By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
The problem with America is not Donald Trump. He is only evidence of the problem. The real problem with America is that so many Americans support Trump. To avoid a disaster for our democracy, Americans must reject the politics of suspicion, divisiveness, anger, vulgarity and moral depravity that are exemplified by Trump and embrace a politics of reconciliation.
For American democracy to continue to be a beacon of light for the rest of the world it must reject Trump’s vulgar demagoguery and be reconciled to a communal vision based on the greatest commandmentto love God and our neighbors as we love ourselves, with the understanding that our neighbors include those of other races and religions.
On November 8, Americans will go to the polls. It will be the only poll that counts for the next four years. The prospect that Trump can gain the support of a majority of Americans in November is terrifying to those who support a progressive democracy that honors traditional values. Andrew Sullivan has described the Trump phenomenon as “…precisely what the Founders feared about democratic culture: feeling, emotion, and narcissism, rather than reason, empiricism, and public spiritedness.” (see the URL for the Sullivan article in Notes below)
Sullivan believes that elites can save democracy from the likes of Trump, but the health of our democracy ultimately depends upon ordinary citizens rejecting demagoguery with a broad-based standard of moral legitimacy sustained by faith. That is where the greatest commandment comes in as a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. For secular humanists, that moral imperative is expressed in Kant’s categorical imperative.
The ugliness of human depravity and political divisiveness of the current political season has underscored the need for political reconciliation based on a sound moral foundation. Better education and economic reform are continuing needs, but they are not the root cause of our problems in America, or of the religious hate and violence that has prevented libertarian democracy in Islamic cultures and that now threatens the rest of the world. Only reconciliation based on the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors can save us from ourselves.
Plato, Edmund Burke and other notables have warned us of the dangers of democracy. Plato recommended a philosopher king over self-rule, and Burke warned Americans that in a democracy we forge our own shackles. Perhaps Walt Kelly’s Pogo the Possum said it best when he observed, We have met the enemy and it is us. It was an acknowledgment of the human depravity that threatens any democracy that gives everyone the right to vote.
Despite the reservations of Plato and Burke, democracy is still the best alternative for governance when it is coupled with human rights and the secular rule of law. But a healthy democracy requires that its politics are based on sound moral principles, even if there are major differences on how to apply those moral principles to political issues. Such differences require the freedoms of religion and speech and a modicum of manners to sustain lively public dialogue on religious and political issues.
One of the biggest challenges for American democracy is to balance our individual rights with the collective obligation to provide for the common good. Providing equal justice under law, the national defense, domestic law enforcement and public welfare are all essential to the common good and require coercive taxes to pay for them, and those taxes, laws and government regulations are necessary constraints on individual freedom.
America’s democracy has depended on a strong middle class, and its strength has been based on free enterprise. The middle class is now in decline, the victim of the unrestrained greed of big business. Capitalism is a particularly challenging conundrum for libertarian democracy since it is motivated by personal ambition, selfishness and greed. Because big business and banks exploit the public for profit, they require government regulation; but regulations that discourage free enterprise hurt the common good. Therein lies a daunting moral dilemma.
America the Beautiful is a great hymn of faith that celebrates the goodness of American democracy and the need for political reconciliation to …crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea. Christians have a special responsibility to resist the demagoguery of Donald Trump since evangelical Christians supported him in the GOP primaries. To preserve American democracy from dangerous divisiveness and demagoguery we need to balance our individual rights with promoting the common good. That means making the greatest commandment the moral common ground on which we reconcile the divisive nature of our politics.
Religion is the primary source of our standards of legitimacy, which include moral and legal standards. Religious rules cannot be made law without violating human rights, which is evident in Islamic cultures where apostasy and blasphemy laws violate the freedoms of religion and speech. Americans have been reluctant to even discuss mixing their religion and politics, but to prevent the corruption of their democracy they must embrace the moral imperative of the greatest commandment as common ground for political reconciliation. It allows people of faith to relate their religion to their politics in a positive way that respects their many differences.
Notes and References to Previous Blogs on Related Topics:
Previous blogs on related topics are: Religion and Reason, December 8, 2015; Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Love Over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, January 18, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, February 22, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, The Kingdom of God, Politics and the Church, March 15, 2015; May 10, 2015; Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, April 12, 2015; Liberation from Economic Oppression, May 31, 2015; Freedom and Fundamentalism, August 2, 2015; Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities, August 9, 2015; How Religious Fundamentalism and Secularism Shape Politics and Human Rights, August 16, 2015; Politics and Religious Polarization, September 20, 2015; Who Is My Neighbor?, January 23, 2016; The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves, January 30, 2016; The American Religion and Politics in 2016, March 5, 2016; and Religion, Race and the Deterioration of Democracy in America, March 12, 2016; Religion, Democracy, and Human Depravity, March 19, 2016; Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery, March 26, 2016; and The Relevance of Religion to Politics, April 30, 2016.
Andrew Sullivan describes the Trump phenomenon as “…precisely what the Founders feared about democratic culture: feeling, emotion, and narcissism, rather than reason, empiricism, and public spiritedness.” See http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/04/america-tyranny-donald-trump.html#.
The categorical imperative of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant is a deontological ethical theory developed as a result of Enlightenment rationalism. It is based on the view that the only intrinsically good thing is a good will, and that an action can only be good if the principle behind it is duty to the moral law. Kant’s moral law acts on all people, regardless of their interests or desires. It requires that for an action to be permissible, it must apply it to all people without a contradiction occurring. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kantian_ethics.
Kathleen Parker has noted the moral deficiencies of democracy articulated by Plato and exploited by Trump at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/plato-would-have-predicted--and-been-horrified-by--trumps-rise/2016/04/26/3805cb80-0bec-11e6-a6b6-2e6de3695b0e_story.html.
On Why Christians are “Called to Resist” Donald Trump, see http://religionnews.com/2016/05/01/christian-resistance-donald-trump/.
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