Editorial Introduction (2): Making Peace with Democracy

William Wesley Elkins
Drew University and New Brunswick Theological Seminary

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus, standing on a hill overlooking Jerusalem, says “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” [1] This sorrowful cry is echoed in the midst of WWI in Josiah Royce’s 1916 volume, “The Hope of the Great Community.” [2] Despite the shocks of the First World War, which was optimistically characterized in 1917 by President Wilson as the war “to make the world safe for democracy,” Royce’s response, despite the traumas that promised to bring an end to the Enlightenment, was to describe the hope of an idealist that would constitute, despite the darkness, “a song before the dawn.” Without any assurance that the historical facts would justify his position, he described a “vision of what the community of mankind (sic) may become, despite this tragic calamity.”

For Royce, although this vision was certainly idealistic, it was not universalistic. It was “the hope of the great community” which would) unify “…the already existing communities of mankind into higher communities, and not through merely freeing the peoples from oppressors, or through giving them a more popular government, unless popular government already takes the form of government by the united community, through the united community, and for the united community.” [3]

Royce’s somewhat indirect reference to Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” [4] is certainly intentional. It is a commonplace in scholarship of American Philosophy that it was the trauma of the American Civil War that led to the development of Pragmatism. For Royce, in his mature, pragmatic ethics, the shocks of the Civil War led him to limit democracy by a community of communities which is constituted in two ways. First there is the community which is formed by a loyalty to particular purposes. Second, there is the community of communities which is constituted by a form of loyalty that encourages the loyalties of different communities. For Royce, this is the highest ethical principle, “Loyalty to Loyalty”, which, when reflected upon, Royce describes in religious terms as affecting the salvation of the detached individual, not by democracy, but by loyalty to the cause of forming communities of loving interpreters: “…lost individuals do not become genuine freemen merely because they all have votes. The suffrage can show the way of salvation only to those who are already loyal.” [5]

In the traditions of reflection upon democracy and religions, the work of Royce is somewhat overlooked. But what is the point of this bit of WWI history and the value of the application of Royce’s interpretation of the Civil War for an introduction to articles which apply scriptural reasoning to reflection upon democracy and the Abrahamic traditions? Simply this: If in the first decades of the twentieth century one ideal solution for the first great clash of western (Christian) cultures was the hope of the great community, then it is possible that in a conflict between different (and differently religious) cultures the ideal cultural and religious solution may be the same: the hope of the great community of communities.

In essence, the First World War was not to make the world safe for Democracy, but to protect and promote communities through which the democratic activities of individuals would have a purpose beyond the assertion of individual interests. A Roycean conclusion to the question of democracy and religious tradition would be that, given the advances in sciences, democracy could be a necessary condition of the good of the community, but it certainly is not a sufficient condition. Given this, as scholars committed to religious practices in one of the Abrahamic communities, it appears that we are also committed to make peace with democracy i.e. we are committed to constitute a logical space in which the goods of our communities are represented in the give and take of democratic discourse.

If Royce is correct, in the final analysis we do not want to give up democracy, but neither do we want to give up our loyalty to our distinctive religious communities. We certainly would not want a community where it was possible to vote out of the commandments. But, in addition, we would not want a democracy where matters of religious commitment and practice were ruled out. So, if it is neither one nor the other, but some shifting balance of both, what are these third ways?

The purpose of the essays in this sixth volume of the Journal of Scriptural Reasoning is to begin a sketch of different answers. Admittedly each essay is a preliminary attempt, a part of a renewed tradition of interpretations and applications of scripture to the development of multiple third ways. If a community of communities in and for and through a democracy and democracies in for and through community develops, it will, according to Royce be “…no place for that sort of internationalism (universalism) that despises the individual variety of nations, and which tries to substitute for vices of those who at present seek merely to conquer mankind, the equally worthless desire of those who hope to see us in the future as men without a country.” [6] In this regard the following articles are examples of how this hope of the great community might be realized.

But beyond the practical virtue of each, is there something general (not universal) what we might lean from these examples? If we take Royce as a guide (since he was the most the obviously religiously communitarian of the pragmatists), we might hypothesize that scriptural reasoners are responsible for insuring democracy through community and community through democracy. We are, according to Royce, committed to mediate between these loyalties so that adherent of one and the other are able with us to function, prosper and be preserved as a community. In Royce’s words: “…in each of these communities, one of the members has the essentially spiritual function or task of representing or interpreting the plans, or purposes, or ideas, of one of its two fellows to the other of these two in such a wise that the members of the member of the community which I call the ‘interpreter’ works to the end that these three shall cooperate as if they were one; shall be so linked that they shall be members of one another, and that the community of the whole shall prosper and be preserved.” [7]

There is, however, a problem with this ideal. However much the ideal might shape the way things are, it is not yet real. In this regard, any casual observer of practical affairs, especially those committed to the work of Scriptural Reasoning, can note, that at best, things are more in two ways more complicated. The first complication is that it is difficult to represent any one of our communities to another, especially if there are divisions in our communities. There will be (perhaps always) conflicts of interpretations. The second complication is that we may have loyalties that are divided between commitments to democracy and the commitments to the values of our different religious communities. Of course, these are somewhat abstract statements and may not represent the plight of any one individual or community. It may be the virtue of the facts that we often find individuals and communities with very complex spirits. If so, (and this is the purpose of this issue of the Journal of Scriptural reasoning) the following essays are an attempt to further the development of a spirit of, by and for a community of communities. Read in this way they offer a particular instance of “the hope of the great community” that is an attempt at making peace with democracy and of recognizing “the things that make for peace.” [8]


[1] The Gospel of Luke (NRSV): 19:41-42

[2] Josiah Royce, “The Hope of the Great Community” The MacMillan Company, (New York), 1916. (HGC)

[3] HGC pp 49-50 (emphasis added).

[4] “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” (The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln , edited by Roy P. Basler. The text above is from the so-called “Bliss Copy,” one of several versions which Lincoln wrote, and believed to be the final version.)

[5] HGC, p. 49.

[6] HGC, p. 50.

[7] HGC, P. 64.

[8] Luke: 19:41

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