Krista's Journal: Remembering Forward

October 26, 2006

Those of you who are long-time listeners to Speaking of Faith may have noticed that we've been doing a larger than usual number of rebroadcasts and updated programs in recent months. There is a reason for that: I've been writing a book, which will be published in March. It's called Speaking of Faith, and, it is in part a response to listeners' questions across the years about how I came to the curiosities and questions behind the show and how these conversations week after week change me. Writing the book also became an opportunity for me to synthesize some of my reflections on religion in the world and our culture through what I've heard and learned in my far-flung conversations these past years. As anyone knows who reads this newsletter, I believe that religious traditions are rich repositories for the most important confusions of the modern world — and for countering the violent excesses of religion itself. Writing the book became a process of clarifying my own thoughts, and it has been both exhausting and exhilarating. Thankfully I'm now more or less finished, and we'll be plunging into new production again eagerly. However, I've also been surprised by how enriching it was even for me to hear some of our previous broadcasts again — and to bring them into the present. We do a fair number of programs the industry calls "evergreens" — enduring subjects explored with a long lens. In a few weeks we'll rebroadcast our program "The Soul in Depression," which we've put on the air every year for a few years and I hope to do for a long time — this program helps people, again and again and again. And this week and next week we'll be updating two programs I personally want to hear again in an election season — Martin Marty's wise, wonderful, broad perspective on the changing American religious landscape (we're not all Protestants any more), and this week's moving and thought-provoking exploration of the original meaning of American democracy. There is a newly urgent discussion building in our culture — in both public and private spaces — about the role of religion in American life and in the creation of democracies in non-Christian cultures. As we began to prepare this program, I wanted to probe something the insightful Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville saw that I find underrepresented in our contemporary dynamics: a religious sensibility in the origins of our national ideals that goes deeper than our modern debates, and transcends them. Here is what de Tocqueville wrote in his 1831 classic, Democracy in America:

"Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions. I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith and religion, for who can search the human heart? But I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society."

I found a modern de Tocqueville in philosopher Jacob Needleman, and our conversation felt like an adventure. Needleman spent several years tracing the spiritual and intellectual content of the American founders' thought. Spirit and intellect, he says, always worked in concert in the formulation of American democracy and the writing of the documents that define American identity even today. Rights implied duties. Happiness was an inalienable right, but it was not synonymous with pleasure, with having or acquiring what one wants. It meant "well-being." It was linked with conscience. At the core of the "idea of America," Needleman asserts provocatively, democracy is not just a set of laws and societal structures. It is also inner work. Needleman enlarges the notion of America's founders to include important thinkers who helped form the virtues of our republic beyond revolution and constitution. So in this week's program, alongside Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, we have wonderful readings from Frederick Douglass and Walt Whitman. In the context of conversation with Needleman, I heard what each of them had to say with new interest and insight. I came away feeling that we can invoke the religious sensibility of the founders precisely as an antidote to the confusion and excesses of religion in American life today. And as a new election is upon us, I'll let one of the "founders" have the last word. This is from Walt Whitman's essay, "Democratic Vistas," written following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln:

"To be a voter with the rest is not so much; and this, like every institute, will have its imperfections. But to become an enfranchised man … to stand and start without humiliation and equal with the rest to commence the grand experiment … whose end may be the forming of a full-grown man or woman — that is something."

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is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at San Francisco State University and author of The American Soul.