Monday, October 30, 2006


Last week's Speaking of Faith radio program featured Jacob Needleman talking about the religious roots of American Democracy. One part that I found particularly interesting was his idea that freedom implies duty. Needleman says,
A democratic citizen is not a citizen who can do anything he wants. It's a citizen who has an obligation at the same time. And just to give you an example, if I may, the freedom of speech, what is the duty associated with it? Well, if you ponder that a little bit, you'll come to the conclusion very clearly that the right of free speech implies the duty of allowing others to speak. If I have the right to speak, I have the duty to let you speak. Now, that's not so simple. It doesn't mean just to stop my talking and wait till you're finished and then come in and get you. It means I have an obligation inwardly — and that's what we're speaking about, is the inner dimension. Inwardly, I have to work at listening to you. That means I don't have to agree with you, but I have to let your thought into my mind in order to have a real democratic exchange between us.

This is really powerful. The idea of freedom is really cheapened if we see at as freedom from everyone around us. And the idea that freedom of speech implies the responsibility to listen to what others are saying is very good. I suspect some people wouldn't say half of what they do if they were listening to others.

As it turns out, I heard this the same day I began reading Esther de Waal's Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict. As de Waal spoke of the importance of listening in Benedictine spirituality, I couldn't miss the connection. One of the core foundations of Benedict's rule is that members of the community must listen to one another and in this listening they hear the voice of God.

Speaking of listening, this week's guest on Speaking of Faith is going to be Martin Marty.


Tom in Ontario said...

On a different track, when I hear about free speech I'm sometimes reminded of Luther's explanation to the 8th commandment.

"We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light."

P.S. (an after-thought) said...

I also listened to this Speaking of Faith and was impressed by the way Needleman stated this point.

I was listening to this radio show only because I wasn't in church. Otherwise I miss it.

Luther's explanation of the 8th commandment sure stands in stark contrast to the current round of political ads. I even caught a segment on the news about one congressman dissing another and the guy later saying that they are really friends, but they know it is campaigne rethoric. Hmmmmmm

solarblogger said...

God's Law is much more demanding than I would ever hope to see civil law become. If civil law were to adequately punish all wickedness, it would have to create a living hell.

Needleman mentions some good virtues. But I think our rights are primarily things we can claim over against the government. In the civil law, my right to freedom of religion doesn't require anyone to spend a minute of time providing me with any religious services. (After all, I am free to form a religion of one member: me.) What the law does require is that the government refrain from establishing a religion or from prohibiting my free exercise.

Coupling duties to rights sounds like a responsible way to speak on the outside. But I think it gets muddy very quickly. I once had a friend arguing with me that the draft made sense because we should have to fight for other states since we eat food grown there. What!? That's called trade. We do it with other countries, too. And hopefully, we pay for the goods. When people start talking about "the price of having x", I want to know first whether x was something I wanted and second whether I already paid for x somewhere else.

Andy said...

I'm a week late adding this comment, but hopefully someone will see it....

One of the things in the program was a quote from Thomas Paine making a distinction between government and society. Government, Paine says, is strictly a negative force put in place to prevent abuses. So when you talk about our rights as things we claim over against the government, that's pretty much right on.

But what I think Needleman is more interesting in is our democratic society. To develop your first example, I agree that the right of religious freedom doesn't require anyone to provide you with religious services. Following the model Needleman gives with freedom of speech, the responsibility implied by freedom of religion is the responsibility for you to allow other people to exercise their religion. Pushing this just a bit further, I think this means that though I might not share the religion of another person, I must respect their religion. And pushing it to its furthest extent, if we really want to make our democracy sing, it might require religious dialogue (including dialogue between theists and materialists).

The principle I think Needleman is putting forward is that American democracy is founded on the idea that everyone is of value. Not just (or even) that we should be allowed to do what we want, but that the greatest society will be created when we allow the best things that each person has to offer to be brought into play.