By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Religion, freedom and pluralism are hallowed concepts in American democracy, but without altruistic values to define the common good, pluralism can become a toxic form of tribalism. The altruistic common values needed to prevent that toxic mix have been dissipated by the polarized partisan politics that now threaten American democracy.
The Founding Fathers who shaped our Constitution were deists inspired by the reason of the Enlightenment and the universal moral teachings of Jesus. Most Americans claim to be Christians, but the church has caused more division than reconciliation with exclusivist forms of Christianity. The Civil War split the church, and toxic divisions over racism have never healed.
The greatest commandment of Jesus was to love God and our neighbors as we love ourselves, including those of other races and religions; but that altruistic moral imperative has been subordinated to worshiping Jesus rather than following him, and increasingly disparate forms of Christianity indicate little prospect for reconciliation in American Christianity.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 was a reminder that a toxic mix of religion, freedom and partisan polarization is a continuing threat to democracy. The election of 2020 indicated that even without the church a moral reformation is possible, but the future remains uncertain with continued partisan polarization and the lack of any unifying altruistic values.
Republican demands for the unrestricted freedom to ignore masking requirements and COVID vaccinations during the pandemic conflict with the requirements of public health; and Republican opposition to immigration and refugee resettlement have created toxic political issues that have escalated partisan divisions to dangerous levels.
Democrats have countered the radical right demands of Republicans with radical left demands for massive social spending on top of a budget deficit of $3 Trillion and a national debt that exceeds $28 Trillion. The American economy is at risk, and even more rancorous partisan polarization can be expected when campaigning for the 2022 elections begins.
Only existential threats like World War II or 9/11 have ever produced unity in America, and that unity never survived a diminished threat. From WWII until 1989 the threat was Soviet communism, and after 9/11 it was Islamist terrorism, and both threats waned over time. Islamist terrorism has been revived with the return of the Taliban, but not to the level of 9/11.
The return of the Taliban to power has increased the threat of Islamist terrorism, but the greatest threat to American democracy is from within. Religion, unrestricted freedom and pluralism can become a toxic mix that undermines American democracy with tribalism, unless partisan polarization can be reconciled with altruistic values that promote the common good.
Max Boot has blamed the Founders for America’s toxic politics. I agree with Boot’s concern for our political ills, but disagree with his view that the Founders are to blame. That’s a copout; it’s the voters who are to blame. The Constitution properly allows the states to retain limited sovereignty and limited powers with the electoral college and two senators from each state, no matter what their population; and the Constitution left all powers not delegated to the federal government to the states. The US is not a pure democracy. If it were, US politics would be controlled by New York, California, and Texas, and we would still be polarized by partisan politics. Max Boot is wrong to blame America’s problems on the Constitution. America fought a terrible Civil War to preserve its democracy as described in the Constitution, and voters are responsible for maintaining it, or amending it as the Founders provided in the Constitution. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/09/14/why-cant-our-political-system-address-our-biggest-problems-blame-founders/?utm_.