It’s been a sad day for American democracy. Our republic will survive but it has been uniquely wounded by the nation’s elected chief magistrate, as none of his predecessors across 230 years would have ever considered.
America has endured riots, upheavals, even Civil War, but none ever were stoked from the country’s highest office.
Providence was founded to espouse Christian Realism, to defend the American democratic project, to affirm the imperative of democratic American influence in the world as a force against disorder and tyranny. We broadly based our publication on Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christianity & Crisis magazine founded in 1941 to summon American Protestants to confront the Axis Powers in defense of North Atlantic democracy. Providence summons Christians of today to be responsible stewards of American democracy and global power.
America’s strength in the world is not just its wealth or its culture but its republic based on timeless ideals about human dignity and rights. This republic requires freedom of speech for all. It requires restraint after political victories and patience after defeats. It requires love of nation and its people, however grudging. It requires respect for opponents. It requires respect for open debate and for the search of truth. It rejects fanaticisms, conspiracy theories, and personality cults.
Here’s where Christian Realism comes in. All are sinful. That’s bad news and good news. We cannot build and complete the Kingdom of God on this earth. Only God will complete that project on His schedule. There will be on this side of the eschaton frequent conflict, tragedy, and great evils.
The better news is that because of human fallenness, with natures and capacities finite and frail, we are limited in the evils we can accomplish. That’s why nearly all conspiracy theories are hokum. We also are all equal in our intrinsic sinfulness. None of us is naturally better than any other, hence we affirm and seek human equality in law and custom. Our fallen natures make democracy imperative. Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous quote is: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
Everybody has intrinsic dignity because they carry God’s image. But no one can be trusted completely, especially with political power. Governments must be constrained by interlocking balances recognizing that individuals and factions will pursue their own interests. But the spirit of God in man can also inspire lofty projects that sometimes surmount the worst instincts in humanity. America’s carefully calibrated constitutional democracy, as part of the wider Anglo-American political tradition, brilliantly understands the limits and possibilities of human nature. And so our democracy has prospered more than any other human society.
Constitutional democracy requires losing elections. It requires “loyal” opposition when defeated, with the loyalty attached to the republic and its laws. Democracy requires a consensus that election results will be respected. Today’s defeat is potentially only a preamble to tomorrow’s win. But the republic and its laws continue, in a responsible democracy.
It’s unfashionable to admire America’s past presidents right now because they naturally did not conform to today’s expectations. They were all fellow frail sinners. Some had less character than others. Others were less competent than others. But all of them until of late generally upheld America’s democratic expectations. None ever considered disregarding an election result. All left office peacefully. Besides Andrew Johnson, with whom Ulysses Grant would not share a carriage, all but John Adams and his son attended the ceremonies of their successors, however despised. (And Adams eventually and famously reconciled with his successor in one of the great chapters of our nation’s history.)
The American presidency includes important rites and rituals that pay homage to our democracy. Maybe some presidents cheated and prevaricated in private. But all until of late did pay public homage, in most cases sincerely, to our Constitution and our highest ideals. In this regard, America has been uniquely blessed.
But America’s Founders, themselves Christian Realists of sorts, were not naïve and expected demagogues and charlatans to seek political office. The Constitution was built to constrain the harm they may do. Maybe the specific charlatan they had in mind as a threat was their colleague Aaron Burr, later unsuccessfully charged with treason. He had skill, charm and ambition, unrestrained by character or morals. Fortunately, he went no higher than the vice presidency.
It has been advocated in recent years that personal character is subordinate to good policy. There may be some truth there, in that everybody has flawed character. But good policy in a democracy ultimately becomes impossible if the chief magistrate or other office holders do not esteem our democratic principles and our Constitution. At their worst, some American statesmen have sometimes disdained our democracy in private. But at least in public their rhetoric usually conformed to American principles.
To openly disdain democracy and the Constitution, to reject an election result, to promote vast conspiracy theories that only the most gullible will believe and the most cynical will exploit, to advocate disruption with the predictable result of violence, is unprecedented in America’s national government. The U.S. Capitol has not been violated since the British invasion of 1814, when Admiral Cockburn exclaimed: ‘Shall this harbor of Yankee democracy be burned?” At least the British were serving their country. Today’s invasion by lawless ostensible American “patriots” is far worse.
Versions of today’s lawlessness have occurred locally, such as in the post Civil War south. But as a national event, we have just experienced a jarring new experience in the long history of the American republic.
This unwelcome new experience should not discourage or deter our commitment to American democracy. It is an opportunity to defend and renew it. Every crisis for nations, as for individuals, offers the opportunity, if handled maturely and courageously, to grow in strength, wisdom and, yes, perhaps even holiness.
Are we a nation of laws and not of mere men? Do we have the patience and maturity to navigate debate, disagreement, and electoral defeat? Can we admit that all of us have failed as Americans in some sense? And can we extend grace and mercy to opponents as we expect it for ourselves? Can we advocate our own beliefs without making war on opponents? Or shall we demonize others without seeing the devil in ourselves, “our side,” or our cherished political objectives?
What has befallen us, we should consider, is a form of divine judgment. We have been cavalier about our democracy. We have exploited its countless blessings, purchased by the sacrifice of millions across centuries, without ourselves sacrificing for it. Instead, we have been impatient, and we have faulted others for failures without recognizing our own complicity.
God judges nations as He judges individuals. Nations don’t have eternal souls like persons, but as human communities they are living organisms that God loves and hopes will prosper. He’s merciful, but there are limits.
America may yet recover and anticipate its greatest accomplishments in decades and centuries ahead. Maybe the robust reaction to today’s events will shine forever in the annals of national renown. Maybe all of us ultimately will realize we were honored to have lived in these times for the epic opportunity to be tested and to prevail. Maybe we will yet showcase the best of our democracy to the benefit of all humanity.
The choice is before all Americans. Shall our democracy prevail and thrive? Or will it diminish through indifference and venality? The whole world is watching. So is God, who will help us, if we ask.