The Emergent Religion of Democracy
Martin E. Marty

For the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord

In dealing with the octopus, an antagonist finds it essential to remember the seven arms he is not fighting at the moment. It is easy for him to become involved with one, to be so absorbed in the battle at hand that he does not remember that seven other arms of the same monster may grasp and choke him.

An above-water version of such a struggle may be revealing itself in America today in the concern of Protestants in the realm of church-state relationships. They are fighting many battles—released time, Vatican ambassadors, conscientious objection; yet it is possible that they have neglected a more formidable threat.

This threat presents itself in the form of a secular national faith in democracy and its values as religious ultimates. It is perhaps an old faith, but it has never been promoted with the vigor it knows today. Non-theological, it is patronizing toward and not always too critical of traditional religions. It may especially lean toward Christian terms and parallels. But ultimately it finds faiths other than its own irrelevant. Yet the representatives of other religions are doing little to face this faith. Often they unwittingly aid it, sharing a fool's paradise with a contemporary spirit that for the moment finds religious terms and values to be respectable and helpful in national life.

To fail to notice this religion of democracy as expressed today could lead to fatal conclusions for the Church. While churchmen have been tending the "wall of separation," something has been astride the wall that makes it unimportant in first place. This something is the emergent faith which appropriates what it finds useful in both church and state toward a democratic end. It cannot be lightly dismissed as a confusion of terms. To speak of democracy as a religion as its prophets do is not the same as to speak of democracy as an ideal, a way of life. It is their term, not our judgment—and they prove their right to it. If in a religion we look for depth of experience, concern for the totality of man, for practical expression, for ultimate answers, we can turn here, they say.

This article proposes to listen mainly to spokesmen of the liberal form of this faith, its most attractive and articulate expression. Any number of representatives could have been chosen to speak for it; our choice is not wholly arbitrary. One of the nation's foremost liberal clergymen describes its creed, an educator-journalist discusses its battleground (education), and a college professor in outlining its program suggests an intellectual reinforcement which academic immunities would be in position to provide. Here then is the voice of the prophets.

The Creed

Most of us are accustomed to begin a review of another religion by examining its creed. That does not always tell us too much, and in this case it tells us very little. It would be unfair to expect a clear "theological" statement from a secular, humanistic faith. Here devotion and feeling is stressed; this is well phrased in a recent judgment on the President's faith as being "a very fervent faith in a very vague religion." Yet some content is provided for this vague form. Notable among those who seek to outline its creed is A. Powell Davies, a Unitarian who is among Washington's most respected preachers.

His book titles reveal him to be an "unrepentant liberal," writing of "America's real religion." It has been suggested that to read him would convince the doubter that Washington, Jefferson, and other founding fathers believed thoroughly in the "religion of democracy." His new Man's Vast Future begins with a formal attempt at stating "Democracy as a Faith." It is typical, comprehensive, probably acceptable to other adherents of this faith. We quote at length:

The democratic faith is a belief that man, if he resolves upon it, can raise the level of his life indefinitely, making the world increasingly more happy, more just, and more good; no fate has made him prisoner of his circumstances, no natural weakness has condemned him to be ruled by tyranny. He is meant to be free. Through the power of reason he can form intelligent opinions, and by discussion and definition can test them, knowing that truth is precious above all things and the only safe guide to purposes and aims, the right to seek it must be held inviolate.

And the democratic faith declares that human rights are by their nature universal, that liberty is such a right, and that without liberty there cannot be justice; that to ensure justice, the people should make the laws under which they live; that besides justice there should be benevolence and sympathy, that those doctrines of religion which beseech mankind to practice brotherhood are right; that love must expel hate, and good will take the place of malice; that as well as zeal there must be patience and forbearance, and that persuasion is better than coercion; that none should hold the people in contempt, or profane the sacredness of conscience, or deny the worth of human life; and finally, that God and history are on the side of freedom, justice, love, and righteousness, and man will therefore, be it soon or late, achieve a world society of peace and happiness where all are free and none shall be afraid.

This, of course, is a familiar creed. Superimposed as a political ideology on a foundation of other religions, it would probably be acceptable in many ways. What is important here, though, is that this is to be the religious foundation—other religions are considered unimportant and probably obstructive. Davies makes that clear for himself in his attacks on the Christian Creed. He complains that comma separating "born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate" leaves out the only really significant feature of Christianity—the life and example of Jesus.

Though evidently warmed by the cold war and fed on the confusion and fear of our day, this is not a new creed or new effort. Space permits one example of an embarrassing richness. Here is the word of a liberal churchman at the turn of the century:

We of America are the "peculiar people" consecrated to that "mission" of realizing Democracy [which] is potentially a universal spiritual principle, aye, a religion… men like Washington, Samuel Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln, [should be] placed literally in a calendar of saints to be reverenced by our future Americans as apostles of our Republic.

This again is the creed encountered by Christian parsons in countless calls on "living-room deists"; it is predominant in letters-to-editors columns and opinion polls and magazine articles on religion. Neither its appeal nor its extent should be underestimated because of its vagueness.

The Battleground

The religion of democracy is by its very nature militant. It seeks no windmills to fight. It has a battleground: public education. The old evil foe here is religious education and breaches in the wall of separation of church and state in public schools— the realm where the great battles of religious freedom are being and will be fought in the foreseeable future. The spokesman here is Mrs. Agnes Meyer, wife of the editor of the Washington Post. She has devoted her major efforts of recent years to a valiant literary and legal encounter with Roman Catholic and Protestant “breaches of the wall" in the schools.

For her, John Dewey is "the most religious of contemporary thinkers." A Roman opponent aims low in suggesting that her opposition to religious education is based on her memory of her brother's unhappy experience in a Lutheran parochial school and on "a few tired, old cliches she has picked up from speeches critical of parochial schools." Her attack is on a higher level. It is a necessary expression of a positive, consistent faith.

Although Mrs. Meyer is a Lutheran, her real ideological roots are, with Davies and the others, in the Locke-Jefferson tradition. Not only America's liberal past serves as a ground for her. So conservative a document as the Constitution is “anything but irreligious.” It has positive views on the subject of religion… preserving and carrying over into the secular realm much of the idealism which had been identified with religion... a specifically Christian philosophy that can never be lost is closely interwoven with its principles, and with our democratic thought and action.

She agrees with Commager that

public education has become the American religion… The schools are the noblest manifestation of the religion of the Constitution, and are by no means 'Godless' as contemporary ecclesiastical critics would have us believe.

Such noble institutions are worthy of noble defense. Mrs. Meyer provides just that, proclaiming

the secular tolerance of religious diversity which alone makes brotherhood possible in our country... This spiritual unity is the saving grace of democracy and its real defense against totalitarianism or against the divisive influence of sectarianism. Therefore what can justly be called the unifying mission of secularism has a sanctity all its own. Rightly understood and valued, secularism will accelerate its Christian democratic mission to make us all brothers of one another.

When we realize, moreover, that the Public School is the chief vehicle for mutual love, forgiveness, and tolerance between all races, classes, and creeds, it becomes an act of vandalism to attack it and an act of piety to work toward its improvement.

On this premise she attacks the impious "medieval-minded clergy," with their "outworn authoritarian verbalism." Religious differences are trivial: The school needs all of its time to improve the education of our children and to center upon the task of developing the morality and strength of character that are ideals common to men of all religious faiths... the secularization of the schools was a positive movement to embody in American education the interaction of the real and the ideal, upon which both democracy and active Christianity depend. Whenever a human being strives upward for self-development, goodness, and concern for others, there the divine will is active… Democracy can generate a system of moral principles… a secular morality.

Commonweal, the liberal Catholic journal, recognizes Mrs. Meyer as the national spokesman of "democracy as a religion, or a substitute for religion, a rival to religion, or [a reduction of] religion to the role of its political handmaiden." It is not hard to see why. It recognizes here thoughtfulness, seriousness, coherence, sincerity. But it also sees the danger when democracy exists in order to answer “the ultimate why's," and the public schools are its seminaries. Her views find considerable company and support; he who wishes observe this emergent faith action will see it best in battle for the schools.

The Program

Religions tend to solidify and settle into dogmatic formalism. A typical formalist of this faith is a worshiping Quaker, J. Paul Williams, of Mount Holyoke College. Two years ago he wrote a conventional popular review of religion in America, What Americans Believe and How They Worship. "Unfortunately the book has a thesis," said one reviewer. It appears in the last chapter, "The Role of Religion in Shaping American Destiny.” It provides chilling bedtime reading for the traditional Christian, especially if one agrees with J. H. Nichols that "Professor Williams' program has perhaps an even chance of succeeding, at least so far as a state religion is concerned." I recommend it as a starting point, should anyone reading this article need to be awakened from a "dogmatic slumber.”

Williams argues that Americans do not have enough faith, courage, and stamina to preserve what democracy they possess, to gain more, and to play a Democratic role on the world stage. He has a program: Americans must come to look on the democratic ideal "as the Will of God, or, if they please, the Law of Nature… democracy must become an object of religious dedication." Churches and synagogues, whose current teachings are harmless alternate symbols for universal needs, should teach democracy as religion, as ultimate metaphysical truth. But they are limited in reach and understanding; therefore, governmental agencies must teach the democratic ideal as religion—they reach all citizens! "Systematic and universal indoctrination is essential." Williams, too, eventually turns to the schools because they are in the most strategic position to arouse religious devotion for democracy. Schools now treat democracy as an item of religious faith only accidentally and unsystematically, so two elements need stress.

One is metaphysical sanctions, "open indoctrination of the faith that the democratic ideal accords with ultimate reality… that democracy is the very Law of Life." Embarrassed at the vagueness of the creed, Williams urges living according to it before agreeing on it without evoking "the specters of the naturalist-supernaturalist debate."

The other element is ceremonial reinforcement which would recall and glorify the set of values believed to have metaphysical sanction, self-appraisal in light of those values, and rededication to living according to the standards sanctioned by those values, to produce a "devotion to democratic ideals like the devotion given by ardent believers in every age to the traditional religions."

Williams finds company in the top educators' and thinkers' report of the second conference on the "Scientific Spirit and Democratic Faith." It breathes the same air while attacking other authoritarianisms and is summarized in a remark on the last page:

A working democracy would be modern religion at work… If we really set to work to integrate the values which we recognize as democratic values in life, we will have done the religious job.

Official Support

In all this there is no god but democracy— and these are its prophets. We have heard the respected, intelligent, reasonable advocates of a "high religion." On a lower level are the unrealistic and unfair efforts to provide a "Christian amendment to the Constitution." Still less sophisticated and more primitive, the "low religion" of this type, is the hyper-nationalism which idolizes the American nation as a nation, makes a totem of its flag, a fetish of its institutions, and self-righteously identifies its cause always with God's. If we open our eyes to these varieties of religious experience we may come to the conclusion that this is already America's dominant faith.

Should we seek further evidence, we would do well to note the popular response to the moderate expression of the democratic-American faith as it comes from the White House. All politicians are said to know the value of a "well-placed God" in their speeches.  But today we have the phenomenon of a man who first joins the church after his election to highest office, who finds theological discussion and differences totally irritating and irrelevant, who speaks above criticism with patent sincerity, evoking a popular response. A favorable press is doing what it has not done for many a president: comparing him in religion to Washington and  Lincoln How does Mr. Eisenhower articulate this faith? Here is a variety of his expressions:


I believe in democracy.

A democracy cannot exist without a religious base.

Free government is the expression of a deeply felt religious faith.

You cannot simply explain free government in any other terms than religious.

This is the faith that teaches us all that we are children of God.

This faith teaches us that our ideals of democracy and freedom… are eternal laws of the human spirit.

The founding fathers wrote this religious faith into our founding documents… they put it squarely at the base of our institutions.

Happily our people have always reserved their first allegiance to the kingdom of the spirit.

America is the mightiest power which God has yet seen fit to put upon his footstool.

America is great because she is good.

At this point we can pose the crucial question. All the expressions of this faith appeal to the founding fathers, to the American past, especially to the liberals of the Franklin-Jefferson-Madison and later the Lincoln type. ("With Lincoln the Union rose to the sublimity of religious mysticism.") This raises the significant question whether this treatment of democracy as a religion is vital to American political and social life and to its survival, whether it is an integral part of our heritage, whether, in short, it was written into and breathed into the documents and sentiments in which our freedom and way of life take their root. Is it irremovably interwoven by its very nature?

No easy answer is available, of course. One clue to be noted is the resurgence of this faith in times of crises: in the Revolution, in the liberal encounter with the Hamiltonians, in the period surrounding the Civil war and the two World Wars, and especially now. It is in such periods, we know, that America becomes curious about its past. It rereads its fathers, re-examining its foundations. Is it an accident that at such times many tend to come up with a view of democracy as a religious type of faith? Is the great experiment of religious freedom really an experiment, or did the founders bring such overpowering presuppositions out of the "climate of opinion" of the eighteenth century that they color every subsequent living expression? In any case, what alternatives present themselves?

The Alternatives

Perhaps this is not a historic faith. Perhaps its prophets today and their predecessors in earlier crises just "invented" it to meet certain needs. In that case, their appeal to the "fathers" is unjust or inaccurate.

Perhaps it is a historic faith, but a dead one. Perhaps the "fathers" did propound such a view, valid for their day but not for ours, which should be abandoned as obsolete and inadequate.

Perhaps it is the historic faith of some of the "fathers," those of the liberal, Jeffersonian type, but its prophets overrate its total importance. The extremely significant Non-Conformist-Puritan tradition in American religion, for example, may balance or cancel it. What was the church of the period saying about this "religion of humanity"? Did it so share the view of the age that the church has lost its prophetic voice? If it did, must we who follow them in years also follow them in faith?

Perhaps it is a historic faith which does not or need not concern us. Simply to recognize that it is or was an ideology would be enough in that case.

Perhaps it is a historic faith that can be encountered through theological criticism, review, and reconstruction. The Christian past and especially the Lutheran and Calvinistic Reformation may be of help.

A theological criticism on this basis would prove to the heirs of the Reformation that an "either/or" is involved between this religion and Christianity. They are not compatibles or allies. This form of democracy, the religious form, has an optimistic view of human nature and progress, an inadequate basis for human rights and equality, and a foreign "way of salvation" and goal. All of this prevents it from being acceptable in place of or in addition to Christianity, despite a blurring of the line which separates the two on the part of well-meaning adherents of the one or the other.

Perhaps, finally, it is possible to keep the form of this without its content. Is the only alternative to be found on Sidney Mead's observation that American Protestantism has not yet digested the "enlightenment” nor been willing to regurgitate its practice of freedom? We would share the unwillingness to do the latter. To attempt the former would begin with a rereading of the American "fathers" and a re-evaluation of what they believed and said. This may lead to digestion of the "Enlightenment"—or to indigestion. It is the chance one takes. It must be taken. It could be doing democracy a service, rescuing it from those who love it not wisely but too well, who seek to enthrone it. It could show democracy its rightful place, and help men continue to share the benefits of the invaluable heritage of freedom.



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