An American flag. (Cooper Neill/For The Washington Post)
Opinions columnist, 2007-2022

Let’s assume, just for a moment, that the great political leaders of the past were not cynical, deluded or deceptive when they talked about morality and religion. Let’s posit that, at least in some instances, they were not just striking poses but making arguments.

Early in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his State of the Union address in an atmosphere charged with menace. Germany had just occupied the Sudetenland. Kristallnacht was recent news. Roosevelt was beginning to prepare Americans for the exertions of a global war.

Yet FDR did not begin his address by talking about rearmament. “There comes a time in the affairs of men,” he said, “when they must prepare to defend not their homes alone but the tenets of faith and humanity on which their churches, their governments and their very civilization are founded.” At that moment of national testing, Roosevelt felt it necessary to clarify and reaffirm the transcendent commitments that undergird self-government.

He identified three of them: religion, which “gives the individual a sense of his own dignity and teaches him to respect himself by respecting his neighbors.” Democracy, which is the “covenant among free men to respect the rights and liberties of their fellows.” And “international good faith,” which “springs from the will of civilized nations of men to respect the rights and liberties of other nations of men.”

Our public and political life, Roosevelt assumed, is ultimately a reflection or echo of our spiritual life. Here I use “spiritual” broadly to mean a set of beliefs that challenge our natural egotism and cause us to respect the rights and dignity of others. A democracy especially is based on generally held convictions about the nature and equality of human beings. Its idealism is inherent.

A few years later, as World War II raged, the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain took up this argument. "Right political experience," he said, "cannot develop in people unless passions and reason are oriented by a solid basis of collective virtues, by faith and honor and thirst for justice." In particular, it is the "urge of love" that allows us "to surmount the closed borders of the natural social groups — family group and national group — and extended it to the entire human race."

In the absence of a “democratic state of mind,” Maritain warned, “nothing is easier for political counterfeiters than to exploit good principles for purposes of deception.” “And moreover,” he said, “nothing is easier for human weakness than to merge religion with prejudices of race, family or class, collective hatreds, passions of a clan.”

What can be learned from that distant world facing an existential threat? Our crisis is so different. Yet it is a crisis of the “democratic state of mind.” What voices and institutions are proclaiming and defending the “tenets of faith and humanity” that make democracy both pleasant and possible?

For many secular liberals, such language is inherently suspect. On what basis can any set of beliefs be preferred above another? Democracy requires, in this view, not just a political pluralism but a pluralism of values. Such a position is absurdly lacking in self-awareness. A commitment to pluralism is itself a value, which must be preferred above other values such as, say, the interests of a master race or the dictatorship of the proletariat. The democratic faith now emerges from more diverse sources — both religious and nonreligious — than Roosevelt might have imagined. But it is still a moral and spiritual commitment that must be taught in order for any democracy worthy of the name to survive.

Yet also try to imagine Maritain — who helped draft the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights — trying to speak to a Republican Lincoln Day dinner about the "urge to love" extending to the entire human race. Globalist! Conservative media is in love with a "political counterfeiter." Conservative religious leaders regularly and shamelessly merge their faith with collective hatreds and the passions of a clan.

Our political renewal must somehow begin here, in recovering the democratic spirit — in confidently encouraging the decency, compassion and spirit of sacrifice that can alone overcome egotism and tribalism. That is a task for both individuals and institutions — the essential preparation for all other democratic tasks. The largest obstacle is individual — the high barrier of our own doubt.

In his poem "September 1, 1939," W.H. Auden felt the hopes of a "low dishonest decade" expiring and compared his generation to children "lost in a haunted wood." His conclusion? "We must love one another or die."

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