around, I’m confident that we can be both grateful for the democracy that we enjoy, at the same time as we seek even more justice and fairness in our country. We can be both grateful and seeking at a better democracy at the same time.

Patriotism is a touchy subject with Unitarian Universalists. Many of us are deeply concerned about the state of civil liberties in the United States and our nation’s propensity for war. I admit those are valid concerns. But, we also have to put those concerns into context. We are incredibly blessed to live our lives with a functional democracy.

Remember the map that I showed earlier. The United States is a pretty pale shade of blue. Not the palest, but we’re doing pretty well. I have one more map to show you to make this point. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Democracy_Index_2010_green_and_red.svg This is similar to the comparison of democracies that we say earlier. The Democracy Index measures the state of democracy in 167 countries. The darkest green is the most democratic, while the darkest red is the least. Again, we score near the top, as a “full” democracy. What’s important about that is only about 12% of the world’s population falls within that category. Only 12% of human beings enjoy the freedom that you and I hold dear, the freedom that we celebrate on the 4th of July. Compare that to 36.5% of the population who live under totally authoritarian regimes. I think it’s essential that we keep a sense of perspective. Yes, there is room for us to improve as a democratic country. But let’s not forget how fortunate we are.

I also hear a good deal about how our rights are being chipped away and how our country used to have more integrity in its political system. Any time you hear about the good old days, it is important to ask the question, good for whom?

You know our Constitution, that great hallmark of liberty and democracy came into being only after it’s writers compromised to allow slavery to continue. It took eighty one years, until 1868 with the 14th Amendment that Blacks were considered citizens and granted the right to vote. And women, that’s half the population maybe a little bit more, women were not allowed to vote until 1920. That’s not so long ago. In fact, that is living history for some of the members of this congregation.

To claim that American democracy has fallen from some idyllic past is a gross oversimplification of our history. I find it ironic that both the political right and the political left lay claim to the good old day’s of American democracy, when things were fair and the people controlled the government. That just simply isn’t true.

This history of our country isn’t so different from the history of most. It is a history of government trying to do it’s best. It’s a history of those people with power exerting that power over others, until they resist, until they leverage the power of a constitutional democracy to claim what is rightfully theirs: freedom and equality.

The history of democracy in the United States is a history of oppression and resistance to that oppression. It is a history of people paying a tremendous price to defend democracy. I don’t mean defending democracy against communism, or terrorism, or immigrants, or any other trumped up fear.
The history of democracy in the United States is a history of people resisting oppression. It’s a history of saints and prophets standing up to the crush of wealth and power to say no. You will not take away my dignity as a human being. You will not take away my voice or my rights.

Democracy is the fruit of vigilance. It is a gift that we inherit and a burden we carry as citizens of the United States. But democracy is more than an important political system. It’s important to understand here in our religious home that it’s not just an efficient and effective form of government. Democracy is a reflection of our values as Americans and especially as Unitarian Universalists.

Democracy is interwoven with our faith in profound ways. It’s a theological stance almost. As UU’s we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We believe that people, when given the tools and opportunity will choose what is best for them, and best for their fellow human beings. We believe that individuals, citizens, are oriented toward the good, and if they have the freedom to do so, they will follow that good for themselves and for the community they live in.

We also believe that people are at their best when they gather in community. That’s why we have churches, or at least that’s why I am involved in church. Because of a deep, deep conviction that you and I and everyone we know are better people when we live in relationship. That’s what our faith tradition is built on. And democracy, as a political system requires a relationship among its citizenry. It requires that people come together in the public square to discuss, to trust, to make decisions, and ultimately to build a sense of relationship. It is an inherently community building form of government.

There’s a saying that I think really sums up Unitarian Universalism and the way we build community. I’ve heard it a few times, and I’ve said it to you many more. Don’t come to church to find the people you love. Come to church love the people you find. We are not here to be a club of people who are exactly alike. We are here to build a community in our diversity. We are here as unique, sometimes quirky, sometimes difficult people. And we come and build this community together as a spiritual discipline. That’s right, building community is a spiritual discipline. Don’t come to church to find the people you love. Come to church love the people you find. And although that’s sort of a pithy way of describing what we aspire to be, isn’t the same true of democracy.

Democracy isn’t about supporting only the people you are like you. Unfortunately the pathetic dialog that makes up most of partisan politics would have you believe that. “Vote for me, because I’m like you and we’re better than those people.” Bleh! That’s not democracy, that’s grade-school recess. Democracy, like church, is about creating a country where anyone can thrive. It’s not just about sticking up for your own interest. It’s about protecting the interest of those who may not have as much power. Democracy, like church, is about creating a place where every individual can thrive, and benefit from full participation in a wider community.

Democracy takes vigilance, it takes work. If you have been around UUFLB for long, and certainly if you have served on our Board, you know that building the community is work. In fact it’s a little easier to grasp in our little community. Just like our country, we are a complex living community, striving to do our best. Trying to do our best. The work will never be done, because there will always be people to care for, hymns to sing, babies to greet, conflicts to resolve, spirits to renew, children to teach. There will always be work. That’s just what it takes to keep a community going. And it is tremendous work.

On this July 3rd, let us be vigilant. Let us stand vigil in hopeful expectation and preparation for more justice. Let us be vigilant in our faith, celebrating the comfort of the sacred, and always yearning for a better world.
Let us be vigilant this weekend, let us celebrate the struggle that is democracy. Because that struggle, that journey is a holy one.


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