The Inward Work of Democracy

Recently, I listened to an interview that Krista Tippett, MPR’s host to “On Being,” did with Jacob Needleman, author of The American Soul: The Inward Work of Democracy. His ideas have particular resonance today as we face so many questions and complications—not to mention confusion and divisive partisanship—with which our country is so riddled right now.

Jacob Needleman passionately presents some of the great yet fallible human beings who forged this country into a democracy, men and women who demanded of themselves high ideals, which they in turn expressed in our Constitution and Bill of Rights as well as the Declaration of Independence. Among the people he highlights are: George Washington, for being a man who “turned away from power”—no easy task in our competitive and power-hungry world; Thomas Jefferson, who knew the invaluable importance of “listening well,” particularly if there were to be agreement among the signers of foundational documents; Abraham Lincoln, always “humbled by power,” firmly extorted “malice toward none and charity toward all”; and 19th-century Frederick Douglas, an escaped slave who deeply loved the America he felt compelled to criticize for allowing slavery to exist.

Men with values? Virtues? Call them what we will, but we need to reflect on them today as we struggle to maintain our democracy. Let it not be thought that anyone, least of all Jacob Needleman, would deny America the festivals, marches and parades we so love to employ to express our patriotism. But Needleman wants our patriotism to go deeper than all that.

Astutely, I think, he asserts that our age needs not just external action groups but “think groups” that help us ask hard questions such as: What are the duties implied in the rights we proudly acclaim? What is the inward work of democracy? What does the Declaration of Independence imply when it says “All are created equal” and “All have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”?

Oh God, we pray for our nation and world. We ask that you help us remove the walls that separate us. We ask, in this moment, for new light: illumine our minds so that we may seek truth, harbor no malice, and live charity toward all.

Renée Domeier, OSB

Photo: An American flag on an Independence Day parade float in St. Joseph, Minn., taken by Sister Nancy Bauer