Does American Democracy Need God?

By Hyman, Lawrence | The Humanist, July 1999 | Go to article overview
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Does American Democracy Need God?


Hyman, Lawrence, The Humanist


In a recent book, To Achieve Our Country, Richard Rorty reasserts the traditional idea that the United States has the unique potential of coming closer than any other nation to the creation of a moral society, one in which "liberty and justice for all" becomes a reality. But he departs from the traditional belief that we have this unique destiny because of our special relationship to God. Instead, he bases his optimistic belief on a political ethos that "has no room for obedience to a non-human authority" but only to "freely achieved consensus among human beings."

Rorty assumes that moral values are created by human beings out of our experience and therefore have no need of any foundation in some entity or force that transcends our needs, desires, and hopes.

He cites not only John Dewey, as might be expected of a humanist philosopher, but also Walt Whitman to indicate that this repudiation of any nonhuman foundation for our political ethos is as much a part of our tradition as the reliance on divine or natural law. Dewey told us that democracy doesn't "rest upon the idea that experience must be subjected at some point or other ... to some `authority' alleged to exist outside the process of experience." And in Democratic Vistas, Whitman complains about "how long it takes to make this American world see that it is, in itself, the final authority and reliance!"

This view has been questioned by many critics, as might be expected. An overwhelming proportion of Americans believe in God, U.S. currency confirms trust in God, and the Pledge of Allegiance asserts that the United States is a nation "under God." And there is little evidence that the majority of Americans agree with the humanist-pragmatic idea that moral values don't require a source in God or in natural law, contrary to the Declaration of Independence, which states that "the laws of nature and nature's God" entitle all people to "certain unalienable rights." Nevertheless, I think that Rorty's view is firmly rooted in our earliest tradition and that the belief that the authority of our government comes only from the "freely achieved consensus among human beings" owes as much to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Abraham Lincoln as to Dewey and Whitman.

For as much as our ancestors liked to believe that their deepest values had their source in God and nature, their experience told them, time and again, that the same God--whether Christian or deist--could be interpreted to justify very different values. And it is this experience that is reflected in the crucial passage of the Declaration of Independence--namely, that governments derive "their just powers from the consent of the governed.

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