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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Threats to Democracy
distributed 6/28/02 - ©2002

Brace yourself for the Fourth of July. I have a hunch that this year's speeches and rallies will mark a new level of Independence Day patriotism.

Before the oration moves into full swing, it is good to recall what the occasion is all about, and what it is that we are so eager to preserve. To do that, it is enlightening to go back to the Declaration of Independence -- that revolutionary document whose writing sets the date for this holiday.

The Declaration proclaims truths that were self-evident to Thomas Jefferson and his co-conspirators, but which were not intuitively obvious to King George: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights -- including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; and that governments, created to secure those rights, derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.

The clear voice given to these ideals in the Declaration has moved and shaped struggles for freedom through the years, and in many lands. The language of the preamble has been echoed by many groups who have asserted their claims to equality, liberty and justice. Through time, notions of equality have expanded into ever-larger circles, growing from a largely rhetorical "all men" to a generally acknowledged "all people."

In the United States, the ethical consensus of the Christian church has affirmed the self-evident ideals of the Declaration, and has grown into -- indeed, has often led -- the expanding definitions of humanity and equality. In the sphere of civil government, at least, the church has celebrated liberty and freedom. Democracy has been embraced as the political system which best embodies our faithful ethical norms.

The more philosophical of this year's speeches will elevate those grand principles of freedom, liberty and democracy. The less thoughtful will rejoice in a generally undefined "American way of life."

Orators will speak of the threats which come from terrorism and extremism. Fear and anger will be directed at those renegade nations who sponsor terrorism and who provide the weapons of mass destruction. We will hear condemnation of those individuals and organizations who plot acts of evil on scales both vast and intimate.

And our hearts will be moved, because this past year has brought the United States, and so many others around the globe, into a vivid new awareness of the powerful danger and the passionate hatred that ripples across the world. We have come to know the determined actors who reject equality, freedom and liberty, and whose purposes are profoundly undemocratic.

The approaching holiday is an excellent occasion to clarify the real and important differences between our national ideals, and the values of those who attack them. But as we celebrate our democratic heritage, we will do well to remember that there are threats which come from other sides than fundamentalist extremists.

Some people of vision and courage will speak this year of the dangers which come from the US government itself. The last 10 months have brought an erosion of civil liberties and an expansion of federal power which bear striking similarities to a few of the complaints raised in 1776 against King George. As people who believe in liberty and justice, it is good to name these dangers, and to assert the principles we hold dear.

And there are threats from yet another side, which are unlikely to be raised this Independence Day. Benjamin Barber, in his book "Jihad vs. McWorld" identifies the globalized forces of capitalism as a threat to democracy that is equal to the visible dangers of "jihad." In our interdependent world's new structures of power, finance and trade, democratic governments have lost much of their power to protect the rights of their citizens. Countless decisions are made -- in corporate boardrooms and in the closed meetings of agencies like the World Trade Organization -- without the consent of those who are governed, and without judicial recourse to secure individual rights and freedoms.

Barber writes: "Capitalists may be democrats but capitalism does not need or entail democracy. And capitalism certainly does not need the nation-state that has been democracy's most promising host." The driving forces of globalized commerce are shattering the principles of responsible governance that are at the heart of the Declaration of Independence.

July 4 should be a when people of insight and conscience give joyous thanks for the highest virtues which have grown out of this experiment in freedom and democracy. It is also an occasion to lift up the threats and dangers to that which is ethical, good and right.

This year, I pray that the vivid threats we have experienced from one faction will not blind us to other, equally significant threats. As people of faith, may we lift up freedom, equality and democracy in the face of all those forces which pose real threats -- whether from terrorist cells, government offices that overstep their bounds, or multinational entities who erode legitimate government.

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I'll be on vacation for part of next week, so there won't be an Eco-Justice Notes sent out on July 5. We'll return to weekly distribution on July 12.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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