By Rudy Barnes, Jr., August 12, 2023
The Constitution defines American democracy. It provides the means for Americans to determine their own political destiny, but it cannot protect Americans from themselves. Paul Harvey once reminded Americans that political rights depend on moral responsibilities. Without altruistic moral standards of political legitimacy, American democracy can become a disaster.
Political legitimacy in a democracy requires national values that promote the common good; and except in wartime America has never had a lasting consensus on its national values. Polarized partisan politics have been common in peacetime from 1800 to 2023; and now as then, religion and politics have been interwoven in America’s standards of political legitimacy.
Christianity in its many forms has shaped American values, and the Founding Fathers anticipated demagogues like Donald Trump. In 1790, Alexander Hamilton noted that “flattering the prejudices of the people and exciting their jealousies and apprehensions” is a sure path to demagoguery in politics; and religious values have been a primary means to that end.
Thomas Jefferson asserted that “the teachings of Jesus were the most sublime moral code ever designed by man,” but neither Hamilton or Jefferson, nor any politician since them, embraced that altruistic moral code. The 1860 Civil War and today’s polarized partisan politics bear witness to that truth. As Lincoln observed, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Today most mainstream churches avoid emphasizing the teachings of Jesus to politics, claiming the Constitutional separation of church and state. The Constitution does not prohibit Christians promoting the moral teachings of Jesus in politics; and to make it worse, the church subordinates the teachings of Jesus to exclusivist Christian beliefs never taught by Jesus.
The moral imperative of the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors of other races and politics as we love ourselves is essential to preserve American democracy. Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln all affirmed the moral imperative to promote the common good. To ignore the painful lessons of history dooms us to repeat them.
History confirms that our religious and civic virtues are interwoven. The church has failed to be a moral steward of American democracy since promoting the common good would likely diminish its popularity. Just as in politics, the church has lost its credibility and legitimacy. An altruistic civil religion is needed to save American democracy from its civic myopia.
Rights in a democracy depend on civic responsibilities that promote the common good and the reconciliation of radical partisan differences. The church has failed to be a moral steward of democracy, but the lessons of history remind us that we must promote the common good and political legitimacy to preserve the fabric of American democracy and our freedom.
Jeffrey Rosenis an authority on the Constitution who has opined that the Founders anticipated Trump. “A key concern of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton was that demagogues would incite mobs and factions to defy the rule of law, overturn free and fair elections and undermine American democracy. When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper…is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity,” Hamilton warned, “he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’”
According to J. Michael Luttig, a former U.S. Court of Appeals judge, “the federal indictment issued against President Trump asserts that he attempted to overturn the results of the 2020 election by conspiring to spread such “convulsions and disorders” through a series of knowing lies. The indictment alleges that soon after election day, Trump “pursued unlawful means of discounting legitimate votes and subverting the election results,” perpetuating three separate criminal conspiracies: to impede the collection and counting of the ballots, Congress’s certification of the results on Jan. 6, 2021, and the right to vote itself. The indictment alleges that all three conspiracies involved a concerted effort by Trump and his co-conspirators to subvert the election results using “knowingly false claims of election fraud.” In particular, Trump allegedly “organized fraudulent slates of electors in seven targeted states”; tried to use “the power and authority of the Justice Department to conduct sham election crime investigations”; tried to enlist Vice President Mike Pence “to fraudulently alter the election results”; and, as violence broke out on Jan. 6, redoubled his efforts to “convince Members of Congress to further delay the certification.” Partisan passions ran high in 1800, as they do today, but American institutions and norms survived, thanks to the self-restraint of the leading institutional players and their commitment to preserving the Union. That institutional self-restraint was shattered in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln ran in 1860 as a defender of the Union and the rule of law against the threat of mob violence. The shared norms and constitutional commitments that had prevailed a generation earlier were not strong enough to avert the disaster of war.
The great question today is which of these historical precedents our leaders and the public will follow. The challenge for Republicans and Democrats alike will be to join in defending the rule of law and to allow the judicial process to take its course. Otherwise, the election of 2024 may turn into a tragic rupture of our institutions, more like 1860 than 1800. At the end of their lives, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who had reconciled in the decade after the explosive election of 1800, were pessimistic about the future of the American experiment. Adams worried that American citizens lacked sufficient civic virtue to sustain the republic, and Jefferson feared that factional clashes over slavery would destroy the Union. Among the Founding generation, only James Madison was moderately optimistic that American institutions would survive. He hoped that public opinion could be educated to overcome the most destructive partisan passions. In our own polarized age, Madison’s optimism now looks quaint. The Founders feared direct democracy and devised a Constitution to tame it, to the frustration of reformers today. They would be astonished by our current political system, with its presidential primary system, nationwide campaigning and ever-more sophisticated media targeting, all of which has given new opportunities to partisan extremists and demagogues.” See https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-founders-anticipated-the-threat-of-trump-becda1b.
Thomas Jefferson considered the teachings of Jesus “the most sublime moral code ever designed by man,” but Jefferson had nothing but contempt for church doctrines and dogma. Alexis DeTocqueville praised Democracy in America when he visited the U.S. in the1830s, and he considered the many variations of Christianity essential to American democracy; but DeTocqueville failed to foresee America’s coming Civil War. On Thomas Jefferson and Alexis deTocqueville and their views on the moral values of religion in American politics, see Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy (July 1, 2017) at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/07/religion-moral-authority-and.html.