Democracy as a Modern Religion[1]
Jacob Trapp, Denver, Colorado
Berry Street Essay, 1942

Delivered at the Ministerial Conference

May 1942

DEMOCRACY had its dim beginnings long ago in a world where human slavery was so prevalent and habitual that it occurred to very few even to question or think about it. Not until very recently, as the age of man is reckoned, did the great civilization-building and scripture-producing religions arise to affirm, with varying degrees of explicitness, the significance and the dignity of the human.

Outstanding among these early stirrings of what became a great tradition was a tendency which became strongly marked among the Hebrews. In their codes we find a regard for human life and a reverence for personal values generally regarded as basic and originative for the Great Tradition of the Western World.

The idea of the dignity of the distinctively human and of reverence for human values was again emphasized and strengthened in Christianity with its teaching of the supreme worth of the human soul. Saint Paul, one of the great figures of that transition, expresses that universal ideal in his famous speech on Mars Hill in the city of Athens. (Acts 17:26-28.)

The beginnings of democracy had roots in that same imperishable human impulse which produced the great religions and the great scriptures of mankind: namely, the need to live and breathe as men and women, the wistful and ineradicable human desire for some kind of significance and some chance at happiness in life. This Great Tradition, which eventually took the name of democracy, became a dynamic force in the modern world.

It has somehow come about, in more ways than I could begin to suggest, that democracy has become the most vital, the most crucial, the most forward-looking religion of our time. It has certain essential characteristics which I can think of only as religious.

Vital Religion of Our Time

In the first place, it is a dream that springs from the heart, from the longings and aspirations of men and women. It has that sense of a future without which no great creative striving takes place. In the second place, it involves a faith—a faith in man and his possibilities. In the third place, it sponsors a cause —the cause of man's liberation from old and new despotisms, of unburdening his smothered potentialities, of releasing the creative forces which are native to the human. It has its great prophets and poets. It has its army of martyrs.

It has its supporters of differing denominations. There are those who cherish its vision with deep undertones of mysticism. There are those of a more rationalistic temper who are warmed by its dream and work for its realization. There is that in every one of us which is at war with its demands upon us. All these phenomena are such as you would expect when a new and virile and dynamic religion emerges upon the historic scene.

Now what is this democracy of which I speak? Let's think of it first in terms of a way or a pattern of life. The old pattern, holding sway for untold thousands of years, was the authoritarian pattern. This was what proved to be the wrong way—the way of smothering man's potentialities rather than the way of release, liberation, guidance, and growth.

The democratic way, very imperfectly worked out as yet as a technique for all phases of life, is to recognize in their degree individual rights and responsibilities and to elicit according to capacity—in the home, the school, the community, the workshop, the nation. Such releasing of the creative in man does seem to accomplish such things.

From the same human urge toward a life more abundant and significant which produced the great civilization-building and scripture-producing religions came also in the fullness of time the most dynamic and significant, the one really modern and everyday-working religion of our age. This new church was not born, like Emerson's "new church founded on moral science,” cold and naked, but warm and living in the hearts of men. It sends man forth from his loneliness to walk with companions; it enriches him through co-operation, and adds to his strength the mighty strength of comrades gone before, and comrades now living, and comrades yet to come.

The principles of democracy may be said to be yet developing and in the formative stage. We may, however, indicate with confidence certain principles which are now in the process of development.

First, the principle of participation—from each, all the vital fruitful participation of which he is capable, for its value to himself and its value to the community.

A second principle might be called the principle of personality. The Judaeo-Christian religion dared to assert, without a completely demonstrable basis, the supreme worth of the human personality. Democracy asserts the human worth and sacredness of personality and would develop in democratic society the mutual realization of personal values.

A third principle I shall call, for want of a better term, the principle of reason. Democracy, respecting differences, seeking a way toward which differences may contribute richly, allowing as it must for the continual challenge of being shown a better way, must seek its appeal in something higher than individual self-will, or clashing group interests. The victory of persuasion over force is implied in this principle of searching for and sharing the truth that makes men free.

A fourth principle I shall call, again for lack of a single comprehensive term, the recognition of the necessary material basis of life. It means that we should solve our problem in terms of nutrition, clothing, homes, schools, medical care, music, holidays, playgrounds, as requisite means toward the good life. As personality is sacred, so also the life-sustaining and life-enriching means are sacred as means.

Battle Fronts for Democracy

In terms of these principles there are certain great fronts where democracy today and in the future must wage its battles.

The first of these fronts is political. The conquests of democracy here are imperfect and partial, as all of us know. The great political front—the great political art to be learned by democracy—is to make the peacetime struggle against ever-present enemies of man more appealing to the hearts and minds of its citizens than the hitherto overwhelming adventure of war. Said Chiang Kai-shek, "Only he who hates war deserves to win.”

A second great democratic front is the economic. The principles of democracy demand that the basic natural resources and the basic means of production be socially owned, in the sense that they shall be used and exploited for the benefit of all, according to their differing needs and capacities, and not primarily for a privileged minority.

A third great front for the religion of democracy is the industrial front. The religion of democracy condemns, as contrary to its principles, the shutting off of vital necessities of life because some individuals or small groups of individuals, who by public convention are the owners, cannot profit thereby. It condemns also, as contrary to its principles, making human labor a mere chattel to be put on or off the market as the exigencies of private profit-makers dictate. And we are interested also in winning this war against labor's and democracy's arch-foe, the fascist, which means winning the peace also, in order to have the chance to go on with the unfinished business of democracy, which otherwise will be lost to us and our children and our children's children.

A fourth great front for the religion of democracy is the international front. The religion of democracy will seek through and after the war, holding these forth during the war as things worth fighting for, that different peoples shall be allowed and helped in different ways to seek, in a mutuality of interdependence, their own salvation, that "peoples and provinces shall not be bartered from sovereignty to sovereignty,” as Wilson said, "as if they were pawns and chattels in a game,” and that international co-operation shall replace international imperialism.

A final great democratic front which I wish to mention is that of institutionalized religion. The bold vision, the poetry, the vista of possibilities of the religion of democracy is needed by our churches for their spiritual revitalization. Authoritarianism in religion will gradually retreat and give way, as democratic civilization advances, and eventually be transformed to meet the requirements of what has come forth into the world a conquering and an unconquerable ideal, the fulfillment and not the destruction of the finest heritage of our race.

It would be quite unrealistic to blink the fact that at the present time our democratic heritage is in very grave peril. If the type of civilization which it has helped to develop is wiped out, it will be set back immeasurably and for a long time driven underground.

In the long view, however, I have no fear that this new religion of the modern world, new and yet old as all genuine human aspiration, will be rooted out. To die for it rather than go back to enslavement would be for us no great martyrdom, because that other 'would be infinitely worse than death. We are lifted to a higher level than that which was, and we cannot go back. Rooting out or suppressing real and vital religions has been one of the things in which tyrannies have been least successful. The religion of democracy will prove no exception. Its ideals are seeping in even where they are not wanted. It has for its background the finest genius, the most glorious heroisms, the best common aspirations, the deepest import of the great religions of the past. It appeals to that in a man that wants to be a man.

Democracy is the human in man coming to its birthright. I believe with Lincoln that it is the hope of mankind—essentially an international thing and in and of the human, and that its battle will not be fully won until the liberated peoples of the earth, living in peace beside and with one another, shall have inherited the earth.

"When they shall not build, and another inhabit.

And they shall not sow, and another reap.

And they shall not plant, and another eat.

And they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy

                  mountain, saith the Lord.”

I believe it will take a long time to accomplish the first steps—to get democracy everywhere accepted as an ideal. But I believe that when we do, things greater than any we can now envisage in our dreams will be achieved in an ideal and a way of life that sets no bounds to the heart and mind and energies of free men. I believe the most important thing right now about you and me and our influence is what side we are on in this struggle.

[1]Christian Register, July 1 942, pp. 238-240