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Spiritualizing Democracy

by Philip GoldbergJuly 27, 2018
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Vigilance and skillful action are needed here and now to protect our democracy from those who would undermine it.

In late June, I was honored to participate in a conference on spirituality and democracy at the tranquil, woodsy campus of the Fetzer Institute outside Kalamazoo, Michigan.  Part of a joint project of Fetzer’s Democracy Initiative and The Practicing Democracy Project of the Center for Spirituality & Practice, the 3-day gathering brought together an intimate group of some 25 spiritual leaders and social activists to “identify and share ways to practice spiritual and moral virtues that enable us all to flourish as members of a democratic society.”  The primary focus was to identify spiritual practices that can help individuals and groups reach across the many divides that tear at the nation’s fabric.

Although most of the participants were self-identified Christians of one kind or another, a broad array of traditions and pathways were represented, and the group was refreshingly diverse ethnically, racially, and chronologically.  The smallness, the extended time frame, the isolated setting, and the shared meals meant that as much information and heartfelt communication was shared informally as in the group sessions.

It will come as no surprise that the meeting did not produce easy solutions for the nation’s problems or a neat formula for strengthening democratic institutions with spiritual methods.  I doubt anyone in attendance had any such illusions. But I came away encouraged, and my sense is that the others did as well. One of the project’s guiding assumptions is that “American democracy can flourish only when citizens are united, at a deep level that transcends ideology, race, and class, to a shared spiritual and moral vision of what America should be.” That might sound idealistic and perhaps airy-fairy, but I left the gathering more convinced of the veracity of that premise than I was beforehand, because I heard stories about how it plays out in real life and I learned about methods that can make such abstractions concrete.

I am more certain than ever that real and lasting change is an inside job. Hearts and minds have to be opened, expanded, and enriched, and deep, unifying values have to be identified, absorbed, and activated on an individual level. This is a more practical approach than might be imagined, as spiritual techniques for both internal transformation and healthy interpersonal behavior are readily accessible. I encourage readers to check out the comprehensive offerings in the Practicing Democracy Project’s collection of resources.  

On a personal level, I found it especially heartening to hear the voices of Christians, including some Evangelicals, whose lives and work offer a crucial rebuttal to the Fundamentalists who lay claim to the term “Christian.” The socio-political impact of arch-conservative elements has far exceeded their actual numbers relative to progressive and moderate Christians, and the impact of their fervor is hard to overstate. It was reassuring to meet dedicated Christians of different ages and different denominations who are bringing to the public sphere the open-minded, inclusive, socially equitable interpretations of their tradition.  

Speaking only for myself, not the participants as a group, while I left the conference feeling more optimistic and hopeful, it took only a glance at the latest news to bring back the gnawing awareness of certain forces  that appear to be working against democratic values. Around the world, authoritarian personalities have achieved an alarming amount of influence, and in America some powerful people and institutions seem less interested in preserving and protecting democracy than in securing power, whether through voter suppression, gerrymandering, vilifying the press, or manipulating structural inequalities that give some populations proportionally greater representation than others.  

The spiritual principles and practices identified at the conference are more potent than they might appear to be on the surface.  Those of us who think they represent the best hope for the future have to do what we can to apply them creatively and patiently. Spiritualizing democracy is bound to be a messy, multi-layered marathon that evolves on multiple fronts simultaneously, some of them barely discernible.  At the same time, I hope we can also apply vigilance and skillful action to preserve our democratic norms here and now.


Philip Goldberg

Philip Goldberg is an author and public speaker whose numerous books include the award-winning American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West; Roadsigns on the Spiritual Path: Living at the Heart of Paradox; and the recent biographyThe Life of Yogananda: The Story of the Yogi Who Became the First Modern Guru. A meditation teacher and ordained Interfaith Minister, he is also the cohost of the popular Spirit Matters podcast and leads American Veda Tours to India. See www.PhilipGoldberg.com.


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