The Moral Foundations of Democracy
CNN political contributor and host of the Van Jones Show
writer for The New Yorker, and author of These Truths: A History of the United States
New York Times columnist
Former Deputy Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice
Tiokasin Ghost Horse
speaker, musician, and member of the Lakota Nation
founder, State of American Democracy project and co-editor, Democracy Unchained
Former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York
Michael Eric Dyson
Georgetown University professor, New York Times contributing writer, and contributing editor of The New Republic
Vanderbilt professor, scholar and author
The Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas
canon theologian, Washington National Cathedral and Dean, Episcopal Divinity School at Union
The Right Rev. Marian Edgar Budde, Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Washington
Democracy Unchained begins with an examination of why we choose democracy and the ways in which engagement is actually a moral choice to believe we can make this a more just, more inclusive, more perfect union. Anchored in one of our nation’s spiritual homes, the Washington National Cathedral, conversations and presentations examine the historical context of this particular moment of stress for our democracy. Join us to think about what will be required of citizens and leaders as we commit ourselves to strengthening the democratic institutions, practices, and fundamental beliefs that allow our republic to function and even thrive.
From David W. Orr, Founder:
Welcome to the first of a 10 part series on American democracy. This project started three years ago with conference on “The State of American Democracy” at Oberlin College. The recently published book Democracy Unchained grew from that event. We intend it as a blueprint for rebuilding our democracy, one unburdened from racism, oligarchy, injustice, demagoguery, and violence.
Today we begin by acknowledging the moral foundations of our democracy as the “last best hope of earth” and the surest means to defend and deepen our humanity. Our aim in this and the following events is to extend the national conversation about democracy and get on with the work of repairing and strengthening democratic institutions. We are becoming acutely aware that democracy should not be taken for granted—it is neither inevitable nor is it necessarily permanent. The great irony is that citizens in a democracy can vote and behave in such a way as to destroy it and with it the last best hope of government that aims to protect the rights and dignity of all citizens. That is why democratic governments require constant repair, reinvention, and civic competence. In bitterly contested times such as ours, democracy requires that we convert anger to “useful wrath” and to wiser public policies that serve the common good.
We celebrate, however, in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century—a time of suffering, death, and economic hardship. But it is also a time of heroes and daily examples of remarkable civic courage, generosity, and true patriotism.
We launch this series today in the National Cathedral to acknowledge the moral and spiritual foundations of our democracy. In historian Karen Armstrong’s words: All religions “insist that true spirituality must be expressed in practical compassion, the ability to feel with the other and to treat all others as we wish to be treated.” Democracy begins with the corollary that compassion requires that all people—all people–be treated with dignity and all should have a say in how they are governed, by whom, and to what ends. Democracy, in other words, doesn’t begin with laws, constitutions, or governments, but in the “habits of heart” that honor the other, tolerate differences, and seek justice. When those habits die, democracy does as well.
To preserve a government of, by, and for the people, those words “We the People” must be more than words on paper . . . They must become our daily reality: a people bound together by what Abraham Lincoln called the “mystic chords of memory,” . . . a people who strive to shed the dead weight of injustice and hypocrisy to reach higher ground together—a world of charity for all, with malice toward none.
Democracy originated long ago in conversations around ancient campfires and in the Athenian Agora. In one form or another, it has flourished in many cultures including that of the Iroquois Confederacy that influenced the writers of the U.S. Constitution. Wherever it exists, democracy is a wager that enough people will know enough, care enough, and be wise enough to participate honorably and well in the conduct of the public business. The only sure foundation of true democracy is an accurately informed and competent citizenry, one tolerant of differences, good hearted, and merciful . . . people less certain of their certainties, but more sure of their enduring values.
The perseverance of democracy, depends on our collective devotion to truth, fairness, justice, and the norms, rules, and procedures that keep our public conversations alive, open, honest, and vibrant. Democratic political institutions—now under attack—are the arenas in which competing tensions are held in check and within the bounds of law.
The hard truth, however, is that we have never been fully democratic. Over many years and through historic struggles we have become more inclusive but our democracy is still flawed, incomplete, and uncertain. Our political, legal, and economic institutions now overwhelmingly represent the few, not the many. The bridge that ought to connect public opinion with our laws, policies, and regulations is now a toll bridge accessible mostly to the very wealthy. We must do better, much better. Our survival as a civilization and as a decent people able to surmount the large challenges ahead depends on our collective resolve to rise above partisan advantage. It depends on harnessing the honesty, creativity, good will, and love of country that enables everyone to do their part in the cause of human flourishing now and to the far horizon.
Finally, to paraphrase the Rev. William Barber, our questions are too puny for our circumstances. The urgencies of our time call us to ask larger questions. In that spirit the democracy we strive for extends beyond the present generation to embrace the interests and well-being of our posterity—an intergenerational democracy. Our grandchildren and theirs also have unalienable rights to life, liberty, justice, and the pursuit of happiness that requires that we also act now to preserve a habitable planet with a stable climate. Further, we are citizens both of a nation-state and of a community of Life that includes fungi and elephants, dolphins, bears, microbes and humming birds. For a moment—just a moment in the vastness of time—we are stewards and caretakers of this infinitesimally small but infinitely significant part of the Universe that we call Earth.
In the words of the late John Lewis, our goal in this project is to “cause good trouble, necessary trouble” by which he meant the kind of trouble that promotes decency, justice, fairness, and compassionate, competent, and accountable government of, by, and for the people now and for generations to come.
That is our goal and I am glad that you are with us.
“I think for me this loss of faith in the system is one of the most dangerous things I’ve seen in my adult lifetime.” – Van Jones
Van Jones, CNN political contributor and host of the Van Jones Show
Van Jones is a U.S. media personality, the founder of multiple social enterprises and a world-class change maker. A three-time NY Times bestselling author, Van hosts two shows on CNN: “The Van Jones Show” and “The Redemption Project.” He is the host of CNN’s “Incarceration, Inc.” podcast series. In 2013-2014, Van was a co-host of CNN CROSSFIRE, along with Newt Gingrich; he later hosted a special event series on CNN called “The Messy Truth.” He is the co-founder of Magic Labs Media LLC, a producer of the WEBBY Award-winning Messy Truth digital series. Van’s life mission is to close prison doors and open doors of opportunity. He has been a leader in the fight for criminal justice reform for more than 25 years. To achieve his goals, Van co-founded a series of social enterprises, including: Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, ColorOfChange.org, GreenForAll.org, Rebuild The Dream and the Dream Corps. The Dream Corps houses three social impact initiatives: #YesWeCode, Green For All and #cut50. Today, Van is the CEO of the REFORM Alliance, an initiative founded by Jay-Z, Meek Mill and six billionaires to transform the criminal justice system.
In 2018, Van and #cut50 led the winning campaign to pass the FIRST STEP Act — a bipartisan federal bill that the New York Times called the most substantial breakthrough in criminal justice in a generation. This was not Van’s first history-making legislative victory: a decade earlier, Van was the primary champion of the Green Jobs Act of 2007. In 2009, he worked as the green jobs advisor to the Obama White House. Van has won numerous awards, including: the World Economic Forum’s “Young Global Leader” designation; Rolling Stone’s 2012 “12 Leaders Who Get Things Done”; TIME’s 2009 “100 Most Influential People in The World”; the 2010 NAACP Image Award and; a 2017 WEBBY special achievement award. Born in Jackson, Tennessee, Van lives in New York City and Los Angeles. He is a proud father of two sons. In 2017, Van signed a management deal with Roc Nation, becoming the first political commentator in their family. In 1990, he earned a B.S. in communication and political science from the University of Tennessee at Martin. In 1993, Van earned a degree from Yale Law School.
Jill Lepore, writer for The New Yorker, and author of These Truths: A History of the United States
Jill Lepore, a staff writer, has been contributing to The New Yorker since 2005. Her books include “The Name of War,” which won the Bancroft Prize; “New York Burning,” which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history; “Book of Ages,” a finalist for the National Book Award; and “The Secret History of Wonder Woman;” and the international bestseller, “These Truths: A History of the United States.” Later this year, she will publish her fourteenth book, “If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future.” Lepore received her Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale in 1995 and is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University.
David Brooks, New York Times columnist
David Brooks became an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times in September 2003. His column appears every Tuesday and Friday. He is currently a commentator on “PBS NewsHour,” NPR’s “All Things Considered” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He is the author of “Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There” and “On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense.” In March 2011 he came out with his third book, “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement,” which was a No. 1 New York Times best seller. Mr. Brooks also teaches at Yale University, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Sally Yates, Former Deputy Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice
Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates is a partner in King & Spalding’s Special Matters & Government Investigations practice. Sally’s deep experience, leadership and wide-ranging background provide clients with seasoned judgment in difficult times. Her practice focuses on counseling clients in complex and sensitive matters, including government enforcement and regulatory matters, congressional investigations, compliance, corporate governance and crisis management. Drawing upon her nearly three decades at the Department of Justice, she specializes in internal and independent investigations for public and private organizations and boards.
As the second-highest ranking official at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and as Acting Attorney General, Sally was responsible for all of DOJ’s 113,000 employees including all prosecutorial, litigating, and national security components. She also was responsible for all U.S. Attorney’s offices and law enforcement agencies and the Bureau of Prisons. Sally oversaw DOJ’s most significant matters and was instrumental in setting DOJ’s enforcement priorities and initiatives.
An accomplished trial lawyer and Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, Sally has tried numerous high-profile cases.
Tiokasin Ghost Horse, speaker, musician, and member of the Lakota Nation
Tiokasin Ghosthorse—a member of the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation of South Dakota—is an international speaker on Peace, Indigenous and Mother Earth perspective. A survivor of the “Reign of Terror” from 1972 to 1976 on the Pine Ridge, Cheyenne River and Rosebud Lakota Reservations in South Dakota and the US Bureau of Indian Affairs Boarding and Church Missionary School systems designed to “kill the Indian and save the man,” Tiokasin has a long history of Indigenous activism and advocacy. He is a guest faculty member at Yale University’s School of Divinity, Ecology and Forestry focusing on the cosmology, diversity and perspectives on the relational/egalitarian vs. rational/hierarchal thinking processes of Western society. Tiokasin is the Founder, Host and Executive Producer of the twenty-four-year-old “First Voices Radio” (formerly “First Voices Indigenous Radio”), a one-hour live program now syndicated to seventy radio stations in the US and Canada.
A master musician and a teacher of magical, ancient and modern sounds, Tiokasin performs worldwide and has been featured at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, Lincoln Center, Madison Square Garden, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the United Nations, as well as at many universities and concert venues. Tiokasin serves on boards of several charitable organizations dedicated to bringing non-western education to Native and non-Native children. Tiokasin describes himself as “a perfectly flawed human being” who is a Sundancer in the tradition of the Lakota Nation
David Orr, founder, State of American Democracy project and co-editor, Democracy Unchained
David W. Orr is Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics Emeritus and senior advisor to the president of Oberlin College. He is a founding editor of the journal Solutions, and founder of the Oberlin Project, a collaborative effort of the city of Oberlin, Oberlin College, and private and institutional partners to improve the resilience, prosperity, and sustainability of Oberlin. Orr is the author of eight books, including Dangerous Years: Climate Change, the Long Emergency, and the Way Forward (Yale, 2016) and Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse (Oxford, 2009) and coeditor of three others. He has authored over 200 articles, reviews, book chapters, and professional publications.
In the past 25 years, he has served as a board member or advisor to eight foundations and on the boards of many organizations, including the Rocky Mountain Institute and the Aldo Leopold Foundation. Currently he is a trustee of the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado and the Children and Nature Network. He has been awarded eight honorary degrees and a dozen other awards including a Lyndhurst Prize, a National Achievement Award from the National Wildlife Federation, and a Visionary Leadership Award from Second Nature. Orr is a frequent lecturer at colleges and universities throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. While at Oberlin, he spearheaded the effort to design, fund, and build the Adam Joseph Lewis Center, which was named by an AIA panel in 2010 as “the most important green building of the past 30 years,” and as “one of 30 milestone buildings of the twentieth century” by the U.S. Department of Energy and was instrumental in funding the Peter B. Lewis Gateway Center.
Preet Bharara, Former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York
Preet Bharara is an American lawyer, author, and former federal prosecutor who served as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 2009 to 2017. He served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for five years prior to leading the Southern District. According to The New York Times, Bharara was one of the “nation’s most aggressive and outspoken prosecutors of public corruption and Wall Street crime” during his tenure. Mr. Bharara has delivered the keynote address at the commencements of Fordham Law School, Columbia Law School, Cardozo School of Law, University of California Berkeley School of Law, Pace University School of Law, New York University School of Law, and in 2014, he spoke at Harvard Law School’s Class Day ceremony. Prior to becoming the U.S. Attorney, Mr. Bharara served as Chief Counsel and Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts. During his tenure, he helped to lead the Senate Judiciary Committee investigation of the firing of United States Attorneys. From 2000 to 2005, Mr. Bharara served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York, where he prosecuted a wide range of cases involving organized crime, racketeering, securities fraud, money laundering, narcotics trafficking, and other crimes. Mr. Bharara was a litigation associate in New York at Swidler Berlin Shereff Friedman from 1996 to 2000 and at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher from 1993 to 1996. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College with an AB in Government in 1990, and from Columbia Law School with a JD in 1993, where he was a member of the Columbia Law Review.
Michael Eric Dyson, Georgetown University professor, New York Times contributing writer, and contributing editor of The New Republic
Michael Eric Dyson is currently University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University. A renowned scholar, ordained Baptist minister and public intellectual, his scholarship and cultural criticism focus on race, religion, popular culture, and contemporary issues in the African American community. Dr. Dyson is the author of the 2018 book What Truth Sounds Like: Robert Kennedy, James Baldwin and Our Unfinished Conversation about Race in America, the New York Times bestsellers Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America (2017) and The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race (2016), as well as seventeen other books, including Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster, Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost its Mind, and Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur. Prior to joining the faculty at Georgetown, Dyson was the Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught at the DePaul University, Columbia University, Brown University, Chicago Theological Seminary, and the University of North Carolina. Named by Ebony magazine as one of the hundred most influential Black Americans, Dyson holds a Ph.D. in Religion from Princeton University.
Tracy Sharpley-Whiting, Vanderbilt professor, scholar and author
Professor Sharpley-Whiting is the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Distinguished Professor of Humanities (AADS and French), Chair of African American and Diaspora Studies, and Director of the Callie House Center. She is the author/editor or co-editor of thirteen books. She is currently researching Men I’d Like to Have Known , a biographical study of four African diasporic figures across French historical movements. She is co-editor of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, editor of the journal Palimpsest, one of the series editors of “Blacks in the Diaspora” (Indiana University Press, 2007-2015), and co-series editor of “Philosophy and Race” (SUNY Press). She served on the Executive Council of the Modern Language Association (2014-2018). Dr. Sharpley-Whiting, named a top 100 young leader of the African American community by The Root, teaches and researches comparative diasporic literary and cultural movements; 18th– and 19th-century French narratives; critical theory and race; and film and black popular culture. Dr. Sharpley-Whiting has testified before Congress, lectures widely nationally and internationally and has offered commentary on a range of issues for C-SPAN2, Fox News, MSNBC, NPR, CBS News and Oprah Satellite Radio. Dr. Sharpley-Whiting is also co-editor of the book, “The Speech: Race and Barack Obama’s A More Perfect Union.”
The Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas, canon theologian, Washington National Cathedral and Dean, Episcopal Divinity School at Union
The Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas is the Canon Theologian at the Cathedral. In 2017, she was named Dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Kelly is considered a leader in the field of womanist theology, racial reconciliation and sexuality and the black church. Prior to joining the Cathedral and EDS, she was the Susan D. Morgan Professor of Religion at Goucher College in Baltimore. Previously, she was Associate Professor of Theology at Howard University School of Divinity (1987-2001) and Assistant Professor of Religion at Edward Waters College (1986-1987). A native of Dayton, Ohio, Dr. Douglas was one of the first 10 black women to be ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church. She was an Associate Priest at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. for over 20 years. She holds degrees from Denison University and obtained her Ph.D. from Union Theological Seminary. Her newest book is “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God,” released in May 2015 by Orbis Books. She splits her time between New York and Washington.
The Right Rev. Marian Edgar Budde, Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Washington
Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde began her service as Interim Dean on Jan. 1, 2016. She is the spiritual leader of 40,500 Episcopalians in 89 congregations and 20 Episcopal schools in the District of Columbia and four Maryland counties. A passionate believer in the mission and ministry of the Episcopal Church, Bishop Budde is committed to the revitalization and growth of congregations and core ministries of the diocese, building their capacity to serve Christ’s reconciling mission in the world. Bishop Budde was consecrated as the ninth bishop of Washington in November 2011. Prior to her election, she served for 18 years as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Minneapolis. She earned a B.A. in history at the University of Rochester, N.Y, and earned both her Masters in Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degrees from Virginia Theological Seminary. She and her husband, Paul, have two adult sons, Amos and Patrick.