Democracy and Tradition

Democracy and Tradition

Democracy and Tradition

Democracy and Tradition


Do religious arguments have a public role in the post-9/11 world? Can we hold democracy together despite fractures over moral issues? Are there moral limits on the struggle against terror? Asking how the citizens of modern democracy can reason with one another, this book carves out a controversial position between those who view religious voices as an anathema to democracy and those who believe democratic society is a moral wasteland because such voices are not heard.

Drawing inspiration from Whitman, Dewey, and Ellison, Jeffrey Stout sketches the proper role of religious discourse in a democracy. He discusses the fate of virtue, the legacy of racism, the moral issues implicated in the war on terrorism, and the objectivity of ethical norms. Against those who see no place for religious reasoning in the democratic arena, Stout champions a space for religious voices. But against increasingly vocal antiliberal thinkers, he argues that modern democracy can provide a moral vision and has made possible such moral achievements as civil rights precisely because it allows a multitude of claims to be heard.

Stout's distinctive pragmatism reconfigures the disputed area where religious thought, political theory, and philosophy meet. Charting a path beyond the current impasse between secular liberalism and the new traditionalism, Democracy and Tradition asks whether we have the moral strength to continue as a democratic people as it invigorates us to retrieve our democratic virtues from very real threats to their practice.


The solidarity of an aggrieved people can be a dangerous thing. No lesson from recent history could be more evident. Any nation united mainly by memories of injustices done to it is likely to behave unjustly in its own defense and to elicit similar responses from its neighbors and enemies. a cycle of self-righteous violence will then ensue. Fear and resentment will escalate all around, placing innocents at home and abroad in further jeopardy. America's newfound solidarity in the age of terrorism therefore warrants suspicion. Many around the world nervously await our next massive use of military power, understandably afraid that we have ceased to be guided by democratic ideals and moral constraints. Solidarity we will surely need in the struggles ahead. But on what basis shall we secure it? We had better have something in common besides resentful fear of our enemies. Yet we have, until recently, been preoccupied with our ethnic, racial, and religious differences. We are not used to discussing what, if anything, links us together.

It is perhaps no accident, under such circumstances, that religious conceptions of national identity immediately come to the fore. Politicians assemble to sing “God Bless America” on the steps of the Capitol or to assure that children acknowledge membership in “one nation under God” at the start of every school day. a prominent Jewish senator declares America an essentially religious nation. Judging from his past pronouncements, he means a Judeo-Christian nation. Others intend something quite a bit narrower or a little broader when they utter the same words. Many Jews and Christians find the civil religion of our day incoherent and alienating—a travesty of true faith. As a student of these traditions, I am inclined to agree. But there is also something self-deceptive, and implicitly threatening, in the appeals to religion as a source of civic unity. Vague references to God from the crepe-lined podium cannot finally disguise the vast array of theistic and nontheistic religions Americans embrace. Need I add that dissenters, free thinkers, atheists, and agnostics are citizens, too?

Some critics charge that the moral and spiritual core of our society is empty. They frequently add that the ethical substance of the predecessor culture has been drained off by liberal secularism. To view the picture in high contrast, consider the Amish, a group that nobody would characterize as either fragmented or secular. It is easy to see both what marks this group as a community and what tradition its members can take for granted when discussing their ethical differences with one another. Any such group is bound together closely by sacred stories, dogmas, and rituals transmitted . . .

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