I trace my spiritual lineage back to a radical Baptist in England named Thomas Helwys who believed that God,
Democracy in the Balance
How do we nurture the healing side of religion over the killing side? How do we protect the soul of democracy against bad theology in service of an imperial state?
by Bill Moyers
I trace my spiritual lineage back to a radical Baptist in
England named Thomas Helwys who believed that God, and not the
King, was Lord of conscience. In 1612 Roman Catholics were the
embattled target of the Crown and Thomas Helwys, the Baptist,
came to their defense with the first tract in English demanding
full religious liberty. Here's what he said:
"Our Lord the King has no more power over their
[Catholic] consciences than ours, and that is none at all.
For men's religion is betwixt God and themselves; the
King shall not answer it; neither may the King be judge betwixt
God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatever. It
appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least
The king was the good King James I - yes, that King
James, as in the King James Bible. Challenges to his authority
did not cause his head to rest easily on his pillow, so James had
Thomas Helwys thrown into prison, where he died.
Thomas Helwys was not the first or last dissenter to pay the
supreme price for conscience. While we are not called upon in
America today to make a similar sacrifice, we are in need of his
generous vision of religious freedom. We are heading into a new
religious landscape. For most of our history our religious
discourse was dominated by white male Protestants of a culturally
conservative European heritage, people like me. Dissenting voices
of America, alternative visions of faith, race, and gender,
rarely reached the mainstream. It's different now.
Immigration has added more than 30 million people to our
population since the late 1960s. The American gene pool is
mutating into one in which people like me will be a minority
within half a century.
America is being re-created right before our eyes. The world
keeps moving to America, bringing new stories from the four
corners of the globe. Gerard Bruns calls it a "contest of
narratives" competing to shape a new American drama.
The old story had a paradox at its core. In no small part
because of Baptists like Thomas Helwys and other
"freethinkers," the men who framed our Constitution
believed in religious tolerance in a secular republic. The state
was not to choose sides among competing claims of faith. So they
embodied freedom of religion in the First Amendment. Another
person's belief, said Thomas Jefferson, "neither picks
my pocket not breaks my bones." It was a noble sentiment
often breached in practice. The Indians who lived here first had
more than their pockets picked; the Africans brought here
forcibly against their will had more than their bones broken.
Even when most Americans claimed a Protestant heritage and
practically everyone looked alike, we often failed the tolerance
test; Catholics, Jews, and Mormons had to struggle to resist
being absorbed without distinction into the giant mix-master of
So our troubled past with tolerance requires us to ask how, in
this new era when we are looking even less and less alike, are we
to avoid the intolerance, the chauvinism, the fanaticism, the
bitter fruits that mark the long history of world religions when
they jostle each other in busy, crowded streets?
It is no rhetorical question. My friend Elaine Pagels, the
noted scholar of religion, says "There's practically no
religion I know of that sees other people in a way that affirms
the other's choice." You only have to glance at the
daily news to see how passions are stirred by claims of exclusive
loyalty to one's own kin, one's own clan, one's
own country, and one's own church. These ties that bind are
vital to our communities and our lives, but they can also be
twisted into a noose.
Religion has a healing side, but it also has a killing side.
In the opening chapter of Genesis - the founding document of
three great faiths - the first murder rises from a religious
act. You know the story: Adam and Eve become the first parents to
discover what it means to raise Cain. God plays favorites and
chooses Abel's offering over Cain. Cain is so jealous he
strikes out at his brother and kills him. Sibling rivalry for
God's favor leads to violence and ends in death.
Once this pattern is established, it's played out in the
story of Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his
brothers, and down through the centuries in generation after
generation of conflict between Muslims and Jews, Jews and
Christians, Christians and Muslims, so that the red thread of
religiously spilled blood runs directly from East of Eden to
Bosnia, Beirut, Belfast, and Baghdad.
In our time alone the litany is horrendous. I keep a file
marked "Holy War." It bulges with stories of Shias and
Sunnis in fratricidal conflict. Of teenage girls in Algeria shot
in the face for not wearing a veil. Of professors whose throats
are cut for teaching male and female students in the same
classroom. Of the fanatical Jewish doctor with a machine gun
mowing down 30 praying Muslims in a mosque. Of Muslim suicide
bombers bent on the obliteration of Jews. Of the young Orthodox
Jew who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin and then announced to the
world that "Everything I did, I did for the glory of
God." Of Hindus and Muslims slaughtering each other in
India, of Christians and Muslims perpetuating gruesome vengeance
on each another in Nigeria.
Meanwhile, groups calling themselves the Christian Identity
Movement and the Christian Patriot League arm themselves, and
Christians intoxicated with the delusional doctrine of two
19th-century preachers not only await the rapture but believe
they have an obligation to get involved politically to hasten the
divine scenario for the Apocalypse that will bring an end to the
world. Sadly, Christians, too, can invoke God for the purpose of
waging religious war. "Onward Christian Soldiers" is
back in vogue and the 2lst century version of the Crusades has
taken on aspects of the righteous ferocity that marked its
predecessors. "To be furious in religion," said the
Quaker William Penn, "is to be furiously irreligious."
THIS IS A TIME of testing - for people of faith and for
people who believe in democracy. How do we nurture the healing
side of religion over the killing side? How do we protect the
soul of democracy against the contagion of a triumphalist
theology in the service of an imperial state? At stake is
America's role in the world. At stake is the very character
of the American Experiment - whether "we, the
people" is the political incarnation of a spiritual
truth - one nation, indivisible - or a stupendous fraud.
There are two Americas today. You could see this division in a
little-noticed action this spring in the House of
Representatives. Republicans in the House approved new tax
credits for the children of families earning as much as $309,000
a year - families that already enjoy significant benefits from
earlier tax cuts - while doing next to nothing for those at
the low end of the income scale. This, said The Washington
Post in an editorial called "Leave No Rich Child
Behind," is "bad social policy, bad tax policy, and bad
fiscal policy. You'd think they'd be embarrassed but
Nothing seems to embarrass the political class in Washington
today. Not the fact that more children are growing up in poverty
in America than in any other industrial nation; not the fact that
millions of workers are actually making less money today in real
dollars than they did 20 years ago; not the fact that working
people are putting in longer and longer hours just to stay in
place; not the fact that while we have the most advanced medical
care in the world, nearly 44 million Americans - eight out of
10 of them in working families - are uninsured and cannot get
the basic care they need.
Nor is the political class embarrassed by the fact that the
gap between rich and poor is greater than it's been in 50
years - the worst inequality among all Western nations. They
don't seem to have noticed that we have been experiencing a
shift in poverty. For years it was said that single jobless
mothers are down there at the bottom. For years it was said that
work, education, and marriage is how they move up the economic
ladder. But poverty is showing up where we didn't expect
it - among families that include two parents, a worker, and a
head of the household with more than a high school education.
These are the newly poor. These are the people our political and
business class expects to climb out of poverty on an escalator
For years now a small fraction of American households have
been garnering an extreme concentration of wealth and income
while large corporations and financial institutions have obtained
unprecedented levels of economic and political power over daily
life. In 1960, the gap in terms of wealth between the top 20
percent and the bottom 20 percent was 30-fold. Four decades later
it is more than 75-fold. Such concentrations of wealth would be
far less of an issue if the rest of society was benefiting
proportionately and equality was growing. That's not the
case. As an organization called The Commonwealth Foundation
Center for the Renewal of American Democracy sets forth in
well-documented research, working families and the poor "are
losing ground under economic pressures that deeply affect
household stability, family dynamics, social mobility, political
participation, and civic life."
And Here's Bill On the Disappearing Middle Class
If the video doesn't play, left-click here (to download, right-click).
And household economics "is not the only area where
inequality is growing in America." We are also losing the
historic balance between wealth and commonwealth. The report goes
on to describe "a fanatical drive to dismantle the political
institutions, the legal and statutory canons, and the
intellectual and cultural frameworks that have shaped public
responsibility for social harms arising from the excesses of
private power." That drive is succeeding, with drastic
consequences for an equitable access to and control of public
resources, the lifeblood of any democracy. From land, water, and
other natural resources to media and the broadcast and digital
spectrums, to scientific discovery and medical breakthroughs, and
even to politics itself, a broad range of the American commons is
undergoing a powerful shift in the direction of private control.
And what is driving this shift? Contrary to what you learned
in civics class in high school, it is not the so-called
"democratic debate." That is merely a cynical charade
behind which the real business goes on - the
none-too-scrupulous business of getting and keeping power so that
you can divide up the spoils. If you want to know what's
changing America, follow the money.
Veteran Washington reporter Elizabeth Drew says "the
greatest change in Washington over the past 25 years - in its
culture, in the way it does business and the ever-burgeoning
amount of business transactions that go on here - has been in
the preoccupation with money." Jeffrey Birnbaum, who covered
Washington for nearly 20 years for the Wall Street Journal,
put it even more strongly: "[Campaign cash] has flooded over
the gunwales of the ship of state and threatens to sink the
entire vessel. Political donations determine the course and speed
of many government actions that deeply affect our daily
It is widely accepted in Washington today that there is
nothing wrong with a democracy dominated by the people with
money. But of course there is. Money has democracy in a
stranglehold and is suffocating it. During his brief campaign in
2000, before he was ambushed by the dirty tricks of the Religious
Right in South Carolina and big money from George W. Bush's
wealthy elites, John McCain said elections today are nothing less
than an "influence peddling scheme in which both parties
compete to stay in office by selling the country to the highest
THAT'S THE SHAME of politics today. The consequences:
"When powerful interests shower Washington with millions in
campaign contributions, they often get what they want. But it is
ordinary citizens and firms that pay the price, and most of them
never see it coming," according to Time magazine. Time
concludes that America now has "government for the few at
the expense of the many."
That's why so many people are turned off by politics.
It's why we can't put things right. And it's
wrong. Hear the great Justice Learned Hand on this: "If
we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment:
Thou shalt not ration justice.'" He got it right:
The rich have the right to buy more homes than anyone else. They
have the right to buy more cars, more clothes, or more vacations
than anyone else. But they don't have the right to buy more
democracy than anyone else.
I know: This sounds very much like a call for class war. But
the class war was declared a generation ago, in a powerful
polemic by a wealthy right-winger, William Simon, who was soon to
be Secretary of the Treasury. By the end of the '70s,
corporate America had begun a stealthy assault on the rest of our
society and the principles of our democracy. Looking backward, it
all seems so clear that we wonder how we could have ignored the
warning signs at the time.
What has been happening to the middle and working classes is
not the result of Adam Smith's invisible hand but the direct
consequence of corporate activism, intellectual collusion, the
rise of a religious orthodoxy that has made an idol of wealth and
power, and a host of political decisions favoring the powerful
monied interests who were determined to get back the privileges
they had lost with the Depression and the New Deal. They set out
to trash the social contract; to cut workforces and their wages;
to scour the globe in search of cheap labor; and to shred the
social safety net that was supposed to protect people from
hardships beyond their control. Business Week put it
bluntly: "Some people will obviously have to do with
.It will be a bitter pill for many Americans to swallow
the idea of doing with less so that big business can have
To create the intellectual framework for this revolution in
public policy, they funded conservative think tanks - the
Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institution, and the American
Enterprise Institute - that churned out study after study
advocating their agenda.
To put political muscle behind these ideas, they created a
formidable political machine. Thomas Edsall of The Washington
Post, one of the few journalists to cover the issues of
class, wrote: "During the 1970s, business refined its
ability to act as a class, submerging competitive instincts in
favor of joint, cooperative action in the legislative area."
Big business political action committees flooded the political
arena with a deluge of dollars. And they built alliances with the
Religious Right - Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and Pat
Robertson's Christian Coalition - who happily contrived a
cultural war as a smokescreen to hide the economic plunder of the
very people who were enlisted as foot soldiers in the war.
And they won. Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in
America and the savviest investor of them all, put it this way:
"If there was a class war, my class won." Well, there
was, Mr. Buffett, and as a recent headline in The Washington
Post proclaimed: Business Wins With Bush."
Look at the spoils of victory: Over the past three years,
they've pushed through $2 trillion dollars in tax cuts. More
than half of the benefits are going to the wealthiest 1 percent.
You could call it trickle-down economics, except that the only
thing that trickled down was a sea of red ink in our state and
local governments, forcing them to cut services and raise taxes
on middle class working America.
Now the Congressional Budget Office forecasts deficits
totaling $2.75 trillion over the next 10 years. These deficits
have been part of their strategy. The late Sen. Daniel Patrick
Moynihan tried to warn us, when he predicted that President
Reagan's real strategy was to force the government to cut
domestic social programs by fostering federal deficits of
historic dimensions. President Reagan's own budget director,
David Stockman, admitted as much. Now the leading right-wing
political strategist, Grover Norquist, says the goal is to
"starve the beast" - with trillions of dollars in
deficits resulting from trillions of dollars in tax cuts, until
the U.S. government is so anemic and anorexic it can be drowned
in the bathtub.
Take note: The corporate conservatives and their allies in the
political and Religious Right are achieving a vast transformation
of American life that only they understand because they are its
advocates, its architects, and its beneficiaries. In creating the
greatest economic inequality in the advanced world, they have
saddled our nation, our states, and our cities and counties with
structural deficits that will last until our children's
children are ready for retirement; and they are systematically
stripping government of all its functions except rewarding the
rich and waging war.
And, yes, they are proud of what they have done to our economy
and our society. If instead of producing a news magazine I was
writing for Saturday Night Live, I couldn't have made
up the things that this crew in Washington have been saying. The
president's chief economic adviser says shipping technical
and professional jobs overseas is good for the economy. The
president's Council of Economic Advisers reports that
hamburger chefs in fast food restaurants can be considered
manufacturing workers. The president's labor secretary says
it doesn't matter if job growth has stalled because
"the stock market is the ultimate arbiter." And the
president's Federal Reserve chair says that the tax cuts may
force cutbacks in Social Security - but hey, we should make
the tax cuts permanent anyway.
You just can't make this stuff up. You have to hear it to
believe it. This may be the first class war in history where the
victims will die laughing.
But what they are doing to middle class and working Americans
and the poor - and to the workings of American
democracy - is no laughing matter. It calls for righteous
indignation and action. Otherwise our democracy will degenerate
into a shell of itself in which the privileged and the powerful
sustain their own way of life at the expense of others and the
United States becomes another Latin America with a small crust of
the rich at the top governing a nation of serfs.
OVER THE PAST few years, as the poor got poorer, the health
care crisis worsened, wealth and media became more and more
concentrated, and our political system was bought out from under
us, prophetic Christianity lost its voice. The Religious Right
drowned everyone else out.
And they hijacked Jesus. The very Jesus who stood in Nazareth
and proclaimed, "The Lord has anointed me to preach the good
news to the poor." The very Jesus who told 5,000 hungry
people that all of you will be fed, not just some of you. The
very Jesus who challenged the religious orthodoxy of the day by
feeding the hungry on the Sabbath, who offered kindness to the
prostitute and hospitality to the outcast, who raised the status
of women and treated even the tax collector like a child of God.
The very Jesus who drove the money changers from the temple. This
Jesus has been hijacked and turned into a guardian of privilege
instead of a champion of the dispossessed. Hijacked, he was made
over into a militarist, hedonist, and lobbyist, sent prowling the
halls of Congress in Guccis, seeking tax breaks and loopholes for
the powerful, costly new weapon systems that don't work, and
punitive public policies.
Let's get Jesus back. The Jesus who inspired a Methodist
ship-caulker named Edward Rogers to crusade across New England
for an eight-hour work day. Let's get back the Jesus who
caused Frances William to rise up against the sweatshop. The
Jesus who called a young priest named John Ryan to champion child
labor laws, unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, and decent
housing for the poor - 10 years before the New Deal. The Jesus
in whose name Dorothy Day challenged the church to march
alongside auto workers in Michigan, fishermen and textile workers
in Massachusetts, brewery workers in New York, and marble cutters
in Vermont. The Jesus who led Martin Luther King to Memphis to
join sanitation workers in their struggle for a decent wage.
That Jesus has been scourged by his own followers, dragged
through the streets by pious crowds, and crucified on a cross of
privilege. Mel Gibson missed that. He missed the
resurrection - the spiritual awakening that followed the death
of Jesus. He missed Pentecost.
Our times cry out for a new politics of justice. This is no
partisan issue. It doesn't matter if you're a liberal
or a conservative, Jesus is both and neither. It doesn't
matter if you're a Democrat or Republican, Jesus is both and
neither. We need a faith that takes on the corruption of both
parties. We need a faith that challenges complacency of all
power. If you're a Democrat, shake them up. If you're a
Republican, shame them. Jesus drove the money changers from the
temple. We must drive them from the temples of democracy.
Let's get Jesus back.
But let's do it in love. I know it can sound banal and
facile to say this. The word "love" gets thrown around
too casually these days. And brute reality can mock the whole
idea of loving one another. We're still living in the shadow
of Dachau and Buchenwald. The smoke still rises above Kosovo and
Rwanda, Chechnya and East Timor. The walls of Abu Ghraib still
shriek of pain. What has love done? Where is there any real milk
of human kindness?
But the love I mean is the love described by Reinhold Niebuhr
in his book of essays Justice and Mercy, where he writes:
"When we talk about love we have to become mature or we will
become sentimental. Basically love means...being responsible,
responsibility to our family, toward our civilization, and now by
the pressures of history, toward the universe of humankind."
What I'm talking about will be hard, devoid of sentiment
and practical as nails. But love is action, not sentiment. When
the church was young and fair, and people passed by her doors,
they did not comment on the difference or the doctrines. Those
stern and taciturn pagans said of the Christians: "How they
love one another!" It started that way soon after the death
of Jesus. His disciple Peter said to the first churches,
"Above all things, have unfailing love toward one
another." I looked in my old Greek concordance the other
day. That word "unfailing" would be more accurately
Glenn Tinder reminds us that none are good but all are sacred.
I want to think this is what the founders meant when they
included the not-so-self-evident assertion that "all men are
created equal." Truly life is not fair and it is never
equal. But I believe the founders were speaking a powerful
spiritual truth that is the heart of our hope for this country.
They saw America as a great promise - and it is.
But America is a broken promise, and we are called to do what
we can to fix it - to get America back on the track. St.
Augustine shows us how: "One loving soul sets another on
fire." But to move beyond sentimentality, what begins in
love must lead on to justice. We are called to the fight of our
Bill Moyers, host of PBS' Now with Bill Moyers,
has received more than 30 Emmy Awards for excellence in broadcast
journalism. Moyers was senior news analyst for the CBS
Evening News and Special Assistant to President Lyndon B.
Johnson. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Southwestern
Baptist Theological Seminary.