Church and State: Still Learning This Whole Democracy Thing
Two initial remarks: 1) this will be a particularly important presidential election and 2) I care little about who wins. The election will be important, not primarily because Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will win, but because it will further bring to the fore the signs of the nation’s struggle to develop and to live in a pluralistic democratic society.
Face it, nation: we’re still figuring out this whole democracy thing. As much as we use and cherish words like “freedom” and “justice,” we’re still amateurs at defining them and putting them into practice. Pluralism is difficult. No one gets her ideal society. Instead, all of us have to make a case for our worldviews in the marketplace of ideas, whether the location is some website or the floor of the Senate.
Everything from our policy proposals to our comprehensive doctrines come into conflict and competition, as we’re seeing, for example, with the debate over the coverage of contraceptives between the Obama administration and the Catholic bishops. Different ideas about freedom and justice, along with measures to give those ideas the force of law, have put each side into conflict. That’s life in a pluralistic democracy; it’s not a sign of the reemergence of Nazism or some other such evil.
Pluralistic democracy entails irresolvable conflict. Sometimes compromise cannot be reached because the core positions of each side are incompatible. Culture wars erupt as the competitors attempt to resolve the irresolvable conflicts by culturally vanquishing the opponent and thereby eliminating the opposing ideas. These “wars,” I submit, are signs of the failure to live in a pluralistic democracy, a way of life which requires its own ethic. Living in a pluralistic society unavoidably means participating in social actions and structures that conflict with one’s own values and principles. And yet, if ethics means anything, it means drawing the line somewhere. As the competing worldviews in our society continue to diverge, it becomes more pressing and more problematic to discern where to draw the line. Individuals and institutions, both secular and religious, have work to do towards this discernment. So too has society as a whole.
I harbor no doubts that the general presidential election will prove an ugly affair, but one way or another it will highlight the underlying moral conflicts that divide us as a people, and perhaps amidst the campaigns we will make some progress toward discerning the ethic needed for hospitable coexistence.