In The Future of Peace, Scott A. Hunt writes: "Even in the darkest times in our history, people of extraordinary character have lived among us, showing us a way out of the deplorable cycle of hatred and aggression. They exist this very day. It is to these people that we can turn in order to replenish our encouragement, hope, and inspiration. … They are heirs of our great spiritual masters from centuries past, continuing now to challenge us to think and act differently, to live more productively and harmoniously."

This section of The Practicing Democracy Project lifts up some of these leaders, as well as outstanding writers, philosophers, poets, and other visionaries. We encourage you to explore how they witness to the possibilities of a vibrant democracy.

Democracy Mentors

These visionaries featured in Spirituality & Practice's Naming the Days section have brought their insights and expertise to bear on creating healthy democracy.

  • Marian Anderson was a celebrated contralto, a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and a "goodwill ambassadress" for the United States Department of State. She had a great belief in the future of the United States and used her stature to help African-American artists overcome racism.
  • Joan Baez, an American folksinger, songwriter, and activist, is founder of Humanitas International Human Rights Committee. She has brought her influence to bear on issues of free speech, LGBT rights, desegregated schools, rights of farm workers, and countless other issues critical to democracy.
  • Philip Berrigan was a priest who dedicated his life to war resistance through active nonviolence. He focused on community life as a model for the nonviolent world he envisioned, and spent about 11 years in prison due to his actions aimed at making the United States more true to democratic principles.
  • Bono, the U2 front man and international lobbyist, has developed a leadership style as distinct as his musical style, creatively and persistently working on solutions to extreme poverty that have gained him three Nobel Prize nominations.
  • George Washington Carver was an African-American agricultural researcher, teacher, and advocate for the disadvantaged. His lifelong service calls us to refresh our ideas about freedom and the important role of education in achieving it.
  • Stephen Colbert, a comedian who hosts the Late Show, combines deep humanity with humor that makes him a hero to the people and a gadfly to the powerful. He makes us laugh and think — and helps keep us sane in the face of jarring changes.
  • Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker movement and was an extraordinary advocate for peace, justice, and equality. She tirelessly worked for a more compassionate democracy based on using love against hate and suffering against violence.
  • Bob Dylan was the first songwriter ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. His songs — adaptable to any movement for progress — inspired activism by alluding to historic injustices and by drawing attention to the urgency of the present.
  • Marian Wright Edelman crusades for poor, minority, and disabled children with the same fire and gusto that she did on the dangerous civil rights front lines in Mississippi decades ago. She founded and heads the Children's Defense Fund as a voice for them.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson was a transcendentalist preacher, poet, essayist, and philosopher. In a time when people were looking for new spiritual directions, he advocated for democratic values like freedom and ethical engagement.
  • Margaret Fuller was a great reformer, critic, and journalist who applied transcendentalist ideas about the primacy of the soul to argue against the subjugation of women and slaves.Her ideas about gender equality maintain a freshness even now.
  • Mohandas K. Gandhi used nonviolent civil disobedience to lead the Indian independence movement against British rule. His lived ideas of a simplified life, solidarity with the poor, nonviolence, and a reverence for life continue to inspire those seeking to improve democracy.
  • Amy Goodman is an award-winning journalist and writer who tirelessly advocates for the necessity of independent media. She covers the stories neglected by the mainstream news outlets, keeping democracy vital by giving the microphone to those who have been silenced.
  • Woody Guthrie was a gutsy American singer and song-writer. His commitment to the well-being of migrant workers, Dust Bowl refugees, and other underdogs permeates his lyrics, as in "This Land Is Your Land."

  • Abraham Joshua Heschel was a formidable Jewish teacher, theologian, and social activist. He took his mysticism to the streets and marched with civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., saying "I felt my legs were praying."
  • Dolores Huerta stands out as one of the most influential labor leaders of our time. With Cesar Chavez, she co-founded the National Farmworkers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW).
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Baptist minister, civil rights leader, and Nobel laureate. His thirst for racial justice, nonviolence, and freedom made him a pioneer in breaking down barriers and building bridges on behalf of the poor and powerless.
  • Maggie Kuhn was the founder and outspoken leader The Gray Panthers. She and her network of older people dedicated to fighting ageism brought about national and local changes in nursing home procedures, health care, and forced retirement.
  • Michael Moore is a filmmaker and author known for such films as Roger and Me, Bowling for Columbine, and Fahrenheit 9/11 and books like Dude, Where’s My Country? He makes audiences laugh, squirm, and think as he uses confrontational humor to reveal American myths.
  • John Muir devoted his life to exploration, celebration, and preservation of wilderness. He helped us stop and look at what we might otherwise walk by and overlook, and ultimacy left a legacy instituted in The Sierra Club, our national parks, and his copious writings.
  • Edward R. Murrow was a widely heralded television journalist and news anchor who set a high bar for fearless integrity. Many consider his scathing attack on the fear-mongering tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy to have been the beginning of the waning of the Red Scare in America.
  • A. J. Muste was a clergyman, trade-union activist, and civil-rights leader who served as Executive Secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation for more than a decade. His vibrant example of Christian nonviolence illuminated the value of holding fast to ideals regardless of consequences.
  • Rosa Parks is best known for sparking the Mongomery bus boycott by bravely refusing to give up her bus seat when, due to racist policies, that meant arrest. She worked with the NAACP and devoted herself to educating and empowering youth to strive for equality.
  • Paul Robeson won international acclaim as a concert performer, stage actor, recording artist, and film actor. He spoke out against American racism and in support of the working-class poor even when his political stand had dire effects on his career.
  • Eleanor Roosevelt, as the wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, revolutionized the role of First Lady by becoming an activist. She excelled in serving others as a humanitarian and civic leader. She toiled hard for the benefit of youth, black Americans, poor people, and women.
  • Pete Seeger was a legendary singer and songwriter committed to turning the world around with songs about peace, social justice, the environment, and the lifting up of those mired in poverty. His ability to sing truth to power made him an extraordinary advocate for democracy.
  • Gary Snyder is a poet, essayist, and environmental activist who explores "the mytho-poetic interface of society, ecology, and language." He models for us what it means to truly love and protect the planet.
  • Adlai Stevenson was a cultivated and articulate Democrat who twice ran for the U.S. Presidency and was a skilled negotiator as the U.S.'s Ambassador to the United Nations. His definition of a free society was "a society where it is safe to be unpopular."
  • Studs Terkel was a Pulitzer-Prize winning author, activist, oral historian, and broadcast pioneer known as "the premier chronicler of American life." He sought "a language that speaks the truth" and wanted people to talk to one another regardless of their differences of opinion.
  • Harriet Tubman was an abolitionist, distinguished as a freedom fighter and conductor on the Underground Railroad during the American Civil War period. As conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, she understood the value of liberty better than most people.
  • Sojourner Truth offered practical, untiring help to freed slaves following the Civil War and became a trailblazer in the abolitionist and suffragist movements. She took her greatest challenges and turned them into a fearless opportunity to speak up on behalf of millions of people's rights.

Democracy Teachers

These leaders profiled in Spirituality and Practice's Living Spiritual Teachers Project and Remembering Spiritual Masters Project have made distinctive contributions to democratic values.

  • Diana Butler Bass is a public theologian, historian, and author of nine books about American religion and culture. In place of the dogmatic, militant Christianity we often read about, she writes about a generative faith which "transforms the world through humble service to all."
  • Robert Bellah was a distinguished sociologist of religion whose pioneering studies of American culture identified the depth and breadth of the nation's "civil religion." He was one of the writers of Habits of the Heart, the classic study of individualism and commitment in American life.
  • Daniel Berrigan was a Catholic priest, teacher, poet, retreat leader, and nonviolent peace and justice activist. His fervent protest of war and the engines of destruction sprang from his passionate advocacy of Gospel nonviolence.
  • Joan Chittister is a Benedictine sister, prolific author, and the Executive Director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality. She insists that prophetic discernment about values that matter is an essential dimension of the religious life.
  • William Sloan Coffin was a Protestant social justice activist who dedicated his life to the pursuit of universal civil and human rights and international peace. His challenging and cogent calls for justice and peace created a full-bodied vision of Christian faith based on service and practice.
  • John Dear is a priest, peace activist, organizer, lecturer, retreat leader, author, and editor of books about peace and justice. His writings and teachings offer concrete ways to disarm the heart, love one's enemies, and make peace the center of Christian life.
  • Peter J. Gomes was the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School and Pusey Minister at Harvard's Memorial Church. In mid-career he announced that he was gay and became one of America's most prominent spiritual voices against intolerance.
  • Sam Keen is a freelance thinker, seminar leader, cultural critic, and philosopher of religion. He is suspect of any religion or therapy that focuses exclusively on cultivating the interior life and does not include "a celebration of the senses, an ecological vision, and a concern for social justice."
  • Anne Lamott is author of several novels and works of non-fiction. She has a knack for sniffing out and then addressing the peculiar moods and challenges of our times, and her writings point to values like purpose, kindness, inclusivity, balance, and gratitude.
  • Michael Lerner is an internationally renowned social theorist, theologian, and psychotherapist. He is the founder and publisher of Tikkun magazine and is known for his visionary writings on cultural trends and developments.
  • Joanna Macy is a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology who leads international workshops on personal and social change. She encourages active hope, perseverance, gratitude, and self-respect as means to meet the world's troubles.
  • Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, was a highly influential Catholic writer, theologian, mystic, social critic, and pioneer of interfaith dialogue. He called the nonviolent civil rights movement "the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States."

  • Megan McKenna is a writer, theologian, and storyteller who works with Indigenous groups, activist groups, parishes, and religious communities to bring meaning and hope. A ardent peacemaker, she would like to see the military budget redirected to saving the water, the air, and the land.
  • Brian McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. A former college English teacher and pastor, he is a passionate advocate for “a new kind of Christianity” — just, generous, and working with people of all faiths for the common good.
  • Jacob Needleman a philosophy professor, a prolific writer on world religions, and a consultant in fields of psychology, education, medical ethics, philanthrophy, and business. He encourages all U.S. citizens to reimagine and bring to life the spiritual underpinnings of the republic.
  • Kent Nerburn is an author, sculptor, and educator who has been deeply involved in Native American issues and education. His writings encourage reconsideration of U.S. history and the tragic legacy it leaves for the remaining Native peoples.
  • Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese monk, poet, scholar, and retreat leader, internationally known for his peacemaking. Thousands have followed his instructions for walking meditation and found it a way of connecting to the Earth and their neighbors.
  • Parker J. Palmer is a Quaker author, speaker, activist, and visionary who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change. He considers individuality and community both to be essential to fostering a wholesome democracy.
  • His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the head of state and spiritual leader of the Tibetan people and a world-renowned teacher of nonviolence. He accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on the behalf of oppressed, all those who struggle for freedom and work for world peace, and the people of Tibet.
  • Desmond Tutu is Retired Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, and Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa. He was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his formidable crusade in support of justice and racial conciliation.
  • Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine and a speaker, author, activist, and international commentator on ethics and public life. He repeatedly challenges people of faith to work for social change in the public arena and to view economic inequality as a religious issue.
  • Arthur Waskow, founder and director of The Shalom Center, is one of the major leaders of the movement for Jewish renewal. He offers concrete ideas from the Jewish tradition and new approaches on seeking peace, pursuing justice, and healing the earth.
  • Terry Tempest Williams writes essays on nature, citizenship, and spiritual journeys and is an activist for ecological consciousness and social change. She speaks out eloquently on behalf of an ethical stance toward life.
  • Marianne Williamson is an internationally acclaimed author and lecturer, one of America’s most well-known public voices. She co-founded the Global Renaissance Alliance (GRA), a worldwide network that harnesses the power of nonviolence as a social force for good.