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In may, exactly three months before the Democratic National Convention in Denver, I spoke at a state prayer luncheon in the convention center that would soon be filled with delegates wearing silly hats and blowing noisemakers. City officials were anxiously organizing squads of policemen to control the expected platoon of demonstrators outside. Inside the same hall where we were focusing on prayer, politicians would take turns promising to turn the nation in a new direction and right its wrongs.

Thinking about what to say to the leaders gathered, I recalled a line from the contemporary German philosopher Jürgen Habermas: Democracy requires of its citizens qualities that it cannot provide. Politicians can conjure an exalted vision of a prosperous, healthy, free society, but no government can supply the qualities of honesty, compassion, and personal responsibility that must underlie this vision.

For all its strengths, the United States shows some alarming signs of ill health. With less than 5 percent of the world's population, we have 25 percent of the world's prisoners—more than Russia and China combined. We consume half of all the prescription drugs in the world, and yet by most standards our overall health ranks lower than most other developed countries'. In every major city, homeless people sleep in parks and under bridges. And our leading causes of death are self-inflicted: obesity, alcohol, sexually transmitted diseases, stress-related illnesses, drugs, violence, environmental cancers. Obviously, politicians have not solved all our problems.

George Orwell, observing the loss of religious faith in Europe (which he had applauded), remarked:

For two hundred years we had sawed and sawed and sawed at the branch we ...

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hide thisSeptember September

In the Magazine

September 2008

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