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Jean Bethke Elshtain|Oct. 29, 1996 Democracy is on trial in America. Expert and ordinary opinion converges on a sober recognition: we live in an age of political resentment and withdrawal from civic life. What can be done to revivify American democracy? Some propose electronic solutions—technological means to register instantly the popular will—but others, myself included, see in the proposed solution a deepening of our current troubles. Why? Because democracy is not and has never been primarily a means whereby popular will is tabulated and enacted but, rather, a political world within which citizens deliberate, negotiate, compromise, engage, and hold themselves and those they choose to represent them accountable for actions taken. Have we lost this deliberative and dialogical dimension to democracy? For democracy’s enduring promise is that democratic citizens can come to know a good in common that they cannot know alone. By any standard of objective evidence, those who point to the rise of civically depleting forms of isolation, boredom, and cynicism; those who point to declining levels of involvement in politics and community, from simple acts like the vote to more demanding participation in political parties and local, civic associations; those who point to the overall weakening of that world known as democratic civil society: these have the better case. Alexis de Tocqueville, in his classic workDemocracy in America, argued that one reason the American democracy he surveyed was so sturdy was that citizens took an active part in public affairs. This is important because participating in public affairs means one must move from exclusive and narrowly private interests and occasionally take a look at matters that concern others. In Tocqueville’s words, As soon as common affairs are treated in common, each man notices that he is not as independent of his fellows as he used to suppose and that to get their help he must often offer his aid to them. [Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. J. P. Mayer, trans. George Lawrence (New York: Harper Perennial, 1988), p. 510] In this way civic engagement helped to underscore what Tocqueville called “self-interest properly understood,” an interest that was never narrowly focused on the self (p. 526). If Tocqueville were among us today, he would no doubt share the concern of social scientists who have researched the sharp decline in participation. They argue that the evidence points to nothing less than a crisis in “social capital formation,” the forging of bonds of social and political trust and competence. The debilitating effects of rising mistrust, privatization, and anomie are many. For example, there is overwhelming empirical support for the popularly held view that where neighborhoods are intact, drugs and alcohol abuse, crime, teenage childbearing, and truancy among the young diminish. Because neighborhoods are less and less likely to be intact, all forms of social
Rex E. Lee|Jan. 15, 1991 This morning I want to talk to you about a very important relationship that exists between, on the one hand, our lives, our practices, and our beliefs as participants in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and, on the other, the Constitution of the United States. In one sense, this topic is a timeless one, because the Restoration and the Constitution trace their beginnings almost to the same point in time, and over the intervening two centuries have grown and flourished side by side. And yet, in another sense, the subject is not only timely, but also time-driven. Today’s devotional is the last one that will occur during the fifteen-year period from 1976 through the summer of 1991 that Congress officially designated as our bicentennial. Bicentennial! Over the past fifteen years—for most of you, the majority of your conscious years—this word has virtually acquired a secondary meaning. Viewed narrowly, it has been a ceremonial observance of the most remarkable period in the history of our nation, and perhaps in the history of the world. From a broader perspective, the bicentennial has symbolized patriotism and liberty and has served as a valuable reminder that the unique blessings we enjoy as Americans are largely attributable to a document that has proven to be, notwithstanding some flaws, probably the most successful governmental undertaking in the history of civilized life on this planet. Constitutional principles and constitutional issues continually bear on our day-to-day activities. This very day, January 15, 1991—President Bush’s deadline for the withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait provides an excellent example. It is an event and a day of obvious significance and concern to every American and to the world. Surrounding it on all sides is a constitutional issue. I’ll say more about what that issue is in a moment. But at the outset I want you to understand that constitutional questions enter into a spectrum of our interests ranging from global war to nude dancing to non-returnable soft-drink containers. A Dramatic Story The two-hundred-year anniversary that we have been observing was a fifteen-year period that began with the Declaration of Independence and ended with the adoption of the Bill of Rights by the first Congress in the summer of 1791. The constitution-making portions of that decade and a half lasted only four years and consisted, in my view, of three basic phases. The first was the famous Philadelphia Convention in the summer of 1787. That story has been told several times and in several ways, but nowhere more interestingly nor more accurately than by our own BYU film production A More Perfect Union. The convention was conducted in secret and represented several struggles of epic proportions among the delegates, ultimately resolved by a series of compromises. Someday someone should make another movie like A More Perfect Union, telling the story of the second and
Jeffrey R. Holland|Sep. 6, 1988 Welcome back to school. As Sister Holland has said, we love you and miss you when you are away, and we are praying for you to have a bright and beautiful year together. Work hard. Learn much. Make your opportunities count. And do come in on time at night, but don’t come by our house to tell us. Another Election Year This first semester of our brand-new academic year, it should be duly noted, is going to be spiced up by a national presidential election. It is now the first week of September, the conventions are over, and we have nine weeks to the day to go. And we know only two things for certain: first, that as Reinhold Niebuhr once said, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary” (The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, 1944). Democracy is indeed, in that sense, still “on trial.” The civic loyalty and involvement of our people is its fundamental appeal and its only protection. Take your responsibilities seriously, document and discuss the issues, and cast your vote if you are of age. (And almost all of you are.) Democracy only works if you do. That’s the first thing we need to know in an election year. The second thing we know is that the humorists are going to have a heyday, and indeed already are. Americans love to joke about their public figures. Thomas E. Dewey is said to have been the first presidential casualty of a political joke when, in the campaigning of 1948, some comedian said he looked like he had just fallen off a wedding cake. Now you are all too young to have even seen pictures of Governor Dewey, but with his impeccable dark suits and pencil-thin mustache, that is exactly how he looked—and people laughed. President John F. Kennedy may not have laughed, however, when Bob Hope kept snickering about his youth. Mr. Hope said they had served milk at Kennedy’s first cabinet meeting, but it hadn’t turned out well because they spent the next half hour just burping each other. Comedians are especially tough on politicians who move from unknown to nationally famous in just an instant, like Senator Dan Quayle, for example. Now, regardless of your personal political persuasion, you have to admit that Senator Quayle has been the object of plenty of “fowl” jokes. Mark Russell said he didn’t know whether the ticket of “Bush and Quayle” was the title of a hunting magazine or the name of an English pub. Nevertheless, Republicans are insisting that this ticket is the nation’s best possible insurance against turning back the clock to those bitter days of the sixties when this country was torn apart over the war in Indiana. It was absolutely terrible, says Russell—the bombing of Indianapolis, the mining of harbors along the Ohio River, crawling through those jungles just outside Gary and South Bend. But Jay Leno has defended Senator Quayle’s military service devou
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