'democracy' as a civic religion -- 5/25/23

Today's encore selection -- from Achieving Our Country by Richard Rorty. John Dewey (1859-1952) was an American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer; Walt Whitman (1819-1892) an American poet, essayist, and journalist. Both hoped for a thoroughly secular "democracy" as a civic religion displacing conventional religion:

"Whitman and Dewey were among the prophets of [an American] civic religion. They offered a new account of what America was, in the hope of mobilizing Americans as political agents. The most striking feature of their redescription of our coun­try is its thoroughgoing secularism. In the past, most of the stories that have incited nations to projects of self-improve­ment have been stories about their obligations to one or more gods. For much of European and American history, na­tions have asked themselves how they appear in the eyes of the Christian God. American exceptionalism has usually been a belief in special divine favor, as in the writings of Joseph Smith and Billy Graham. ...

Walt Whitman

"Dewey and Whitman wanted Americans to continue to think of themselves as exceptional, but both wanted to drop any reference to divine favor or wrath. They hoped to separate the fraternity and loving kindness urged by the Christian scriptures from the ideas of supernatural parentage, immor­tality, providence, and -- most important -- sin. They wanted Americans to take pride in what America might, all by itself and by its own lights, make of itself, rather than in America's obedience to any authority -- even the authority of God. Thus Whitman wrote:

And I call to mankind, Be not curious about God,
For I who am curious about each am not curious about God.

"Whitman thought there was no need to be curious about God because there is no standard, not even a divine one, against which the decisions of a free people can be measured. Amer­icans, he hoped, would spend the energy that past human so­cieties had spent on discovering God's desires on discovering one another's desires. Americans will be curious about every other American, but not about anything which claims authority over America. ...

John Dewey

"Both Dewey and Whitman viewed the United States as an opportunity to see ultimate significance in a finite, human, historical project, rather than in something eternal and nonhuman. They both hoped that America would be the place where a religion of love would finally replace a religion of fear. They dreamed that Americans would break the traditional link between the religious impulse, the impulse to stand in awe of something greater than oneself, and the in­fantile need for security, the childish hope of escaping from time and chance. They wanted to preserve the former and discard the latter. They wanted to put hope for a casteless and classless America in the place traditionally occupied by knowledge of the will of God. They wanted that utopian America to replace God as the unconditional object of desire. They wanted the struggle for social justice to be the country's animating principle, the nation's soul."

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Richard Rorty


Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America


Harvard University Press


Copyright 1998 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College


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