Tag Archives: presidential election

ADVENT REMINDERS FOR POLITICALLY-CONSCIOUS CHRISTIANS

I’m not really a politics junkie, but I found the extraordinary divisiveness of the recent presidential campaign mesmerizing (not to mention deeply disturbing).  For Christians, the danger of becoming so engrossed in an election like the one we just experienced is that it’s easy easy to lose perspective.  Unaware, we can gradually forget what we claim to believe about the sovereignty of God as we agonize over the triumph of this candidate or the failure of that one.  This is one reason I called your attention recently to Vince Bacote’s book The Political Disciple.  It is filled with reminders of Biblical truths that will keep us grounded if we cling to them.

Before I forget about it, I thought I would also call attention to another voice that I needed to hear in the aftermath of election day.  Michael Gerson is one of my favorite writers on public life.  A graduate of Wheaton and a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, his op-ed column in the Washington Post is regularly engaging and insightful.  And for those who doubt that a “mainstream media” source like the Post could possibly feature a substantive Christian perspective, Gerson’s editorials consistently prove otherwise.

A case in point was his November 21 piece, “Pushing Back Against the Mortal Risk of Politics.”  With candid humility, Gerson reflects on the ways that, in our fallenness, we so regularly take on the attributes of those we criticize.  The “mortal risk of politics is becoming what you condemn,” he writes, and it’s a danger “not limited to one side of our political divide.”  Gerson goes on to confess,  “I have found myself angry at how [pro-Trump evangelicals] have endorsed the politics of anger; bitter about the bitter political spirit they have encouraged; feeling a bit hypocritical in my zeal to point out their hypocrisy.”

But then Gerson preaches the gospel to himself–and to us–by recalling that “an attitude of fuming, prickly anxiety” should be foreign to followers of Jesus for at least two reasons.  First. “Christian belief relativizes politics.”  He elaborates,

The pursuit of social justice and the maintenance of public order are vital work.  But these tasks are temporary, and, in an ultimate sense, secondary.  If Christianity is true, C. S. Lewis noted, then “the individual person will outlive the universe.”  All our anger and worry about politics should not blind us to the priority and value of the human beings placed in our lives, whatever their background or beliefs.

The practical implications of this truth are clear and convicting: “‘Those people’ are also ‘our people.’ . . . No change of president or shift in the composition of the Supreme Court can result in a repeal of the Golden Rule.”

Second, “Christians are instructed not to be anxious.”  In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught us not to worry about tomorrow, trusting by faith that God is good and that He is in control.  The atheist may see the universe as “indifferent to the lives and dreams of jumped-up primates crawling on an unremarkable blue ball,” but our faith assures us that “that blue ball was touched by God in a manner and form that Homo Sapiens might understand.  And the vast, cold universe is really a sheltering sky.”

Gerson ends with words of encouragement:

After a dismal and divisive campaign season, many of us need the timely reminders of the Advent season: That people matter more than all our political certainties.  That God is in control, despite our best efforts.  And that some conflicts can’t be won by force or votes–only by grace.

MORE ON THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE

constitution

So let’s talk some more about the Electoral College.

This is one of those rare, heady moments in the life of a U. S. historian when a decent number of Americans seem interested in the American past–in this case, the question of what the heck the Framers of the Constitution were thinking when they devised such an complicated mechanism for electing our president.

In a post week before last, I shared my opinion that “the Electoral College has no place in modern democracy.”  In making that claim, I was thinking primarily with regard to the Framers’ underlying world view.  My point was not that the Electoral College could not serve some salutary purpose in twenty-first-century America–it is possible that it has had some positive, if unintended, consequences.  Rather, my hope was to underscore that our method of electing our highest officer originated in a set of assumptions about human nature, the natural order of society, and the role of government that a large majority of Americans would now heartily reject.

As a rule, the Framers were skeptical of human nature and suspicious of democracy, which is a major reason why precious few of them supported a direct popular election of the president when the matter came up at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.  This is also why the Framers tended to think of all national office-holders–including members of the Electoral College–as “free agents” who should make decisions for the good of the people without necessarily being restrained in all cases by the will of the people.

James Madison put it this way in Federalist no. 63:

As the cool and deliberate sense of the community ought, in all governments, and actually will, in all free governments, ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers; so there are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn.  In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind?

So, no, it would not be unconstitutional if any or all of the 538 members of the Electoral College decided to cast their ballots on December 19th for someone other than the candidate who received the most popular votes in their home states.  It would, however, be illegal for them to do so in the thirty states that currently mandate by law that electors cast their ballots for the candidate who won the state race.  (The penalties for violating such laws are minimal–typically a fine of $1,000 or less–and it should be noted further that the Constitutionality of such laws has never been tested.)  More than illegal, though, if the outcome of the election was altered thanks to “rogue” electors voting their conscience, tens of millions of Americans would view the process as fundamentally illegitimate.  It would be absolutely constitutional, arguably exactly what the Framers of the Constitution had in mind when they created the Electoral College, but illegitimate nonetheless.  That was my point.

Since I last wrote on this topic nearly two weeks ago, countless commentators have weighed in the Electoral College.  Some have called for its abolition–although as I noted last time, that is simply not going to happen any time soon.  Others have lamented the occasional instances of the Electoral College electing candidates who lost the popular vote but suggest that the danger of abolishing the Electoral College outweighs the potential benefits.  One of the weaker arguments I have seen to this effect came from William M. Daley, former Secretary of Commerce under Bill Clinton and White House Chief-of-Staff under Barack Obama (see here).   (A considerably stronger argument along these lines that came out within a week of the election was by attorney James Hulme and historian Allen Guelzo.  I don’t agree with their reasoning in several respects, but still find their argument worth considering.)

Just this week there have also been pieces highlighting creative efforts to use the Electoral College itself to change the election’s outcome.  In a piece in Tuesday’s Washington Post (“The Electoral College Should be Unfaithful“), columnist Kathleen Parker applauded efforts of the so-called “Hamilton Electors” to persuade Republican electors to join with Democratic electors in support of a Republican moderate.  More creatively, in an editorial on Monday, Michael F. Cannon of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, has floated the idea of Hillary Clinton “releasing” her 232 electors and encouraging them to support a moderate Republican such as Mitt Romney or John Kasich, in which case if as few as 38 Republican electors would join them, the Electoral College might still deny Donald Trump the presidency in lieu of a more qualified, less divisive Republican alternative.  Cannon knows that this is a long-shot, not least of which is that Donald Trump would call his supporters to the barricades, there would be legal challenges beyond imagining, and any moderate Republican willing to accept the presidency by such a process would deemed an imposter by millions of voters.

Only yesterday, John Kasich made clear that he would refuse to play such a role on the grounds that the “election is over.”  He’s almost certainly right.  But think about what he has said.  “The election is over.”  The Framers of the Constitution would have said that the election hasn’t been held yet.  It’s scheduled for December 19th.

THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE HAS NO PLACE IN MODERN DEMOCRACY

constitution

The electoral college is in the news again, thanks to the outcome of the recent presidential race.  The latest count–now that the final tally is in from Michigan–shows Trump winning the electoral college handily, 306-232, while losing the popular vote by more than two million ballots, or about 1.7 percentage points.  President-elect Trump thus joins a short list of individuals to win the presidency while losing the popular vote–the others being John Quincy Adams (1824), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), and George W. Bush (2000).

Predictably, Republicans have rediscovered a deep appreciation of the Founding Fathers for instituting such a wise mechanism for selecting the chief executive.  Most notably, Donald Trump–who as late as 2012 declared the electoral college a “disaster for democracy–now thinks it a “genius” system.  Democrats, for their part, are incensed that the popular will has been thwarted and respond in one of two ways.  Some, like Nancy Pelosi, are calling for a constitutional amendment to abolish the institution entirely.  Others are encouraging electors to disregard the vote of their states and cast their ballots for the candidate who actually won the popular vote.

Clearly, partisan self-interest is driving supposed principles on both sides, and most Americans will recognize that and respond in kind, i.e., according to their partisan leanings.  This is unfortunate, because the problems with the electoral college are real, and need to addressed.  Partisan convictions will insure that this never happens, however.  According to the Constitution, the electoral college cannot be eliminated without a constitutional amendment, and that would require, not only that two-thirds of both houses of Congress agree to a proposed amendment, but also that three-quarters of the states then go on to ratify the proposed change.  In sum, there is absolutely no way to eliminate the electoral college without sustained and extensive bipartisan support, which is another way of saying that it ain’t happening any time soon.

So for now, all we can do is point out that the electoral college doesn’t remotely function as it was intended to by the Framers of the Constitution, and that neither the defenders or the critics of the institution are interested in seeing that happen.

Precious few of the delegates to the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention of 1787 were eager to see the executive of the new government chosen by the direct election of the people.  There were a few lone voices for this alternative, but most deemed it either unwise or unfeasible.  Whatever they thought about the intellectual faculties of the common man, few believed that the rank and file of Americans would have enough knowledge of national affairs and distant statesmen to choose wisely.

Most of the delegates favored one of two alternatives to direct election.  One camp advocated that the president be chosen by the state legislatures.  The other proposed that he be elected by Congress, much like the prime minister in the British parliamentary system.  The electoral college was a compromise between these options in that the state legislatures were to chose electors who would vote for president, and then when no candidate received a majority of the electoral votes–as the Framers fully expected to be the norm once George Washington had left the scene–the House of Representatives would make the final decision in a run-off.  The result was that, in a “normal” election year, both the state legislatures and the Congress would play a role in the election of the president.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

But what role would the people play?  The best explanation of how the Framers would have answered this question comes from the pen of Alexander Hamilton.  During the debate over ratification in 1787-1788, Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay penned a series of eighty-five essays in support of the Constitution that became known as the Federalist Papers.  In Federalist no. 68, Hamilton offered the fullest discussion of the way that the electoral college would function and the part that popular opinion would play in regard to it.

In explaining the structure of the electoral college, Hamilton began by observing that the Framers thought it desirable “that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided.”  He then went on immediately to describe the electoral college as a body of individuals who were to apply “a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice.”

In an editorial in this morning’s Washington Post, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig quotes Hamilton’s statements as grounds for three conclusions: 1) Barring extraordinary circumstances, the Framers intended that the popular preference should determine the choice of the president.  2) They intended the electoral college to serve as a “safety valve on the people’s choice” that would either affirm or (on rare occasions) overturn the decision of the voters.  3) Given that Hillary Clinton is clearly qualified to serve as president, there is no good reason for electors to overturn the people’s choice.  Ergo (I imagine that’s what they say at Harvard), the electoral college would be acting consistently with the intentions of the Constitution’s Framers by electing Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.

Needless to say, Lessig is a Democrat.  (He actually briefly sought the Democratic nomination for president last fall.)  I don’t take issue with his editorial on partisan grounds, however, but on historical ones.  Lessig’s training is in economics and philosophy, not history, and so he may actually believe that his interpretation of Federalist no. 68 is accurate.  It’s not.  Whether intentionally or accidentally, he grossly misrepresents what Hamilton was arguing.

When Hamilton observed that the Framers believed that “the sense of the people should operate in the choice” of the president, he did not have a direct election in mind.  Read in context, it is clear that, to Hamilton’s mind, the public’s role was to have a voice in the selection of electors.  That role might be very indirect.  The Constitution does not specify how the states are to choose electors, and in the early years of the republic the vast majority were simply appointed by the state legislatures.  This means that, to the degree that the average voter had a voice in the selection of electors, it was by voting for candidates to the state legislature, who would at a later time appoint electors.

It is hardly the case that the Framers then charged the electoral college with the job of quality control, overturning the people’s choice when the masses had chosen poorly.  Rather, there was no expectation that the electors would pay any attention to the popular vote for the presidency, or even that there would be a popular vote for president.  Although states gradually began to institute popular elections for the president, this was not immediately the norm, and we do not even have a recorded popular vote for president for the first nine presidential elections in American history.

It is important to remember that the Framers of the Constitution did not anticipate the rise of formal political parties (and would have been distressed by the prospect).  The “sense of the people” was not to be registered by voters supporting state legislators of one political party over its rival, nor were electors to be chosen because of their public identification with one party or its opposite.  The people’s role was simply to choose electors (or state legislators, who would choose electors) who were known for wisdom and integrity.  The electoral college that resulted would not refer to the popular vote at all.  Instead, Hamilton explained, it was hoped that they would “possess the information and discernment requisite” to selecting the next president.

Lessig’s contention that the Framers would have wanted the electoral college to be guided in any way by the people’s choice shows a basic misunderstanding of the historical context.  He is right, however, that the Framers wanted members of the electoral college to be “citizens exercising judgment, not cogs turning a wheel.”  On those grounds, it would be entirely in keeping with the values of the Framers of the Constitution if electors from red states cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton on the grounds that Donald Trump lacks the experience, the temperament, the discernment, and the integrity that the office of president demands.

The majority of Americans, would see Clinton’s election by this means as illegitimate, however.  Americans in 2016 share few values in common with the Framers of the Constitution we claim to revere.  Generally, the Framers held to a world view that scholars term “republican” (no relation to the Republican Party): they held a skeptical view of human nature and maintained that the proper function of government office holders was to rule virtuously on behalf of the people’s welfare but not necessarily constrained by the people’s preferences in every matter.  For nearly two centuries, Americans have ascribed to a democratic worldview that rests on a positive view of humans as morally good and insists that the role of elected officials is to serve as a mouthpiece for majority preferences.

Not all of us will celebrate this repudiation of the values of the Framers.  I certainly don’t.  But this doesn’t change the fundamental reality: the electoral college doesn’t belong in our world.  It originated from a set of assumptions that the majority of Americans no longer affirm, and many would now roundly denounce.  It survives because of the difficulty of convincing both major parties, simultaneously, that neither stands to gain from its anachronistic presence.

 

 

COUNTDOWN TO THANKSGIVING

I was startled this morning when the guy on the radio commented in passing that Thanksgiving is a mere two weeks away.  Is that possible?  I’ve been so caught up in the recent election that I nearly let the holiday slip up on me.  (Following the presidential campaign was a lot like passing a horrendous pile-up on the interstate–horrifying and mesmerizing at the same time.)  But no longer.

I love Thanksgiving. The mere mention of the holiday floods my mind with warm memories, a cataract of sights and sounds and smells and, above all, of people very dear to me. In my household, as likely in yours, Thanksgiving has always been preeminently about family. I think of Thanksgivings past and I see my grandmother serving cornbread from her cast-iron skillet, my grandfather preparing to ask the blessing, my mother in her apron mashing potatoes, my father carving the turkey (and serving his new son-in-law the tail), my own small children dressed up as Indian maidens or as William Bradford. Furthermore, I genuinely admire the Pilgrims, the group we commonly link with Thanksgiving’s origins. They had their blind spots—as do we—but they were also people of faith and courage and hope, and there is much in their example to teach, admonish, and inspire us. I would never want to lessen the meaning of this special holiday.

But I do want you to think about it.

The story of the First Thanksgiving is central to how we, as Americans, remember our origins. The subsequent development of the Thanksgiving holiday speaks volumes about how we have defined our identity across the centuries. As Christians, our challenge is to “take every thought captive in obedience to Christ” (II Corinthians 10:5), including our thinking about our national heritage. We need to respect our forefathers without worshiping them. We must find a way to learn from the past without making it an idol.

Every day between now and Thanksgiving I will be sharing brief essays fashioned with these goals in mind.  Many of them, though not all, are drawn from my book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.

I hope you will find them useful.

First Thanksgiving

 

“ANTIDOTES TO VOTER ANGER”

angry-voters

Wheaton College Political Science professor Amy Black is a regular contributor to The Table, the online journal sponsored by Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought.  In the latest issue, Black writes about “Antidotes to Voter Anger.”  Self-styled “realists” will dismiss her suggestions as naïve, but we ought to find them convicting.  Here are her concluding thoughts:

Given the current state of American politics, Christians have great opportunities to model a different style of political communication. When political debates grow intense and anger rises, we need not respond in kind. Instead, we can make every effort not to incite more anger. At times, this may require refusing to speak or respond at all, at least until tempers recede.

When we do choose to respond, we can critique issue positions, individual candidates, and even the system itself with a proper sense of humility. When debates are framed in terms of personal gains or losses, we can reorient the discussion toward broader questions of political justice, asking what biblical values are at stake and what paths are most likely to serve the common good.

We can offer a quieter, less emotionally-charged counterpoint, presenting our arguments with respect and care. We can also take time to learn about political controversies before commenting on them, checking details with multiple sources and considering a range of viewpoints. Most importantly, we should commit the election, our political system, and all those participating in it to prayer.

Voter dissatisfaction has been growing for decades, and the underlying problems that have led to such anger will not be easily solved. But we can chart a different path in how we respond, modeling humbler and more informed political communication.