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  • Democracy and Tradition:A Catholic Alternative to American Pragmatism
  • Jeanne Heffernan Schindler (bio)

I. Introduction

Times of national crisis often evoke a sense of solidarity that makes common action possible; differences of various kinds—religious, philosophical, political, racial—that in the ordinary course of things loom large recede. In the wake of 9/11, for instance, we saw spontaneous displays of civic concern: citizens caring for citizens across deep differences. Yet, when the immediate danger passes and the headlines change, the divisive dimensions of our social life resurface and we are once again faced with nagging questions: In what sense are we a people? What unites this nation of ours? In a religiously and ethnically homogeneous culture these questions are readily answered: one can point to long-standing, shared traditions that express the identity of the polis. But in a decidedly pluralistic culture, such as ours, the question is more difficult to answer.

Americans do not share a common creed or ancestry. What is more, they have inherited a republic that was founded upon revolution—and not only in a military sense. The Founders understood themselves to be doing something new. As Madison boasts in Federalist No. 14: "Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, [End Page 17] whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?"1 These would not seem to be hospitable grounds for a unifying tradition.

Yet, in his recent book, Democracy and Tradition, Jeffrey Stout has argued that, in fact, "Democracy . . . is a tradition" and not simply a procedural one.2 The burden of his argument is to show that the American democratic tradition is more capacious than the minimalist liberalism of a Rawls or Rorty. It is not reducible to state neutrality and individual autonomy, nor is it saddled with the reason-tradition dichotomy found in typical liberal accounts of public reason. According to Stout, since it escapes empty proceduralism, American democracy defies the searing criticism of traditionalists from Burke to MacIntyre. Rightly understood, it is expansive enough to unite a widely diverse people and rich enough to elicit from them the virtues necessary for self-rule. Thus, for Stout, it is possible for contemporary Americans to join together as a people in a meaningful way to continue the democratic experiment "in order to form a more perfect union."

Among the prospective audiences of Stout's book, he especially hopes to reach Christian believers, particularly those drawn to the "new traditionalism" of thinkers like Hauerwas, Milbank, and MacIntyre. The author regards this sector as so important because these thinkers have articulated rhetorically powerful arguments against modern democracy, arguments that have the potential to persuade many citizens that American democracy is a purely formal, contentless system harboring an inner logic that erodes the very institutions upon which it depends for the formation of civic virtue. Such a conclusion, Stout worries, could prompt scores of citizens to abandon the democratic project and retreat into sectarian enclaves.

This article will explore whether Stout's invitation to join the democratic tradition as he fashions it is likely to be persuasive to [End Page 18] this constituency. In particular, it will examine three related questions: Will traditional or "orthodox" Christians find Stout's understanding of tradition compelling? Will they find the terms of his democratic social cooperation acceptable? And, if not, are there alternative sources for envisioning democratic practice? The exploration of these questions will operate from a Catholic theological perspective, but as the article makes clear, its conclusions would find resonance in many other traditions.

II. Piety Vindicated: Clothing the Naked Public Square in Democratic Garb

Stout recognizes from the outset the difficulty in responding to the new traditionalist critique since it appears especially plausible when leveled against the positions of liberal political theorists, especially concerning the public place of religion. In its most stringent form, liberalism's version of public reason does, indeed, render the public square naked, since it demands...


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