The Common Good
January-February 1996

The Myth of Democracy

by Wes Howard-Brook | January-February 1996

THE RECENT ISSUE of Sojourners seemed to me ironically to carry the seeds of its own critique.

THE RECENT ISSUE of Sojourners ("To the Highest Bidder: Stopping the Sellout of Democracy Before It's Too Late," November-December 1995) seemed to me ironically to carry the seeds of its own critique. Embedded within the overall theme of rescuing American democracy from the evils of money was the fabulous collection of memories of and an interview with Daniel Berrigan ("'We Could Not, So Help Us God, Do Otherwise'"). The obvious irony: If Berrigan ever claimed as part of the Christian call the reformist engagement with the imperial institutions of government, I missed it.

Two premises from the various articles are subject to question. First is the implicit notion that the control of U.S. governmental powers by monied interests is a new phenomenon, and one that can be reversed in order to recover some mythical past in which the situation was different. Second is the premise that a Christian coalition on the Left that engages the political institutions with the purpose of reshaping them is a warranted and timely response to the heavily publicized right-wing variety.

From its foundation as a haven for the expatriate English gentry, American governmental institutions have been captive to the will of those with money. There has never been a time in U.S. history when "democracy"-in the sense of government by the will of the people-has been a realistic option. Of course, "popular opinion" is duly consulted when the corporate powers exercise their kingmaking functions. But it is the nature of the beast that control of the system will always remain firmly in the grip of the few.

As a U.S. Senate staffer during the early 1980s, my research showed that the federal government (and most state governments for that matter) has operated for the primary purpose of ensuring the freedom of business interests to conduct their affairs. The laws of this nation have always put the rights of corporations and other legal "persons" ahead of the rights of actual human beings, especially when those humans are bereft of serious money. Hearkening back to the liberal notion of a coalition of "grassroots" persons that can "take back" the system is a dead-end path.

The second premise-that Christians are called to come together as part of this "renewal"-appears to have no biblical basis whatsoever. Israel's prophets knew that the monarchy was rotten to the roots, an abandonment of the egalitarian tribal confederation that was Israel's true inheritance. Similarly, I see no evidence of Jesus encouraging reform of the Sanhedrin-or of the Roman Senate. Instead, he challenged the system head-on while constructing alternatives outside the scope of imperial and colonial machinations.

The Bible calls us not to "reform" a system founded in violence and patriarchy, but to exorcise the spirit of that system from our own hearts. I pray that we who share a vision of a faith-filled community living in wholeness and compassion can openly discuss these issues, and come to clarity together about how to discern the signs of our times.

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