Tag Archives: U. S. Politics

DOES ANY OF THIS STILL APPLY?

Deja Vu All Over Again?

I’ve been spending a lot of time this spring with Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville’s classic, published in 1838.

Tocqueville wrote this classic at a time when democracy was still a novel experiment in the world. Its future was uncertain. Its impact was unclear. And although he was writing about democracy in a very specific historical context (he arrived in the United States at the midpoint of Andrew Jackson’s first term as president), his investigation was driven by questions as relevant today as they were in the 1830s.

I thought I’d share just a few quotes that are going into my commonplace book.   Democracy in America is so rich that I could share quotes from it for months and still not get to all the good ones, but here are a few of my favorites.  They come from the 2004 edition translated by Arthur Goldhammer of the University of Virginia.

I give them below without further comment, except to share my opinion that Tocqueville’s insights strike me as timeless.  I’d welcome hearing your thoughts.

* “Generally speaking, only simple conceptions can grip the mind of a nation.  An idea that is clear and precise even though false will always have greater power in the world than an idea that is true but complex.”

* “Man firmly believes a thing because he accepts it without looking deeply into it.  He begins to doubt when objections are raised.  In many cases he succeeds in laying all his doubts to rest and begins to believe again.  Then he no longer clings to a truth plucked at random from the darkness but stares truth in the face and marches directly toward its light. . . . We can be sure that the majority of men will remain in one of these two states: they will either believe without knowing why, or not know precisely what they ought to believe.”

* “But nothing is harder than the apprenticeship of liberty.  This is not true of despotism.  Despotism often presents itself as the remedy for all ills suffered in the past.  It is the upholder of justice, the champion of the oppressed, and the founder of order.  Nations are lulled to sleep by the temporary prosperity to which it gives rise, and when they are awake, they are miserable.”

* “Americans do not converse; they argue.”

* “In America centralization is not popular, and there is no cleverer way to court the majority than to rail against the alleged encroachments of the central government.”  

* “Now, what has to be said in order to please the voters is not always what would best serve the political opinion they profess.”

* “It is astonishing to see how few, how weak, and how unworthy are the hands into which a great people can fall.”

And My All-Time Favorite . . .

* “When the past is no longer capable of shedding light on the future, the mind can only proceed in darkness.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

ANDREW JACKSON AND DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN

I recently finished reading Society, Manners, and Politics in the United States, by Michael Chevalier.  Don’t feel too bad if you haven’t read it (or even heard of it)–it’s current ranking on Amazon is #2,875,870.

Chevalier was a twenty-eight-year old Frenchman sent to the US by the French government in 1833, two years after the far more famous mission of his fellow countrymen Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont.   An engineer, Chevalier’s assignment was to study the American transportation and communications systems, which he did diligently and systematically over the next two years.  During his travels, he periodically sent back lengthy letters (thirty-two in all) that were published at the time in a French journal, and then compiled and released in book form after his return.  The first English translation appeared in 1839.

Chevalier paid greatest attention to railroads, steamboats, and canals, but he was interested in economic development generally (he discussed American banking at length) and also discussed U. S. politics extensively as it intersected with and influenced the nation’s economic life.  It was in that context that I came across the quote below with regard to Andrew Jackson.  I’ve previously written about some of the parallels between Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump (a comparison that the latter actively invites), but the quote below was so striking that I had to pass it along.

Chevalier begins with a compliment of sorts: “General Jackson possesses in the highest degree the qualities necessary for conducting partisan warfare,” he observes.  The president is “bold, indefatigable, always alert, quick-sighted . . . harsh and terrible to his enemies.”  But then he elaborates:

For reasons of domestic policy . . . many enlightened men who had at first treated the idea of supporting him for the presidency with ridicule gave in to the plan, trusting that they should be able to exercise a salutary influence over him.  His fiery temper seemed in fact to be calmed by his elevation; the recollection of his oath of office which, at the moment it was made, was made in good faith, was yet fresh.  He conscientiously resolved . . . to be moderate, patient, and calm. . . . But this state of constraint was insupportable to him; it is too late to reform at the age of sixty years.

Sound familiar?

This drawing by Matt Chase first appeared in the New York Times, February 17, 2016.

CHRISTIAN FAITHFULNESS IN THE POLITICAL ARENA

The religious groups that peopled this country in the 17th and eighteenth centuries generally had well developed theologies of political engagement.  But few evangelicals in America today have such historical resources to draw from.  The Christian traditions that have given evangelicalism its vitality in recent generations have been individualistic, pietistic, and theologically unreflective in their approach to politics.

This is why in a post from last summer I implored evangelical leaders to explain the scriptural precepts and theological principles that guided their course during the recent presidential campaign.  The Scripture calls us to “take every thought captive to obedience to Christ.”  When it comes to politics, we need to know how to think more than what to think.  What Scriptural principles should be shaping our thinking as we strive to live faithfully in the political arena?

bacote-political-discipleJust this morning I finished a wonderful introduction to this crucial question: The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life, by Vincent E. Bacote.  Vince Bacote is my colleague–an associate professor of theology and director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics here at Wheaton College.  He has written an invaluable little book for lay Christians who want to think and act faithfully with regard to politics.

Bacote writes clearly, simply, and conversationally about a series of related questions:

  • Should Christians even participate in the public sphere?
  • How might Christian beliefs influence our engagement in the public realm?
  • How should Christians understand their identity?
  • What kind of people should Christians be in public?
  • How might Christians retain hope, given the frustrations of public engagement?

Bacote’s reasoning throughout is judicious, scripturally based, and scrupulously non-partisan.  I highly recommend it.

 

TOCQUEVILLE ON TUESDAY’S RESULT

Count me among those who are still reeling from the outcome of Tuesday’s election.   Eventually, I want to write about what it all means, but I’ve got to do a lot of thinking.  Our social-media-driven age demands instant analyses—the simpler and shallower the better—and as Baylor University’s Alan Jacobs has observed, almost the only response that’s unacceptable is the plea for more time to think and ponder and reflect before pronouncing.  I don’t care.

For now, all I can do is share what I read in my notes this morning from the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville.  If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I spent much of the past summer with that nineteenth-century Frenchman.  I read three biographies about him, devoured his letters from America, and lingered for weeks over his two-volume classic Democracy in America, surely the most trenchant conservative assessment of American politics ever penned.

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

As a historian, I believe there are many good reasons to pay attention to the past, but one of the most important of those is the possibility of entering into a life-changing conversation about perennial human questions—“a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.”  Alexis de Tocqueville needs to be one of our conversation partners. He has much to say to us, if we are willing to listen.  And we do stand in need of a distinctively conservative critique, given that neither major party in America today is either able or inclined to offer one.

So what would Tocqueville think about the outcome of Tuesday’s election?  I’d be blowing smoke to say that I know for sure.  But below are some observations that Tocqueville shared after his visit to the United States in 1830-1831.  I find them eerily prescient.  You can read them and decide for yourself.

  • “Generally speaking, only simple conceptions can grip the mind of a nation. An idea that is clear and precise even though false will always have greater power in the world than an idea that is true but complex.”
  • “What democracy lacks . . . is not always the capacity to choose men of merit but the desire and taste to do so. . . . I am satisfied that anyone who looks upon universal suffrage as a guarantee of good choices is operating under a total illusion. Universal suffrage has other advantages, but not that one.”
  • “Our contemporaries are constantly wracked by two warring passions: they feel the need to be led and the desire to remain free. Unable to destroy either of these contrary instincts, they seek to satisfy both at once.  They imagine a single, omnipotent, tutelary power, but one that is elected by the citizens. . . .  They console themselves for being treated as wards by imagining that they have chosen their own protectors.”
  • “For my part, I own that I have no confidence in the spirit of liberty which seems to animate my contemporaries. I see plainly that the nations of this age are turbulent, but it is not clear to me that they are freedom loving.”

Your thoughts?

MEDITATIONS FOR THE VOTING BOOTH

It’s almost midnight on November 7th, and soon one of the most divisive and controversial presidential campaigns since the Civil War will finally be over (hopefully).  Within the next twenty-four hours somewhere in the neighborhood of one hundred million of us will cast our votes for the nation’s highest office (on top of nearly half that number who have already voted).  No matter who wins, it will take a long time for the nation to recover.  Early in his public career, Abraham Lincoln observed that democracy requires three things to flourish: a people who are united among themselves, have faith in free institutions, and are guided by reason.  If he was right, we’re in trouble.

Many of us will go to the polls deeply troubled for the future of our country.  Some of us will also carry a burden for the future of Christ’s Church, fearfully convinced that the outcome of the election will determine its future as well.  Early this summer, I wrote an open letter to evangelical leaders in which I implored them to share the theological principles and scriptural precepts that guide their thinking about politics, in particular their decision to support the Republican nominee.  I am still waiting.

On one hand, we’ve been told that a twice divorced casino mogul known for his bigotry, adulation of power, and contempt for constitutional constraints is a wonderful father and faithful Christian, which should make our decision simple.  Conversely, we’ve been told that character doesn’t matter—we’re “not electing a pastor,” after all—and that a host of pragmatic reasons dictate that we ally with a scoundrel to bring down a villain.   I can imagine Winston Churchill saying such a thing.  I’m not so sure about Jesus.

I’m not qualified to offer a set of systematic theological principles to guide our thinking about the mess that we’re in—that’s why I have so genuinely longed for our leaders to teach us.  Like many of us, I think we’re faced with a set of awful options when we go into the voting booth tomorrow.  It occurs to me that these extraordinary circumstances have exposed the theological shallowness of my own thinking about politics until now.  In years when one major candidate seemed clearly superior to the other, no very deep thinking was required.  But now that we effectively face a choice between the two most unpopular presidential nominees since the beginning of polling, each deeply if differently flawed, I find myself groping for scriptural principles upon which to make a decision.

If Donald Trump had a particle of integrity, and if I thought he truly cared remotely about the sanctity of human life and the importance of religious freedom (instead of stumbling on both positions just recently while reading “Two Corinthians”), and if I thought he could be trusted to make wise nominations to the Supreme Court, and if I thought he possessed the political acumen to steer genuinely sound nominations through a bitterly divided, dysfunctional Senate (which will soon either be almost evenly split between the parties or have a slight Democratic majority), and if history showed that ostensibly conservative nominees to the Court reliably espoused conservative positions once on the bench (which it doesn’t), then we could have a really good discussion about whether the ends justify the means and God would have us ally with someone as morally offensive as Donald Trump to accomplish some greater good.

In case you missed the italics, however, there are way too many “ifs” in that long sentence to base a decision on.  I know that many evangelicals have concluded that a Trump presidency—however distasteful and even frightening—is simply the price we must pay for a conservative Court for the next generation.  Their motives may be honorable, but I fear their reasoning is dreadfully misguided.

So here is what I am meditating on these last hours before voting myself.  I’m suspecting that, however we vote, our decision will say something about our view of divine sovereignty and human identity, that is, how we understand God and how we see ourselves.  In church this past Sunday, our congregation sang a familiar praise chorus with the words “Our God is an awesome God / He reigns in heaven above / with wisdom, power, and love / our God is an awesome God.”  And before I knew it, my thoughts were on the impending election (confession: my mind sometimes wanders in church—sorry), and I found myself asking whether we really believe this when we go into the voting booth.  If so, in what ways will a robust confidence in God’s sovereignty and power inform the votes we cast?  And how, exactly, might our faith in God’s sovereignty and power square with the conclusion that we must support the “lesser of evils” to promote a “Christian” outcome?

And then our pastor began his sermon.  While preaching on the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, he took us briefly to a relevant passage in the New Testament letter to the Hebrews.  The verse that caught my attention was chapter 13, verse 14.  In my New King James translation I read, “For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come,” and again my thoughts turned to Election Day.  When we pull the curtain behind us and cast our ballots, will our actions reflect our identity first and foremost as Americans—more specifically, as Republicans or Democrats—or will we self-consciously remind ourselves, as the apostle Paul taught the church at Philippi, that “our citizenship is in heaven”?

Will we think of ourselves as “strangers and pilgrims on the earth,” to return to the language of the book of Hebrews, or will our identity and motivation be grounded elsewhere?  Will we see the election as our “last chance” to save America or make it great again, or will we believe the Scripture’s assurance (in Hebrews 12:28) that “we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken”?

In context, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews is combining assurance with admonition.  The full verse reads, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and Godly fear.”  The full truth of this passage is beyond my comprehension, but the writer seems to be telling us that a key to serving God acceptably is realizing where our identity is grounded and where our hope lies.  You should read these verses in context and decide for yourself how they may apply.  As for me, I’m having a hard time squaring them with the pervasive pragmatism that so many of our leaders seem to have adopted.

I’ll be voting tomorrow, but not for either major candidate.

US-VOTE-CLINTON-TRUMP

FROM DEMAGOGUE TO TYRANT

“Think of your forefathers!  Think of your posterity!”–John Quincy Adams

constitution

” To judge from the conduct of the opposite parties, we shall be led to conclude that they will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their declamations and by the bitterness of their invectives.”

I’ve been thinking about these words from Alexander Hamilton quite a lot this election season.  He was referring to the angry debate over the newly proposed Constitution, but in many ways his description of the political climate in 1787 sounds a lot  like 2016.  Indeed, the quote above, originally published in a New York newspaper over the pseudonym “Publius,” could come straight out of the op-ed section of one of today’s newspapers, except for the fact that columnists can’t use words like “declamation” and “invective” any more and hope to be understood.

In the same essay (which we now remember as Federalist #1), Hamilton went on to sound a word of warning that I also keep thinking about during this bizarre presidential campaign:

. . . a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government.  History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.”

“VOTER ANGER” IN 1776

Angry voters are everywhere these days, apparently.  We’re fed up, put out, put off, irate, furious, and enraged.  Depending on who you ask, voter anger is an irrepressible force welling up from the rank and file of common Americans or a tempest cynically manufactured by calculating politicians, celebrity pundits, and Fox News.  Depending on your perspective, it is popular democracy at its finest or a populist threat to democracy itself.  This much seems clear, however: 2016 will be remembered as the “Year of the Angry Voter.”

So is voter outrage a constructive force or an irrational threat?  My guess is that how we each answer that question will stem more from our personal philosophies and understanding of human nature than from a purported objective assessment of the current political landscape.  I know that that is the case with me.  When I think about today’s angry climate, my mind turns automatically to the New Testament admonition to be “slow to wrath, for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).  I think Scripture teaches that anger can be righteous, but in our fallenness it rarely is.  Is the anger that we feel a righteous wrath against injustice, an expression of our zeal for the Lord and our love for His creation?  Or does it stem from other recesses of the heart?  I can’t say dogmatically, but surely this is the most important question we need to ask about it.

As a historian, I find myself wondering if there’s a careful study that puts voter anger in historical context.  (There may well be; I welcome your recommendations if you know of any.)  It would be interesting to see how 2016 compares in the intensity of voter outrage, and also enlightening to see what concrete results have followed in other times and places marked by strong voter discontent.

As I do every fall, I’m currently teaching a survey of American History up through the Civil War, and it occurs to me that the case can be made that the United States was born in an outburst of indignation.  I say this because my class and I just got finished discussing Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, surely the most influential single work of political propaganda in our history.  Pay no attention to the pamphlet’s title. It was Paine’s anger—not his reasoned argument—that made Common Sense an overnight sensation.

paineThomas Pain (he added the “e” to his name later) only arrived in America in 1774, less than a year before the first blood was shed on Lexington Green to mark the onset of the American Revolutionary War.  Thirty-seven years old, his life to this point had been marked by failure.  The son of a corset-maker in the village of Thetford, England, he had followed in his father’s footsteps, being apprenticed to a stay-maker at age thirteen and spending the next twelve years of his life making whalebone ribbing for women’s corsets.  Dissatisfied with this life (wonder why?), at age twenty-five he left his skilled craft to become, at various times, a tax collector, a schoolteacher, and the proprietor of a tobacco shop.  By 1774, his business was bankrupt, he was separated from his wife, and his life was in shambles.  With a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin, he set sail for the colonies to start life anew as a writer for the Pennsylvania Magazine.

If prominent Founders John Witherspoon and Benjamin Rush are to be trusted, Paine’s first anonymous essays actually condemned the patriot cause.  Even if untrue—it’s hard to know for sure—it is undeniable that Paine was an extremely recent convert to the cause when Rush convinced him in late 1775 to use his considerable writing talents to craft a case for independence.  Paine responded with a medium length pamphlet (in my edition it’s about fifty pages long) that was rushed into print by January of 1776.  To put this in context, the battles of Lexington and Concord had occurred the previous April, followed three months later by the Battle of Bunker Hill.  Despite the reality of open war against British rule, popular opinion across the colonies was still divided, and although there were no opinion polls, it seems likely that a decided majority of Americans still hoped for a compromise in which the colonies would be granted greater autonomy over local affairs but remain part of the British Empire as loyal subjects of George III.

Sentiment had begun to change even as Paine sat down to write.  News arrived in the colonies that George III had rejected a petition from the Second Continental Congress pleading for reconciliation and had branded the colonists “rebels.”  News followed soon afterward that the King had hired German mercenaries and intended to use them to subdue American resistance militarily.  Then came reports from within the colonies that the governor of Virginia was actually inviting the slaves of disloyal masters to join the British Army and was offering them freedom in exchange for their aid in subduing their former owners.  Although even now few dared to call openly for independence, the moderate argument for reconciliation was becoming more and more difficult to sustain.

This was the setting when the first copies of Common Sense hit the streets at sixpence each.  Within three months 120,000 copies were in circulation, and the number of colonists who actually read the pamphlet (or heard it read) was far larger.  A rough estimate would be that by April 1776 one half of all the households in the colonies had a copy.  For a comparable sensation, imagine a book released today selling forty million copies by Christmas!

common-sense

Paine’s case for independence was scattered—an “everything but the kitchen sink” kind of argument.  He told readers that government was at best a necessary evil, and he appealed to natural law, Scripture, history, and self-interest to convince his readers that further allegiance to Britain was preposterous.  The most coherent portions of his argument were hardly new; the parts of his argument that were new were hardly coherent.  He argued, for example, that there was not a single benefit to membership in the British Empire, despite extensive evidence to the contrary.  He borrowed selectively from Scripture to argue that ancient Israel had been a republic and that the Lord condemned all monarchy.  (When John Adams privately told Paine that his reasoning from the Old Testament was “ridiculous,” Paine only laughed and made clear that he held the entire Bible in contempt.)

No, it was not Paine’s reason that made Common Sense a sensation.  Two other factors were paramount.  The first was the work’s accessibility.  Most of the political literature of the period was written for a highly educated audience of elites, complete with historical references, literary allusions, and Latin quotations.  Paine’s work was short, full of short sentences and short words that sent no one to the dictionary.

The second factor was the author’s rage, which seems to have resonated powerfully with the mass of Americans.  For its day, the language of Common Sense was coarse and shocking.  Here are some examples:

* The judgment of those who venerated the British constitutional system rendered them unqualified to speak to the present debate in the same way that “a man, who is attached to a prostitute, is unfitted to choose or judge of a wife.”

* On hereditary monarchy: “One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion.”

* On William the Conqueror and the origins of the British monarchy: “A French bastard landing with an armed banditti, and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original.”

* On George III: “a royal brute,” a “wretch” with “blood upon his soul” who wields “barbarous and hellish power” against his supposed children.

But Paine saved his greatest invective for the colonists who dared to disagree with him.  His ad hominem attacks began with the pamphlet’s title: the argument for independence was “common sense,” which meant that all who argued otherwise were either malevolent or stupid.  In Paine’s accounting, no one opposed independence for principled reasons.  They were either “interested men, who cannot be trusted; weak men, who cannot see; [or] prejudiced men, who will not see.”   Warming to his task, Paine told Americans that anyone who would favor reconciliation with Britain after blood had been shed had “the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant.”  (Look up that last adjective.  It’s not a compliment.)

John Adams described Common Sense as a “poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted crapulous mass."

John Adams described Common Sense as a “poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted crapulous mass.”

Although they readily acknowledged Paine’s polemical skills, few of the men we now revere as “Founding Fathers” thought highly of the writer.  Rumors circulated from the beginning that his personal habits were dissolute and that he rarely wrote until his third tumbler of brandy.  His supporters got him a position as a clerk to the committee on foreign affairs but he was soon dismissed due to his “obnoxious” manners.  When he sailed for France in 1781, Benjamin Franklin’s daughter wrote from Philadelphia that “there never was a man less beloved in a place than Payne [sic] is in this, having at different times disputed with everybody.  The most rational thing he could have done would have been to have died the instant he had finished his Common Sense, for he never again will have it in his power to leave the World with so much credit.”

Paine further alienated his adopted country when he denounced Christianity in his 1794 work The Age of Reason.  Writing mostly from a French prison—Paine was variously in and out of favor in France during the French Revolution—Paine judged Christianity as “too absurd for belief.”  “Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented,” he opined, “there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself, than this thing called Christianity.”

washington-stuart-1797

Writing from France in 1796, Thomas Paine publicly denounced President George Washington for his “ingratitude” and “hypocrisy.”

And when President George Washington didn’t act aggressively enough to try to get him released from his French dungeon, Paine further offended Americans by writing a lengthy (64-page) public letter to Washington berating the Father of their Country for his “deceit,” “ingratitude,” “hypocrisy,” “meanness,” “vanity,” “perfidy,” and “pusillanimity,” among other character qualities.  Americans had won their independence through no thanks to General Washington, Paine informed the president, for you “slept away your time in the field till the finances of the country were completely exhausted,” and deserve “but little share in the glory of the final event.”  “And as to you, sir,” Paine concluded, “treacherous in private friendship . . . and a hypocrite in public life, the world will be puzzled to decide, whether you are an apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any?”

Having denounced both Jesus and George Washington, Paine was now heartily despised by most Americans, to the degree that they remembered him at all.  He eventually returned to the United States in the early 1800s—he had nowhere else to go—and eventually settled on a modest farm in New Rochelle, New York.  There he lived in relative obscurity until his death in 1809.  Most Americans now viewed him as a scoundrel and a self-promoter who turned on those who failed to support him.  The author of the most popular political tract ever written in American history was laid to rest with no fanfare, and little mourning.

“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.

CHARITY AND CIVILITY IN A POLITICAL SPEECH?! AN EXAMPLE FROM ABRAHAM LINCOLN

Lincoln in the late 1850s

Lincoln in the late 1850s

I’ve been making my way slowly through the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln this summer, and yesterday I re-read a speech that I’ve known for years, only this time I read it against the backdrop of this year’s interminable presidential campaign and the schoolyard name-calling that passes for serious political debate in 2016.  The speech is what is known as Lincoln’s “Cooper Union Address,” a talk that he made at a prominent lecture hall in New York City in February 1860, four months before the Illinois Republican received his party’s nomination for president.

As a historian, I am reflexively suspicious of supposed “golden ages” in the past, and when talking heads look solemnly into the camera and lament how far we have fallen from the civil discourse of past eras, I instinctively groan.  And yet, as I re-read Lincoln’s speech—a speech that introduced Lincoln to eastern audiences and transformed him into a serious contender for the presidency—I was repeatedly struck by the charity, humility, and civility that permeated it.  Here are just two examples:

First, in speaking figuratively to white Southerners (there were few, if any, in the audience), Lincoln began with this acknowledgement: “I consider that in the general qualities of reason and justice you are not inferior to any people.”  This echoed a familiar refrain in Lincoln’s speeches of the late 1850s, as he repeatedly, pointedly refused to characterize the southerners who vilified the Republican Party as either malevolent or misinformed.

“I have constantly declared, as I really believed,” Lincoln told an Illinois audience in October 1858, that “the only difference between them [the white South] and us, is the difference of circumstances.”  In an 1859 speech in Dayton, Ohio, Lincoln again used the rhetorical device of addressing the South with this promise: “We mean to remember that you [Southerners] are as good as we; that there is no difference between us other than the difference of circumstances.  We mean to recognize and bear in mind always that you have as good hearts in your bosoms as other people, or as we claim to have.”

Almost no southerners heard these disclaimers, as Lincoln surely understood, but in making them, he was indirectly admonishing his northern followers to avoid self-righteousness.  Lincoln was not arguing the moral equivalence of the two political factions.  He made no bones about his belief that slavery was a “moral, social, and political wrong,” but he simultaneously refused to portray antislavery advocates as morally superior to slavery’s defenders.

Second, in speaking to northern Republicans, Lincoln imparted this advice:

It is exceedingly desirable that all parts of this great Confederacy shall be at peace, and in harmony, with one another.  Let us Republicans do our part to have it so.  Even though much provoked, let us do nothing through passion and ill temper.  Even though the southern people will not so much as listen to us, let us calmly consider their demands, and yield to them if, in our deliberate view of our duty, we possibly can.

The current Republican nominee claims to admire Lincoln, explaining to Bob Woodward that Lincoln “did something that was a very important thing to do, and especially at that time,” whatever that means.  What is more, Trump has touted his ability to be “as presidential” as Lincoln, or nearly so.  Is it possible to imagine the current nominee following Lincoln’s example in either respect?

In fairness to Trump, his caustic, defamatory, polarizing anti-intellectual rhetoric is but an extreme example of the general tenor of partisan debate in our time.  Each party portrays the other as a combination of evil leaders and stupid followers.  What is destroyed in these characterizations is the possibility of what political scientists call “persuasive engagement,” the potential for rational argument in which each side respects the other and can conceive of some sort of compromise in which both sides benefit.

One hundred and fifty-six years ago, Lincoln implored his southern critics to be open to persuasive engagement.  Let the battle be over principles, not personalities, he exhorted them.  Above all, “meet us as if it were possible that something may be said on our side.”  The first step to constructive political dialogue, in other words, is humility, a willingness to acknowledge that no single party has a monopoly on wisdom and virtue.  Not bad advice.

TrumpLincoln

“AMERICA IS GREAT BECAUSE SHE IS GOOD”–CONCLUDING THOUGHTS AND A SOLEMN RECOMMENDATION

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

For the past three weeks I’ve been writing about the best remembered lines from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and I’d like to wrap up the series with a recommendation: I propose an immediate moratorium on the aphorism “America is great because she is good.”  Let’s banish it to the place where tired clichés go to die.  At best it’s a meaningless platitude; at worst, it muddles our thinking about democracy and makes self-righteousness sound profound.  We’re better off without it, and here are five reasons why:

(1) Let’s start with the simplest—Alexis de Tocqueville never wrote these words. (You know this by now if you’ve been following along.)  That doesn’t make the statement itself false, but it does make the quotation spurious.  That won’t stop speechwriters from using it, but the rest of us can at least cry out “Check your sources!” the next time we hear it a political rally.

(2) “America is great because she is good” isn’t only misattributed; it’s also misquoted. The problem isn’t just that somewhere along the line we mistakenly put someone else’s words into Tocqueville’s mouth. We’ve also garbled the lines that we’ve incorrectly ascribed to him.  It seems likely that the quote originated with two English Congregational ministers who visited the U.S. three years after Tocqueville did and also published their impressions.  But the reverends Andrew Reed and James Matheson predicted that “America will be great if America is good,” an assertion that’s much less congratulatory than the one we’ve grown fond of.

I can imagine what some of you are thinking about now: “Relax already!  Stop making mountains out of molehills!   So no one wrote the exact words that we remember.  Big deal.  If the gist is correct—if the underlying observation is true—isn’t that what really matters?”

Perhaps.  But what exactly does the statement “America is great because she is good” mean?  Eric Metaxas, who knows that the quote can’t be found in Democracy in America but still pronounces it “a brilliant summation” of Tocqueville’s analysis, equates it with the belief that “it was the ‘goodness’ of America’s people that made America work.”  But Tocqueville didn’t argue that at all and, with apologies to Metaxas, it is hard to see how anyone who has read Democracy in America carefully and in its entirety could think that he did.  Tocqueville certainly concluded that popular beliefs contributed significantly to the survival of American liberty, but he explicitly denied that Americans were any more virtuous than the masses in France, where liberty was languishing.  He even went so far as to doubt that virtue would ever be common in a democratic society—“self-interest properly understood,” hopefully, but not virtue.  So we’re back to square one: what does it mean to insist that “America is great because she is good”?  This bring me to reason #3:

(3) Taken at face value, the assertion is so vague as to be meaningless. It contains two critical terms that cry out for definition. What does it mean to say that “America is great?”  Do we mean that America is powerful?  Does it have something to do with the unemployment rate or the material standard of living, the nature of our trade agreements or the quality of our airports?  Does it have anything to do with justice, mercy, dignity, or respect?  Is it dependent in any way on the extent of equality or of freedom?

In like manner, what in the world do we mean when we say that “America is good”?  When the rich young ruler addressed Jesus as “good teacher,” Christ corrected him: “No one is good—except God alone” (Mark 10:18).  What exactly are we claiming when we insist that America is “good”?  Obviously, the standard of measurement is not what Jesus had in mind, but what is the standard of measurement, and who gets to decide?

These are questions that every free society should grapple with regularly—in our homes, in our schools, in our churches, and yes, in our endless presidential campaigns.  The claim that “America is great because she is good” could be a useful starting point for that national conversation, but only if we wrestle with it and push back against it.  As it commonly functions, however, “America is great because she is good” doesn’t inspire deeper thought or provoke productive conversation.  It becomes a substitute for thought that ends conversation.  We hear it, cheer, and move on.

That’s the best-case scenario.  What is far scarier is the possibility that we might take the adage seriously and come to believe it.

(4) From the perspective of orthodox Christianity, “America is great because she is good” badly muddles our thinking about democracy. For all their emphasis on the importance of virtue to the survival of the republic, the Framers of the Constitution proceeded from a skeptical view of human nature in erecting the framework of government for the new nation. “What is government itself but the greatest of all commentaries on human nature?” James Madison famously asked in Federalist #51.  “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”  Although the Framers hoped that virtuous leaders would often hold office, they by no means took that for granted.  On the contrary, they assumed that humans were predominantly self-interested (as did Tocqueville).  This meant that unlimited power was always a threat to liberty—whether it was wielded by a king, by elected representatives, or by the people directly—and they instituted a series of checks and balances into the constitutional system to curb that possibility.

The Framers’ skeptical view of human nature was a casualty of the democratic revolution that unfolded during the first half-century of American independence.  The democratic ethos that dominated the American mentality by the 1830s took for granted the unassailable moral authority of the majority.  The conviction that majority rule invariably promotes moral outcomes is nonsensical unless it rests on a positive view of human nature, an unstated assumption that men and women are, at bottom, basically good.

I fear that “America is great because she is good” reinforces this view, a view that flies in the face of orthodox Christian teaching and undermines the very foundation of the gospel and the glory of the Cross.  As Christians, we are free to give our qualified support to democracy, but we must do so for the right reasons.  In his little-remembered essay “Membership,” C. S. Lewis reminds us that the best argument for democracy is not human goodness, but human fallenness.  “There are two opposite reasons” for endorsing democracy, Lewis wrote:

You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice.  That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy.  On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows.  That I believe to be the true ground of democracy.

“America is great because she is good” perpetuates a false doctrine of democracy.

(5) It follows that “America is great because she is good” promotes self-congratulation rather than gratitude. As more than one commentator on this blog has observed, a close reading of Tocqueville’s analysis points more to divine grace than human virtue. In explaining the flourishing of American liberty in the 1830s, Tocqueville credited “a thousand circumstances independent of man’s will,” laws and legal practices inherited from earlier generations, and a range of moral and intellectual habits, including a hefty dose of self-interest.  In place of such complexity, the quote that we so love substitutes a simplistic formula with little room for God’s unmerited favor.  A works-based righteousness is lurking here.  For the Christian, “Lord, I thank you that I am not as other men are” is as unbecoming in politics as in any other arena of discipleship.

Thanks for reading.