Prophets of Democracy

A vibrant democracy seeks to integrate prophetic service into the ongoing life of the body politic

Does democracy need prophets? Yes, especially in a democracy like ours, because ours is in crisis. Distorted by a duopoly lusting for power, our political discourse has become a concatenation of cliches. And most of us seem to sleep through the affairs of state.

The prophets we need, to be sure, must be our servants and not our masters. Sometimes, but not often enough, we elect them. But prophets cannot wait on our doing so. They have within themselves a mission, and democracy depends on it.

Jacques Maritain, a preeminent Catholic philosopher, calls our attention to the true prophets of democracy in his classic Man and the State. He writes that “the primary work of the inspired servant of the people is to awaken the people, to awaken them to something better than everyone’s daily business.”

Rightly, he warns that there are false as well as true prophets. If we are to think clearly about democracy, and preserve it, we must learn to distinguish between the two. False prophets, he notes, use rather than lead; they force rather than free. When they deem it necessary, they resort to violence and terror. Revolution supplants the rule of law.

What, then, are the marks of true prophets—of the real servants of the people? Maritain emphasizes three characteristics. First, they resort to civil disobedience only when what purports to be a law is itself unjust. Second, they reject any measure taken against innocent people. Third, they recognize that when the people awake to their responsibility, it is they that ultimately judge the mission of the prophetic minority.

A people that accepts its political responsibility, Maritain argues, will commit itself to “active participation…in political life from the bottom up.” It will insist on communication media “free from the State, and free also from economic bondage and the power of money.”

For Maritain, a vibrant democracy seeks to integrate prophetic service into the ongoing life of the body politic. “In such a society,” he observes, “inspiration would rise from the free common activity of the people in their most elementary, most humble local communities.”

The University of Chicago Press published Man and the State in 1951. Some 70 plus years have passed since then. Where can we find Jacques Maritain’s vision of prophetic service and civic engagement today? That same vision guides Catholic social teaching. It does so in the Church’s commitment to the principles of solidarity, subsidiarity, and economic democracy. Together these principles can direct our steps to advance the common good.

In Maritain’s eyes, Mahatma Gandhi was an exemplar of the prophetic servant of the people. It was, moreover, his insistence on a consistent ethics of life, on being prolife for the whole of life, that nurtured his service and inoculated it from any drift into tyranny. Sadly, the party that Gandhi led, the Congress Party, has largely forgotten his legacy.

In my view, the most pressing question that the friends of democracy in our own country now face is whether any party can integrate prophetic service into the ongoing life of the body politic. As a friend of democracy, as a student of Catholic social teaching, and as an advocate of a consistent ethics of life, I think that there is such a party. It is, gentle reader, the American Solidarity Party. As a member, I am delighted to report that our first in-person convention will come this June and that our presidential primary campaign is already well underway!


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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