Giving his state-of-the-union address in 1939, as war clouds gathered over Europe, Franklin Delano Roosevelt stressed that people must “prepare to defend not their homes alone but the tenets of faith and humanity on which their churches, their governments, and their very civilization are founded.” Michael Gerson sees in these words an understanding, now largely been lost, of what is necessary for America to endure:
Our public and political life, Roosevelt assumed, is ultimately a reflection or echo of our spiritual life. Here I use “spiritual” broadly to mean a set of beliefs that challenge our natural egotism and cause us to respect the rights and dignity of others. A democracy especially is based on generally held convictions about the nature and equality of human beings. Its idealism is inherent. . . ,
What can be learned from that distant world facing an existential threat? [Today’s American political] crisis is very different. Yet it is a crisis of [what the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain termed] the “democratic state of mind.” What voices and institutions are proclaiming and defending [what FDR called] the “tenets of faith and humanity” that make democracy both pleasant and possible?
For many secular liberals, such language is inherently suspect. On what basis can any set of beliefs be preferred above another? Democracy requires, in this view, not just a political pluralism but a pluralism of values.
Such a position is absurdly lacking in self-awareness. A commitment to pluralism is itself a value, which must be preferred above other values such as, say, the interests of a master race or the dictatorship of the proletariat. The democratic faith now emerges from more diverse sources—both religious and non-religious—than Roosevelt might have imagined. But it is still a moral and spiritual commitment that must be taught in order for any democracy worthy of the name to survive.