The Novelist & the President: what a true democracy is

By Christian Scott Heinen Bell (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Christian Scott Heinen Bell (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
When the American novelist/essayist Marilynne Robinson sat down with President Obama for a chat on matters literary, religious and political, President Obama asked her to —

“Tell me a little bit about how your interest in Christianity converges with your concerns about democracy.”

Robinson: Well, I believe that people are images of God. There’s no alternative that is theologically respectable to treating people in terms of that understanding. What can I say? It seems to me as if democracy is the logical, the inevitable consequence of this kind of religious humanism at its highest level. And it [applies] to everyone. It’s the human image. It’s not any loyalty or tradition or anything else; it’s being human that enlists the respect, the love of God being implied in it.

Notice that Robinson does not distinguish between American and foreign people, or Christian or Muslim or atheistic people, Republican or Democratic people or even good and evil people. This all-inclusiveness doesn’t mean, of course, that we cannot make judgements of good and bad behavior, for this is part of what makes us human.

But if we begin with the premise that all people “are images of God” with unalienable rights then the root of our political policies both in and out of the nation would be centered on compassion, forgiveness, forbearance, dialogue and rehabilitation, rather than social abandonment, exclusion and violent retribution. We would not shelter wealth and leave the poor to fend for themselves; we would not as a matter of course invade other nations and drop bombs to sow peace and democracy.

We could also extend Robinson’s image of God to include the rest of the natural world so that we treat the unhuman, not with full human rights, but with a humane respect that honors other forms of life and our debt to them. We would, for example, take the science of ecology seriously and address how we may best conserve the Creation.

Religion and nationality too often become an assortment of exclusive clubs whose members are willing to resort to oppression and violence in the name of national pride, righteousness and God. Religious humanism of the type to which Robinson eludes (and to which Obama seems to be drawn) is a more generous vision upon which the whole notion of human rights rests. What can help extend the range and sympathy of religion is literature and the other arts. If only more of our political representatives and fellow Americans would embrace a true democracy of mind and heart.

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