A Look Back

Democracy Challenged

Ron Thiemann. HDS photograph

By Ronald F. Thiemann

An institution like Harvard Divinity School can and must participate in the construction of a new vision for American public life. In conversation with colleagues . . . in other professions and disciplines—we can help to forge a more compassionate but no less excellent vision of the American dream. But to do so we need to foster an atmosphere in which people of differing and even conflicting points of view can engage in critical conversation with one another. . . . We are embarked on a bold experiment here, dedicated to the belief that an institution which seeks to represent the cultural and religious pluralism of our world can still function as an intellectual and spiritual community. We strive to be a community in which the conversation is rigorous yet open, critical yet candid. . . . The . . . disagreements that surface among us are signs that we are a living and vibrant community. . . . The greatest danger we face is that our diversity will lead to fragmentation—to the creation of separate communities of discourse, each locked into its own sub-world of reality with its own standards of judgment. But we need not fall victim to that danger, for if we keep the conversation genuinely open and critical, then inevitably some consensus about our standards of excellence, about our common goals and aspirations, will emerge.

The challenge facing the Divinity School community is parallel to the challenge facing American democracy today, that is, to create a forum within which genuine debate and dialogue about crucial public issues can take place. The last decade has seen the rise of many institutes, centers, and “think tanks” devoted to advocating some particular cause or interest. These advocacy centers function primarily to encourage the “politics of interest” rather than the “politics of the common good.” And since they are well funded, they tend to advocate the interests of the rich and powerful. What we lack is a nationally prominent forum in which a range of arguments, stances, and positions can be debated by people open to genuinely critical conversation. American public life will remain impoverished unless we create opportunities for candid yet sophisticated debate on issues of national and international importance. In a nation in which the primary form of political discourse is the television commercial, the need for such a public forum is acute. We need institutions that are dedicated to the cultivation of those habits of heart and mind which will produce an informed and public-spirited citizenry.

From “Toward an American Public Theology,” in the October-November 1987 (vol. 18, no. 1) issue of the Bulletin.

Ronald F. Thiemann was Dean and John Lord O’Brian Professor of Divinity from 1986 to 1998. He held other professorial titles at HDS until 2006, when he was named the Bussey Professor of Theology.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.