Saturday, April 30, 2011

4th of July Selection: Democracy and Tradition

Every year I try to bust out one book to read in May and June that prepares me for the 4th of July, and exercises my chops as a citizen of the United States. Often this is a work of history or biography, on a president or founder of the nation. This year, I'm picking up a book I've been meaning to read for years. Jeffrey Stout's book was widely heralded at the time as a profound philosophical piece at the intersection of religion, politics, and philosophy. Respect for the book has not diminished, but has instead greatened, and so I'll be reading it over the next few months, hopefully distilling 500 words about it for a July 2nd newspaper column I'm writing for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette in their Faith Matters section.

Here are teasers, some pull quotes from the introduction I found inspiring:

"Acknowledging one's dependence on an exemplar-guide whose help has been a necessary condition of spiritual growth, while also being able to achieve the independence of mind that the exemplary thinker exemplifies, is a high and rare spiritual achievement" (7).

"The democratic practice of giving and asking for ethical reasons, I argue, is where the life of democracy principally resides. Democracy isn't all talk. Now and then there is also a lot of marching involved, for example. But there is no form of ethical life that generates more talk on the part of more people than does modern democracy." (6)

"The point of view of a citizen is that of someone who accepts some measure of responsibility for the conditions of society and, in particular, for the political arrangements it makes for itself. To adopt this point of view is to participate in the living moral tradition of one's people, understood as a civic nation. It is the task of public philosophy, as I understand it, to articulate the ethical inheritance of the people for the people while subjecting it to critical scrutiny" (5).

"The solidarity of an aggrieved people can be a dangerous thing. No lesson from recent history could be more evident. Any nation united mainly by memories of injustices does to it is likely to behave unjustly in its own defense and to elicit similar responses from its neighbors and enemies" (1).

"The result of [political] posturing is the Manichean rhetoric of cultural warfare. The pundits would have us believe we are all embroiled in an essentially two-sided conflict over the culture of democracy... there is some danger that a dualistic picture of our cultural situation, if accepted by enough people, will become true" (10).

"A central challenge for pragmatism as a public philosophy is to overcome the suspicion that it cannot adequately distinguish truth from concepts like warranted assertability and justified belief" (14).

And finally, the reason I'm reading the book as a pastor and citizen: "I would like to think that a reader who took the time to go through the entire discussion carefully could emerge with an improved understanding of what has been going on recently in the disputed territory where philosophical, political, and religious thought intersect."

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