Walt Whitman’s Sacred Democracy

[RD ended the year with a top ten list, not of religion’s top stories, but of what Americans consider sacred. In his response below—particularly apt this week, as violence leads the national news—Louis Ruprecht invites us to reflect on Walt Whitman’s singular vision of the democratic undertaking. –The Eds.]

By reminding us of a number of the most curious headline-stories spanning the previous twelve months, RD’s “2010: What Did We Believe In?” invites a range of emotional responses. My own reactions tended to the extremes: extreme worry at some of the crass and narcissistic excess of a great deal of contemporary American religiosity; but also extreme interest in, and even a whiff of hope inspired by, the relentless creativity and imaginativeness with which Americans by and large apply themselves to the pursuit of their spiritual dreams.  

On the hopeful side of the ledger, I’d like to invite reflection on  two things that a great many Americans seem willing to consider sacred, in Laderman’s sense of a loose and somewhat unformed spirituality: democracy and art.

These two arenas for the expression of a distinctively American kind of creativity were hymned by no less a spiritual adept than Walt Whitman, in his wide-ranging essay, “Democratic Vistas.”  

“I shall use the words America and democracy as convertible terms,” Whitman begins. Then he devotes the remainder of the essay to his passionate plea for the creation of a distinctively American kind of art—which is to say, a distinctively democratic literature. 

Why literature? And, more broadly speaking, why the arts? These remain urgent questions today. 

The reason? Because, Whitman tells us, the only reason we still care about ancient civilizations is due to the literary record they left behind. Empires come and go; artistic creativity is forever. 

A Sublime and Serious Religious Democracy

Whitman claimed that there are three stages to the world’s civilizations… but then he catches us by surprise, refusing to go the customary route in speaking of inception, rise, and fall. For Whitman, the first stage of an emerging and distinctively American civilization was the establishment of a secure political foundation in a Constitution and a Bill of Rights. That was the great achievement in the late 1700s.  

That foundation was sorely tested by the Civil War, true, but in Whitman’s eyes, the nation passed the test, and thereby unwittingly set the stage for it is own fairly sudden explosion in material prosperity. That was the nation’s great achievement of the late 1800s, when Whitman offered up his glimpse of the Vistas. 

But the nation’s material success was simply further foundation; wealth and industry were not the point of America. (This by the way, is what the contemporary worry about whether this generation will be the first to do worse than its parents’ misses. What we are supposed to do better is politics, not markets).  

The real question of the day, for Whitman, was what edifice should be built upon such a massive constitutional and economic platform; how that question would be answered marked the real test for the future of the American experiment in democratic pluralism. Here is Whitman again: 

The Third stage, rising out of the previous ones, to make them and all illustrious, I now, for one promulge… for these States, self-contain’d, different from others, more expansive, more rich and free, to be evidenced by original authors and poets to come, by American personalities, plenty of them, make and female, traversing the states, none excepted… and by a sublime and serious Religious Democracy sternly taking command, dissolving the old, sloughing off the surfaces, and from its own interior and vital principles reconstructing, democratizing society. 

A religious democracy!?

How are we to imagine such a thing, built upon a foundation of the First Amendment and its separation of church and state? Clearly, Walt Whitman was not pleading for a narrowly Christian conception of the nation. He was not a traditionalist in any simple sense. And neither, he reminds us, is a democracy. 

In fact, “a sublime and serious religious democracy”—he even dared suggest a religion of democracy, a radically new democratic religion—sees its sole, overarching purpose to be the nurturing of the human spirit as an absolute value:  

This is the thought of identity—yours for you, whoever you are, as mine for me. Miracle of miracles, beyond statement, most spiritual and vaguest of Earth’s dreams, yet hardest basic fact and only entrance to all facts.

Here is the crux of the argument and, I think, his subtle connection to the arts. Big spirits need new media with which to capture and then to express their bigness, their singular and unique voices.  

Walt Whitman—and we should add Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, even rough contemporaries like Toni Morrison and Cornel West, to this august list of American spiritualists-in-letters—was ultimately a psalmist of the human spirit.

He was, as we would now say, “spiritual (or sacred), not religious.” But then, in his judgment, that’s what democracy is all about.

The very coin of the democratic realm is “sacred.” 

Whitman saw the work of fostering such a “religious democracy” as the work of the 20th century, and that task continues unabated today. He warned that there was only one thing that really threatened to undo it: party-thinking. 

But these savage, wolfish parties alarm me. Owning no law but their own, more and more combative, less and less tolerant of the idea of ensemble and of equal brotherhood, the perfect equality of the States, the ever-overarching American ideas, it behooves you to convey yourself implicitly to no party, nor submit blindly to their dictators, but steadily hold yourself judge and master over all of them. 

Which is ultimately why we need writing and art. We need to be reminded of the spectacular ingenuity of our restless human energies, once unleashed and set free from the inquisitorial restrictions of religious institutions or post-9/11 security states. 

As this publication looks forward to a new year, and a new decade, I look forward to seeing more on the positive side of this sacred democratic ledger: essays that celebrate the remarkable creativity, and the loosely sacred character, of a people who aspire not to be a unit, but a union, capable of moments of rare grace and uncommon creativity—in grassroots religion and in the fine arts alike.