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← How to revive your belief in democracy

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Showing Revision 10 created 05/07/2019 by Brian Greene.

  1. I bring you greetings
  2. from the 52nd-freest nation on earth.
  3. As an American, it irritates me
    that my nation keeps sinking
  4. in the annual rankings
    published by Freedom House.
  5. I'm the son of immigrants.
  6. My parents were born in China
    during war and revolution,
  7. went to Taiwan and then came
    to the United States,
  8. which means all my life,
  9. I've been acutely aware just how fragile
    an inheritance freedom truly is.
  10. That's why I spend my time teaching,
    preaching and practicing democracy.
  11. I have no illusions.

  12. All around the world now,
  13. people are doubting
    whether democracy can deliver.
  14. Autocrats and demagogues seem emboldened,
  15. even cocky.
  16. The free world feels leaderless.
  17. And yet, I remain hopeful.

  18. I don't mean optimistic.
  19. Optimism is for spectators.
  20. Hope implies agency.
  21. It says I have a hand in the outcome.
  22. Democratic hope requires faith
  23. not in a strongman or a charismatic savior
  24. but in each other,
  25. and it forces us to ask:
    How can we become worthy of such faith?
  26. I believe we are at a moment
    of moral awakening,
  27. the kind that comes
    when old certainties collapse.
  28. At the heart of that awakening
    is what I call "civic religion."
  29. And today, I want to talk about
    what civic religion is,
  30. how we practice it,
  31. and why it matters now more than ever.
  32. Let me start with the what.

  33. I define civic religion as a system
    of shared beliefs and collective practices
  34. by which the members
    of a self-governing community
  35. choose to live like citizens.
  36. Now, when I say "citizen" here,
    I'm not referring to papers or passports.
  37. I'm talking about a deeper,
    broader, ethical conception
  38. of being a contributor to community,
    a member of the body.
  39. To speak of civic religion as religion
    is not poetic license.
  40. That's because democracy
  41. is one of the most faith-fueled
    human activities there is.
  42. Democracy works only when enough of us
    believe democracy works.
  43. It is at once a gamble and a miracle.
  44. Its legitimacy comes not from
    the outer frame of constitutional rules,
  45. but from the inner workings
    of civic spirit.
  46. Civic religion, like any religion,

  47. contains a sacred creed,
    sacred deeds and sacred rituals.
  48. My creed includes words like
    "equal protection of the laws"
  49. and "we the people."
  50. My roll call of hallowed deeds
    includes abolition, women's suffrage,
  51. the civil rights movement,
  52. the Allied landing at Normandy,
  53. the fall of the Berlin Wall.
  54. And I have a new civic ritual
    that I'll tell you about in a moment.
  55. Wherever on earth you're from,

  56. you can find or make
    your own set of creed, deed and ritual.
  57. The practice of civic religion
    is not about worship of the state
  58. or obedience to a ruling party.
  59. It is about commitment to one another
  60. and our common ideals.
  61. And the sacredness of civic religion
    is not about divinity or the supernatural.
  62. It is about a group of unlike people
  63. speaking into being our alikeness,
  64. our groupness.
  65. Perhaps now you're getting
    a little worried

  66. that I'm trying to sell you on a cult.
  67. Relax, I'm not.
  68. I don't need to sell you.
  69. As a human, you are always
    in the market for a cult,
  70. for some variety of religious experience.
  71. We are wired to seek
    cosmological explanations,
  72. to sacralize beliefs
    that unite us in transcendent purpose.
  73. Humans make religion
    because humans make groups.
  74. The only choice we have is whether
    to activate that groupness for good.
  75. If you are a devout person, you know this.
  76. If you are not,
  77. if you no longer go to prayer services
  78. or never did,
  79. then perhaps you'll say
    that yoga is your religion,
  80. or Premier League football,
  81. or knitting, or coding or TED Talks.
  82. But whether you believe in a God
    or in the absence of gods,
  83. civic religion does not require you
    to renounce your beliefs.
  84. It requires you only
    to show up as a citizen.
  85. And that brings me to my second topic:

  86. how we can practice
    civic religion productively.
  87. Let me tell you now
    about that new civic ritual.
  88. It's called "Civic Saturday,"
  89. and it follows the arc
    of a faith gathering.
  90. We sing together,
  91. we turn to the strangers next to us
    to discuss a common question,
  92. we hear poetry and scripture,
  93. there's a sermon that ties those texts
  94. to the ethical choices
    and controversies of our time,
  95. but the song and scripture and the sermon
  96. are not from church
    or synagogue or mosque.
  97. They are civic,
  98. drawn from our shared civic ideals
  99. and a shared history of claiming
    and contesting those ideals.
  100. Afterwards, we form up in circles
    to organize rallies, register voters,
  101. join new clubs, make new friends.
  102. My colleagues and I
    started organizing Civic Saturdays

  103. in Seattle in 2016.
  104. Since then, they have spread
    across the continent.
  105. Sometimes hundreds attend,
    sometimes dozens.
  106. They happen in libraries
    and community centers
  107. and coworking spaces,
  108. under festive tents
    and inside great halls.
  109. There's nothing high-tech
    about this social technology.
  110. It speaks to a basic human yearning
    for face-to-face fellowship.
  111. It draws young and old, left and right,
  112. poor and rich, churched and unchurched,
  113. of all races.
  114. When you come to a Civic Saturday
    and are invited to discuss a question
  115. like "Who are you responsible for?"
  116. or "What are you willing to risk
    or to give up for your community?"
  117. When that happens, something moves.
  118. You are moved.
  119. You start telling your story.
  120. We start actually seeing one another.
  121. You realize that homelessness,
    gun violence, gentrification,
  122. terrible traffic, mistrust
    of newcomers, fake news --
  123. these things
    aren't someone else's problem,
  124. they are the aggregation
    of your own habits and omissions.
  125. Society becomes how you behave.
  126. We are never asked to reflect
    on the content of our citizenship.

  127. Most of us are never invited
    to do more or to be more,
  128. and most of us have no idea
    how much we crave that invitation.
  129. We've since created a civic seminary

  130. to start training people from all over
    to lead Civic Saturday gatherings
  131. on their own, in their own towns.
  132. In the community of Athens, Tennessee,
  133. a feisty leader named Whitney Kimball Coe
  134. leads hers in an art and framing shop
  135. with a youth choir
    and lots of little flags.
  136. A young activist named Berto Aguayo
  137. led his Civic Saturday on a street corner
  138. in the Back of the Yards
    neighborhood of Chicago.
  139. Berto was once involved with gangs.
  140. Now, he's keeping the peace
  141. and organizing political campaigns.
  142. In Honolulu, Rafael Bergstrom,
  143. a former pro baseball player
    turned photographer and conservationist,
  144. leads his under the banner
    "Civics IS Sexy."
  145. It is.
  146. (Laughter)

  147. Sometimes I'm asked,
    even by our seminarians:

  148. "Isn't it dangerous
    to use religious language?
  149. Won't that just make our politics
    even more dogmatic and self-righteous?"
  150. But this view assumes that all religion
    is fanatical fundamentalism.
  151. It is not.
  152. Religion is also moral discernment,
  153. an embrace of doubt,
  154. a commitment to detach from self
    and serve others,
  155. a challenge to repair the world.
  156. In this sense, politics could stand
    to be a little more like religion,
  157. not less.
  158. Thus, my final topic today:

  159. why civic religion matters now.
  160. I want to offer two reasons.
  161. One is to counter the culture
    of hyperindividualism.
  162. Every message we get
    from every screen and surface
  163. of the modern marketplace
  164. is that each of us is on our own,
  165. a free agent,
  166. free to manage our own brands,
  167. free to live under bridges,
  168. free to have side hustles,
  169. free to die alone without insurance.
  170. Market liberalism tells us
    we are masters beholden to none,
  171. but then it enslaves us
  172. in the awful isolation
    of consumerism and status anxiety.
  173. (Audience) Yeah!

  174. Millions of us are on to the con now.

  175. We are realizing now
  176. that a free-for-all is not the same
    as freedom for all.
  177. (Applause)

  178. What truly makes us free
    is being bound to others

  179. in mutual aid and obligation,
  180. having to work things out the best we can
    in our neighborhoods and towns,
  181. as if our fates were entwined --
  182. because they are --
  183. as if we could not secede
    from one another,
  184. because, in the end, we cannot.
  185. Binding ourselves this way
    actually liberates us.
  186. It reveals that we are equal in dignity.
  187. It reminds us that rights
    come with responsibilities.
  188. It reminds us, in fact,
  189. that rights properly understood
    are responsibilities.
  190. The second reason
    why civic religion matters now

  191. is that it offers the healthiest
    possible story of us and them.
  192. We talk about identity politics today
    as if it were something new,
  193. but it's not.
  194. All politics is identity politics,
  195. a never-ending struggle
    to define who truly belongs.
  196. Instead of noxious myths of blood and soil
    that mark some as forever outsiders,
  197. civic religion offers everyone
    a path to belonging
  198. based only a universal creed
    of contribution, participation,
  199. inclusion.
  200. In civic religion, the "us"
    is those who wish to serve,
  201. volunteer, vote, listen, learn,
    empathize, argue better,
  202. circulate power rather than hoard it.
  203. The "them" is those who don't.
  204. It is possible to judge the them harshly,
  205. but it isn't necessary,
  206. for at any time, one of them
    can become one of us,
  207. simply by choosing to live like a citizen.
  208. So let's welcome them in.

  209. Whitney and Berto and Rafael
    are gifted welcomers.
  210. Each has a distinctive, locally rooted way
  211. to make faith in democracy
    relatable to others.
  212. Their slang might be Appalachian
    or South Side or Hawaiian.
  213. Their message is the same:
  214. civic love, civic spirit,
    civic responsibility.
  215. Now you might think
    that all this civic religion stuff

  216. is just for overzealous
    second-generation Americans like me.
  217. But actually, it is for anyone, anywhere,
  218. who wants to kindle the bonds of trust,
  219. affection and joint action
  220. needed to govern ourselves in freedom.
  221. Now maybe Civic Saturdays aren't for you.
  222. That's OK.
  223. Find your own ways to foster
    civic habits of the heart.
  224. Many forms of beloved
    civic community are thriving now,

  225. in this age of awakening.
  226. Groups like Community Organizing Japan,
  227. which uses creative performative
    rituals of storytelling
  228. to promote equality for women.
  229. In Iceland, civil confirmations,
  230. where young people are led by an elder
  231. to learn the history
    and civic traditions of their society,
  232. culminating in a rite-of-passage ceremony
  233. akin to church confirmation.
  234. Ben Franklin Circles in the United States,
  235. where friends meet monthly
  236. to discuss and reflect upon the virtues
    that Franklin codified
  237. in his autobiography,
  238. like justice and gratitude
    and forgiveness.
  239. I know civic religion is not enough

  240. to remedy the radical
    inequities of our age.
  241. We need power for that.
  242. But power without character
    is a cure worse than the disease.
  243. I know civic religion alone
    can't fix corrupt institutions,
  244. but institutional reforms
    without new norms will not last.
  245. Culture is upstream of law.
  246. Spirit is upstream of policy.
  247. The soul is upstream of the state.
  248. We cannot unpollute our politics
    if we clean only downstream.
  249. We must get to the source.
  250. The source is our values,
  251. and on the topic of values,
    my advice is simple: have some.
  252. (Laughter)

  253. (Applause)

  254. Make sure those values are prosocial.

  255. Put them into practice,
  256. and do so in the company of others,
  257. with a structure of creed,
    deed and joyful ritual
  258. that'll keep all of you coming back.
  259. Those of us who believe in democracy
    and believe it is still possible,

  260. we have the burden of proving it.
  261. But remember, it is no burden at all
  262. to be in a community
    where you are seen as fully human,
  263. where you have a say
    in the things that affect you,
  264. where you don't need
    to be connected to be respected.
  265. That is called a blessing,
  266. and it is available to all who believe.
  267. Thank you.

  268. (Applause)