Nurturing Civil Society

Religion in its Place

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 7, Issue 1, November 2004

By Jim Sleeper*


Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America was so nuanced a description of this country’s unprecedentedly democratic civic society of the 1830s that it set a standard against which sociologists and policymakers are now diagnosing a precipitous decline in civic responsibility. And in some of today’s assessments, Tocqueville’s understanding has become the admonition he sometimes intended it to be: We’re told that the American people are losing what he called “habits of the heart” that accustomed good republicans to fuse self-interest with a deep dedication to the public good without having to think all that much about it, let alone having to study doing it. It is as if the habits of our hearts have become irreversibly bad habits. What Tocqueville called “the slow and quiet action of society upon itself”–the little ways in which Americans taught one another to commingle personal and public good–inducts us now instead into a proliferating “logic” of mistrust: self-fulfilling expectations of others’ bad faith prompt guarded, antisocial exchanges, litigation in situations once mediated by a simpler good faith, and credulous watching of Fox News.

All this seems the more evident to me in the wake of the 2004 election, which mobilized millions who proclaim the power of faith but is institutionalizing the power of others who have always used such proclamations to “bless” powerful currents that are undermining Tocquevillian, republican felicity at every turn. Tocqueville’s lucid descriptions of pre-industrial, pre-continental, corporate America seem no more reassuring now about a vibrant “democracy in America” than was the brilliantly dry-eyed Walter Lippmann in the 1920s, when he despaired of “the public,” whose consent he said was “manufactured” in ways eerily evident in the recent election. It is not so clear from just what former state of civil felicity and political engagement we are really declining, and why. What once-great civic faith or social spirit is newly missing when Wal-Mart employees (that is, “associates”) assemble for their morning pep rally? What, really, has been lost (or gained) in the fervors of Queer Nation or the Nation of Islam? If we are “one nation, after all,” as apostles of an enduring civic moderation would have it, does the best of what Tocqueville described really endure?

The premise behind my questions is that liberal democracy and even republican self-governance have always depended on beliefs and civic virtues which the liberal state itself is constitutionally unable to nourish or enforce — and which big-corporate employment and consumer marketing, quite as much big-government social engineering, does a lot to undermine. This premise about a vulnerability or self-contradiction  inherent in liberalism casts doubt on some leftists’ and liberals’ statist, materialist prescriptions, but it also challenges conservatives’ blaming of big-government liberalism alone for the social decay to which it is often merely, in my experience, a maladroit response. Many widely noted instances of civic decay (recall the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s complaint that we have been “defining deviancy down” by lowering our standards of pro-social conduct) reflect communally disruptive, degrading “free-market” forces at least as much as they do any “big-government” coddling or social engineering.

Better approaches, I will suggest here, come neither from “the left” nor “the right” as we have known them but from a new understanding of the separation of church and state that, by countenancing more religious vigor, would also strengthen nonbelievers like me who live in the interstices between faith and formal liberalism. The problem as I understand it was described by Tocqueville in a passage that is too seldom cited by contemporary liberal assessors of our civic decay and that is too easily touted by people who are joined at the hip to the consumerist promoters of that decay:

When the religion of a people is destroyed, doubt gets hold of the higher powers of the intellect, and half paralyzes all the others. Every man accustoms himself to have only confused and changing notions of the subjects most interesting to his fellow-creatures and himself. His opinions are ill-defended and easily abandoned; and, in despair of ever resolving by himself the hard problems respecting the destiny of man, he ignobly submits to think no more about them. Such a condition cannot but enervate the soul, relax the springs of the will, and prepare a people for servitude. Not only does it happen, in such a case, that they allow their freedom to be taken from them; they frequently themselves surrender it. When there is no longer any principle of authority in religions any more than in politics, men are speedily frightened at the aspect of this unbounded independence. The constant agitation of all surrounding things alarms and exhausts them. As everything is at sea in the sphere of the mind, they determine at least that the mechanism of society shall be firm and fixed; and, as they cannot resume their ancient belief, they assume a master.

For my own part, I doubt whether man can ever support at the same time complete religious independence and entire political freedom. And I am inclined to think that, if faith be wanting in him, he must be subject; and if he be free, he must believe.

I do not take Tocqueville to be saying that every individual must run out and “get religion,” and surely he is not proposing to hand the public sphere over would-be apostles of religious truth. But the passage seems to me right enough about the sources of civic decay and distemper to suggest that public policymakers and “rational choice” analysts of our social condition may not be the best diagnosticians of a decline in civic virtue, let alone its healers.

In The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York, I diagnosed an unhealthy decline in public policymaking itself, at least as it affected the urban civic cultures I had engaged as a journalist and activist in the city. While developing my account, I came, against my own left-liberal inclinations, to accept charges that a lot of social policymaking had itself become an accelerant of civic decline. But I had no idea what was missing besides a resilient public spirit whose own wellsprings remained obscure. I knew only that there was something almost anomic about the American provision of social welfare that, whatever its intention to redress the very real damage that economic exploitation and racism had done, retarded any reliable balance between rights and responsibilities that might revive civic responsibility in a liberal republic.

But I also accepted, and still do, the liberal countercharge that a lot of the civic irresponsibility whose increase conservatives blame on entitlement and redistribution policies is driven even more strongly by something they tend to support as uncritically as some liberals do entitlements: the investment and consumer marketing methods of the legal, fictive “persons” we call corporations. Their methods, which are ever-more protean, intrusive, and absorptive of civic life, encourage a kind of spiritual privatization and civic disengagement by workers, consumers, and the unemployed. If liberal social-welfare policy, too, has accelerated civic decline, it has done so, I repeat, as a maladroit and indeed often counterproductive response to this other, more basic cause of that decline. The classical liberal understandings of freedom and sovereignty which conservatives proclaim, and upon which the American republic perhaps uniquely relies, cannot be squared with today’s conservative understandings of corporate freedom and sovereignty.

The thorny paradox we all face is  one that Tocqueville only partly anticipated: These patterns of investment, broken loose from the religious ethos in which John Locke would have harnessed them, are generating an ever-more reckless, relentless, and intrusive “culture” of consumer marketing that degrades and atomizes civic and political culture in ways liberal government is not constitutionally empowered to constrain, much less redirect. Even Adam Smith’s theory of the moral sentiments would have been violated and shocked by the practices of many who invoke him as a secular patron saint of free-marketeering. Arguably, John Adams foresaw the dimensions of the problem:

When the people give way, their deceivers, betrayers, and destroyers press upon them so fast, that there is no resisting afterwards. The nature of the encroachment upon the American Constitution is such as to grow every day more and more encroaching…. The people grow less steady, spirited, and virtuous, the seekers more numerous and more corrupt, and every day increases the circles of their dependants and expectants, until virtue, integrity, public spirit, simplicity, and frugality become the objects of ridicule and scorn, and vanity, luxury, foppery, selfishness, meanness, and downright venality swallow up the whole society.

If I were to end the diagnosis right here, the most obvious prescription would be to reconfigure somehow the relationship between liberal public sovereignty and corporate capitalism. We might ask President Bush, “If you want to assert American sovereignty, why not do it against tax shelters on the Cayman Islands and in other places abroad that enable companies to shift their tax burdens to the people who fight your wars?” We might even subordinate the “free speech” rights of conglomerates more than we do now to the civic conversation of people who are real, not fictive, and who are citizens, not just employees and consumers. “Public” corporations are not thinking beings with political ideas whose expression the First Amendment was written to protect; their “ideas” are tactical reiterations of one unexamined imperative—to pursue profit and market share. Yet their power to inundate public discourse in that pursuit, buying up political debate while assembling huge audiences on any other pretext, guarantees not democratic deliberation but more off-screen spectacles, as when Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin’s son, an inner-city teacher, was murdered by a 19-year-old aficionado of the gangster rap the elder Levin was pumping into the Bronx. Of course there is no legal or even investigative-journalistic connection between what the elder Levin does and what the 19-year-old did. But need one be an Aristotle or a Plato (or a Jeremiah or a Cicero or, heaven help us, a Jerry Falwell) to warn that a society that becomes a slippery web of contracts and rights will lack a civic vocabulary or culture thick enough to resist its own cultural and moral decay?

Where Religion Does and Doesn’t Count

Where can anyone who makes such a diagnosis go to find a prescription? Here, sadly, both big-government liberals and the left have demonstrated repeatedly that they have nothing with any real civic and political traction to offer. Who can provide citizens–including those who serve corporate usurpers of the prerogatives of citizenship–with a healthier statutory or constitutional regimen or cultural diet that can reconstitute society? The medical metaphor fails–and, with it, a lot of the policymaking that relied without saying so on the civic strengths it meant to enhance but often displaced. The power to recast relations between corporate capital and civil authority would have to be generated somehow from an Aristotelian, perhaps Arendtian engagement with “the political.” Or, if American history is a guide, real power to effectuate reform would have to come from politics that, while essentially liberal, could draw on nationalist and religious currents that at times in the last century proved more potent than either corporate investment and marketing or liberals’ statist, materialist responses to it–responses stripped juridically of moral content.

This next step in my diagnosis–from an anti-capitalist accounting to a Calvinist or quasi-evangelical reckoning–is not as far-fetched as it may sound. David Chappell’s justly celebrated A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow is one of the most compelling recent reminders from a serious historian that we cannot understand this country’s most effective social-reform movements — from offshoots of the original Puritan errand itself to abolitionism and the Social Gospel, Progressive, suffragist, temperance, early labor, and civil rights movements — without also understanding the Hebraic/Protestant covenantal and prophetic-nationalist currents that have carried American reform across, and sometimes with, Enlightenment currents in our civic thinking.

Never mind that when Ronald Reagan invoked the Puritan “City on a Hill” against the Soviet “evil empire,” liberals heard only rigid Cold War ideology; more Americans heard sounds of a longer struggle between Old World tyranny and an America they think chosen for great things. That struggle probably continues in the mind of George W. Bush. Even if you dismiss his way of inspiriting governance with faith, look into the passion that produced 5,000 new, owner-occupied “Nehemiah” homes in “hopeless” inner-city New York, built by church-based organizations working with the Industrial Areas Foundation. These homes are named for the biblical leader who convinced his despondent neighbors to rebuild Jerusalem. The organizing that made them sound and affordable to first-time, non-white buyers–nurses’ and teachers’ aides, transit and hospital workers–did not demand or offer the deep subsidies of public housing where a surprising number of Nehemiah buyers had lived; it drew unapologetically on religious and patriotic currents to nourish civic responsibility in the “power organizations” I sketch in The Closest of Strangers and IAF organizer Michael Gecan describes more intimately in Going Public.

Suffice it to say here that these organizations have stabilized neighborhoods that some had thought drained of economic and political clout, partly because they understand that while civic virtue may be aided by abstract or legalistic defenses, it cannot be awakened or sustained that way. For the Nehemiah builders who organized the crucial home-owner preparation and training, faced down the corrupt union and public officials who were driving up the costs of housing, and mounted the crucial home-owner training and living-wage campaigns in the basements of their churches as centers of a moral community, civic responsibility rests on sustaining a general, public expectation of religious faith without any imposition of doctrine.

There is a genius here that conservatives understand but abuse and leftists and liberals resist or simply have not grasped: in keeping American understandings of personal dignity and liberty free of doctrinal or ecclesiastical (and therefore corruptible) frames, the separation of church and state strengthens voluntarist religious enthusiasms, but it also reinforces presumptions of natural rights by sidelining arbitrary claims of divine right in politics. Among the unexpected benefits is that those of us who are nonbelievers find far better protection in the interstices of this balance between the Enlightenment of Locke and the Lord of the Covenant than we would in some post-modernist free-for-all, which would really be a Hobbesian free-for-all.

Expecting faith without imposing doctrine is only the beginning of any struggle. IAF organizer Gecan tracks the evolution and entanglements of three public cultures: the market, the bureaucratic, and the relational or voluntary. Organizations like his might not have been needed in the first place if Lockean capitalist property-making had not been just as important as religion to American civic culture, a duality that goes almost all the way back to the Puritans. But the lesson to draw from the “built-in” conflict between the spiritual and the material in American life is that liberal government cannot by itself regenerate politics by statute or social policy.

To put it more pointedly, a politics of civic responsibility cannot sustain itself without going into opposition to an economic dispensation which has overreached but which, contrary to what dialectical materialists thought, is not doomed; it needs reconfiguring, not abolishing. The question is where to find the public moral strength to reconfigure it. But there is a caution for left-liberals lurking in Max Weber’s suggestion, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, that a culture capable of inspiriting and tempering capitalism must draw, explicitly or surreptitiously, on religious wellsprings of personal responsibility. The caution is that, in the American scheme that has endured since Puritan times, capitalism is not ultimately the deepest threat to civic virtue. That threat runs far back beyond capitalism in history and myth, through the biblical accounts of the golden calf to the Garden of Eden, which contained a serpent and a couple of very corruptible human beings long before there was a single capitalist. Leftists still think and act as if capitalism itself was the original sin; fundamentalists still construe the problem biblically; but the last century taught many to prefer a civic politics that is not so Manichaean and utopian and that, by acknowledging people’s divided nature in more prosaic, Madisonian ways, fortifies them to reckon with oppression’s roots, in themselves as well as in their representatives and their “betters.”

Still, Madison, Adams, and other framers drew, sometimes surreptitiously, on residues of the Puritan faith on which the commonwealth of Massachusetts was founded. It drew moral passion into a vortex of self-scrutiny, sometimes reducing political responsibility to personal authenticity (or “grace”). But whenever Puritan moralism was liberated from the surplus repressions that so often attended it (as in Lincoln’s politics or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s writings), it nourished the personal and civic responsibility upon which the republic relied repeatedly, if sometimes only in a pinch. It was in communing with a higher power that leaders (elected or insurgent) felt strong enough to confront the powers that be. That is how we got William Jennings Bryan, the Social Gospel, and Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, but also, at least residually, the more avowedly secular Progressives and Debsian socialists, and the Bill Bradleys, John McCains, and other rebel tribunes.

Here, too, was the more prosaic civic leadership I sometimes encountered growing up in Yankee New England, with its ethos of plain living and high thinking, understated felicity of expression, willingness to volunteer for leadership in otherwise-leaderless circumstances, and capacity to bear pain with grace (if only because bearing it demonstrated that one’s “grace” in salvation was guaranteed). The pain-bearing got transmuted into sportsmanship and is the point, I think, of those football prayer huddles: yes, we play brutal contact sports and fight wars and run toward death in collapsing buildings in order to save people. And while religion is used to “bless” some of the worst of these efforts–that is why we need constitutional liberalism to restrain it–we need to be sure that it has some room. Unless you think that capitalism is a more formidable obstacle than the divided human heart itself to heaven on earth, a religiously inflected civic nationalism may be needed to transmute public aggression (or despair) into something nobler against great odds, as in the Nehemiah organizing or in Lincoln’s religiously inflected rhetoric and his fraught, agonizing decision to fight the Civil War.

In The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois reprinted the poet James Russell Lowell’s rendering of the long, twilight struggle with evil that is woven into the heart of American civic culture: “Truth forever on the scaffold; wrong forever on the throne / Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown / Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.” Every so often, this God would loose the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword, so that even in 1963 Martin Luther King could stir millions by crying, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

In 1968 I saw Yale University Chaplain William Sloane Coffin, Jr., “bless” the courage of three students who handed him their draft cards to symbolize their defiance of the American government in the name of the American nation by refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. “Believe me,” Coffin quipped, “I know what it’s like to wake up in the morning feeling like a sensitive grain of wheat, lookin’ at a millstone.” It was a burst of Calvinist humor, jaunty in its defiance of the powers that be on behalf of a higher power, but against what seemed overwhelming odds. This vignette of constitutional patriotism makes little civic sense unless one complicates the idea by suggesting that such patriots might include civilly disobedient but peaceful anti-abortion activists who believe that life is a continuous, sacred thread, not to be broken by the state or individuals exercising their “rights.” Some may loathe these activists as much as others loathed those who opposed the Vietnam War or, in the civil rights movement, the false racial comity of the old South. But the test of a constitutional patriotism leavened by an almost sacred sense of civic duty is that it respects even bitter adversaries who are willing to accept legal punishment to strengthen peaceful dissent.

Such heroic protest is … well, heroic, and rare. Not so the ordinary civic-republican ethos which the literary historian Daniel Aaron called “ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free.” This, too, used to be confirmed in folkways and friendships as well as in the Constitution, and it, I think, was part of what Ben Franklin had in mind when he answered, “A republic, if you can keep it,” to a spectator outside Independence Hall who asked what kind of government the delegates were preparing. Another way of putting it is that, in the American view, civil society precedes, legitimates, and may even overthrow a regime and the interests it has empowered. We “keep” the republic by obeying its laws, but also by practicing the fair play, reasoned argument, and tolerance that cannot be mandated but are nourished in the folkways, friendships, and rites of passage of republican (small “r”) training grounds–the after-hours schools, youth programs, summer camps, and other institutions that are established to strengthen civic attachments, not just to enhance the resumés of college applicants.

I realize that I have opened the door to questions about government funding of faith-based organizations, and in principle I am not opposed, although I hasten to repeat that conservatives abuse the principle as often as they understand it. Even some secular republican training grounds have drawn quite consciously on the Puritan/Hebraic religious currents in our culture as well as on Enlightenment affirmations of natural rights. I believe that it was civic crucibles like these that made the Jimmy Stewart of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington credible to the young Bill Bradley, John McCain, Mario Cuomo, or even Rudolph Giuliani.

What bears repeating–because it extends this article’s “diagnosis” of our civic decline beyond the materialist critiques that the decline incorporates but transcends–is that American civic responsibility inheres in political projects recognizing struggles with evil in the protagonists’ own hearts, as well as in their adversaries’. And the lesson I am inclined to draw from these ruminations is that the civic culture we see declining–the old one that cantilevered the Enlightenment of John Locke and James Madison with the Christian introspection of Jonathan Edwards–reckoned more fruitfully with our divided natures than does the palliative “culture” of sensationalism, anomie, and amnesia that is replacing it, attended by “helping” professions and policymakers who would medicate away even its irreducibly moral crises. To understand our decline, assess it against this loss of the resilient tension between good and evil, between faith and natural rights.

Capitalism and Conviction

Van Wyck Brooks wrote early in the last century that when the jug of old New England finally cracked, spilling its Puritan wine, the liquid ran into earth as rank commercialism, while vapor and aroma rose heavenward in the dissociated mysticism of Transcendentalism. Boston liberalism is still suffused by the latter, while the George Herbert Walker Bush who began his 1988 presidential campaign by lambasting Michael Dukakis as a Boston liberal was himself the embodiment of the Puritan liquid run aground in the oil fields of West Texas. The Bush tenures–this one even more than the last–serve an unrestrained Lockean ethos of property-making (or the appearance of it) that, however well it has served this country in Locke’s Christian, quasi-Calvinist harness, is broken loose from that covenant and is running rampant over civic virtue in a “culture” that degrades the individual and social dignity it pretends to enhance. It measures out individualism by the slender power of choice at the mall, draining other associations, inducing us to privatize our pleasures and socialize only our pains, as Robert Reich put it.

America has always been a rolling synthesis of forces no one could grasp or ride, certainly not by thinking ideologically, doctrinally, or perhaps any other way than mystically, like Whitman or Melville, or like a Jack Nicholson movie character, teetering on a tightrope between all-consuming materialism and rapturous faith. But lately the country seems to me not a synthesis but a riot of forces that are atomizing and dissolving us as a polity, in currents so swift that only a doomed national security state or empire would even pretend, quite wrongly, to channel them. Through both classical liberal and Puritan moral lenses we observe the fading of “the political,” as Arendt envisioned it, and, with that, of Daniel Aaron’s civic ethos, “ethical and pragmatic, disciplined and free.”

But are those lenses right for us? Robert Bellah and others have described the loss I’ve just mentioned as a cause of diffused if quiet heartbreak, quiet because the therapeutic, medicating, or hedonist culture that is replacing it is depriving us of the vocabulary of moral connectedness I mentioned earlier in linking Time Warner’s products with a murder. This is a risky way of seeing things. After all, American political culture has been riotous, scandalous, even licentious often enough in the past. But never, Robert Putnam warns us, has it seen such poignant disaffection.

More symbolically, the collapse of the World Trade Center, although caused by external forces, seems to mirror the implosion of mighty corporations and Catholic Church governance, as well as of standards of decency and civility in public places, as evidenced in fans’ attacks on players in a former national pastime, baseball, which the market is eating alive. What George Orwell called the “prolecult” of mass entertainment is more gladiatorial, from the recent movie Gladiator to TV’s The Sopranos, insinuating calculations of force and fraud into daily life. The degradation of even upper-middle-class morals and manners, from road rage to compulsive body building, suggests a sauve ce qui peut, “every man for himself” stance toward a society no one trusts.

For 30 years now, a lot of this decline has been marketed and even ideologized as “liberating.” But the civil rights movement would have been inconceivable without its famous capacity to uphold some of the older civil society’s supposedly hypocritical and oppressive conventions: when Rosa Parks, on her way home from a long workday in the department store that employed her as a seamstress, refused quietly to move to the back of the bus, the dignity in her bearing strengthened what was good in some old conventions even as it challenged what was bad in others. But now corporate marketing is dissolving them all, shuffling our racial and libidinal decks so indiscriminately that it “liberates” us only into a spacey, anomic meanness.

In the studios of television tell-all circuses and show trials, for example, blacks and whites vent their despair together in perfect equality. Native American “tribes,” some concocted by activist-entrepreneurs and investor-friendly officials, use their sovereignty to set up casinos that, in a bitter poetic justice, hook busloads of flaccid, despairing whites on gambling as surely as whites once hooked Native Americans on firewater. Both the left, flummoxed by racialist fantasies of liberation, and honorable conservatives, flummoxed by free-market idolatry or libertarian doctrine, are speechless about this addictive, regressive tax of casino gambling. And our decline is accelerated by journalism’s collapse into the tentacles of entertainment conglomerates.

If I sound like an old Roman citizen echoing Cicero’s lament that we are too ill to bear our sicknesses or their cures, it’s because I foresee for America neither the Soviet-style totalitarianism of conservative nightmares nor the fascism of the fevered leftist imagination, but a dissolution like ancient Rome’s. Edward Gibbon’s accounts of it leap off the page. He wrote that the imperial paternalism introduced a “long, slow poison” into the vitals of the republic, such that citizens “no longer possessed that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honor, the presence of danger, and the habit of command.” Especially interesting is his description of Rome’s passage from republic to empire: Augustus framed “the artful system of the Imperial authority to deceive the people by an image of civil liberty,” writes Gibbon, because Augustus knew that

the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided that they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom…. That artful prince … humbly solicited their suffrages for himself, for his friends and scrupulously practiced all the duties of an ordinary candidate. The emperors disdained that pomp and ceremony which might offend their countrymen…. In all the offices of life they affected to confound themselves with their subjects and maintained with them an equal intercourse of visits and entertainments.

And there we are, arguably: George W. Bush may be no Augustus, but the resonance of these passages in his manner suggests the passing of a civic-nationalism that balanced conservative values with liberal opportunities in the name of a larger liberty and constitutional comity. Ideological thinking is part of the problem. It is when civic discipline loses ground to those who would impose on our politics the left-versus-right floor plan of the 19th-century French Chamber of Deputies that we find ourselves lurching back and forth between the opportunism of left and right, each side right about how the other is wrong, but each too partisan to follow its vaunted truths wherever they really lead.

But lamenting the rise of “empire” and the end of days is too easy a moralism for people whose abdication of civic responsibility is relatively insulated from the consequences for others’ freedom. It would be better to try to regenerate civil society by recalling how it was generated in the first place, and that would return us to the irony with which I began: indispensable though the Enlightenment is to this country, Tocqueville’s caution about the codependency of faith and freedom reminds us that we cannot know all of America’s sources of strength without reckoning, even as an unbeliever, with the Judeo-Protestant legacies that have shaped its politics and still might temper its capitalism.

Perhaps it is because policy intellectuals have not so reckoned that their, and our, political responses to market depredations have been inadequate. Liberals have chosen statist, materialistic, and paternalistic answers–legalistic, bureaucratic entitlements (including “corporate welfare” in subsidies of all kinds)–that, combined with private mass marketing, insinuate the “slow poison” into the vitals of the republic and undercut civic responsibility as Gibbon recalled it (or projected it backward from his own England?) for ancient Rome. We have not sought new ways to nourish or reassert the civic sovereignty and patriotism on which a republic stands.

But the paradox I mentioned earlier, in which unleashed market forces “liberate” us into crises over which liberal sovereignty has no sway, suggests that liberal government is a doubtful provider of civic virtue and responsibility, of energetic civic education, training, and rites of passage. Like settlement houses and some labor unions in the past, today’s crucibles of civic engagement, if not civic virtue, are the stronger neighborhood organizations and churches such as those organized by IAF, some employing community-organizing methods pioneered by Saul Alinsky. They do this in arms-length relationships with public as well as private supporters, whom they tend to fend off but sometimes cajole or embarrass into doing things their way, whether in supporting charter schools or other school reforms or in developing housing and living-wage programs that are far from the social-welfare models of the Great Society. They challenge both inner-city “welfare” programs and corporate welfare, both white racism and the reactive, non-white racialism of “liberationist” academics and activists.

I first saw their power and faith at work in 1982, in Brooklyn’s devastated Brownsville section, at a rally of 8,000 American and Caribbean blacks, Hispanics, and a few whites whose organization, East Brooklyn Congregations (EBC), was breaking ground for the first 1,000 of the Nehemiah single-family row homes on 15 abandoned city blocks. “Contrary to common opinion,” cried the Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood, “we are not a ‘grassroots’ organization. Grass roots grow in smooth soil! Grass roots are shallow roots! Our roots have fought for existence in the shattered glass of East New York and the blasted brick of Brownsville! And so we say to you, Mayor Koch, ‘We Love New York! We Love New York!’” The crowd joined him, on its feet, shifting the emphasis to the “We,” in “We Love New York!” The mostly white dais was stunned. The bishop of Brooklyn blinked back tears.

Civic patriotism was not supposed to happen here. But these people had built a “power organization” that turned both capitalist and socialist assumptions upside down. In hundreds of house meetings and lay leadership training sessions run by Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation, the EBC studied local power and began with simple goals. National parent church bodies contributed almost $9 million. The city and state gave land and subsidies, but the initiative, training, and discipline came from the EBC. These poor, faithful people’s probity made local bankers, contractors, politicians, bureaucrats, and even progressive organizers seem opportunistic by comparison. And not just by comparison–by confrontation. The EBC had to face down corrupt unions and public officials demanding kickbacks, and it did so only by combining the power of numbers with the power of faith as represented in calls from the Roman Catholic bishop to the mayor and union leaders.

This certainly was not socialism or black power: in the crowd that day were 100 dazed-looking whites who came by bus from Archie Bunker neighborhoods in nearby Queens–members of a sister organization of churches. Their president, Pat Oettinger, took the microphone and cried, “Our trip to Brooklyn today has reinforced our belief that there is no boundary between us. We are all one neighborhood, one great city. Your heartaches are our heartaches! Your victories are our victories!” The crowd roared back its welcome. The Queens visitors loosened up and waved. “Two years ago,” Oettinger later told me, “you couldn’t have gotten my neighbors here in a tank.”

What they experienced would have to happen to tens of thousands more to change the civic culture of New York. But two things are worth noting. First, 8,000 low-income black and Hispanic people instructed white officials and fellow citizens in rebuilding civic consensus as well as housing. Second, years after that groundbreaking, I watched Mayor Rudolph Giuliani embrace Johnny Ray Youngblood on a stage in Queens. Giuliani wasn’t one to subordinate politics to claims about capitalist root causes or to ideologizing people’s pain. Valid though indictments of speculative misinvestment and its social consequences have been, Giuliani was elected–if only by default–because those indictments, and the racial flag-waving that accompanied them, were not in themselves prescriptions, let alone alternatives that could work. There seems to be no substitute for the covenant of civic trust that Nehemiah knew how to tap when other organizers had failed.

Again, I am not urging religious belief on anyone, only more respect for it as a civic wellspring. We can control it constitutionally without discouraging or censuring it as automatically as some of us have tended to do. Precisely because the United States is becoming even more racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse than any census color-coding or Ford Foundation ethnic corralling can comprehend, we should be working harder to forge a few republican/civic bonds.

I plead guilty to begging many policy questions in order to aerate this issue of civic decline. Against the explanations I have offered, policies such as the public funding of faith-based institutions and charter schools, stronger statutory support for organizing the unorganized, and “living-wage” contracts with private providers of certain public services are all preferable to the large state bureaucratic entitlements that have tried to offset the consequences of predatory corporate practices I have mentioned. We probably do better, morally as well as administratively, by helping people to help themselves. The efforts I have listed are doable, and probably with no more scandal than attends the often-corrupt, culturally vapid political system we sustain now, but only if a civic consensus to do them can be translated into an electoral one. I do not see that George W. Bush’s invocations of God do more than gloss a fundamentally corrupt and socially decadent free-marketeering like that during the tenure of Karl Rove’s favorite president, William McKinley; but Bush & Co. might would do well to recall that the depredations of the 1880s and ‘90s prompted the Social Gospel and Populist movements. Ameliorative liberal policymaking rides on the cusp of those movements but tends only to enhance market pacifications. I see nothing that can break through the torpor besides a faith — deeper and wiser than the present administration’s — that is resonant in an understanding of this country’s history as a moral experiment. I believe our history should be taught that way and our projects should be undertaken in that spirit.


* Jim Sleeper is a Lecturer in Political Science at Yale University. His books include The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (1990) and Liberal Racism (1997). This article is adapted from a paper presented at a symposium held by the Campbell Public Affairs Institute, a research center of the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. Copyright 2004 by Jim Sleeper.