Saturday, July 23, 2016

"A Republic, if you can keep it"

Recently I have found myself moving in a different direction politically, but hopefully doing so more wisely than when I was younger. Like many people, I was raised to believe that the United States of America is exceptional, meaning that I believed our country was divinely founded and given a divine mission in history directly from God. I even believed that our constitution was divinely inspired. To state what I believe now in equally simple terms, while I don't believe our constitution is a divinely inspired document, or that the founding of the United States was in any way the equivalent of God choosing Israel- think of the ecclesiological implications of such a belief!- I think the United States was founded on fairly sound principles and, in the context of the times, the founding of our country was quite exceptional.

According to the diary of Dr. James McHenry, a delegate from Maryland to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Ben Franklin was asked upon leaving Independence Hall on the last day of deliberations, "Well, Doctor, what have we got - a Republic or Monarchy?" To which Franklin replied, "A Republic, if you can keep it." Franklin's words are the title of Eric Metaxas latest book: If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty. It's a book I haven't read and one that I am not sure I will read. I do plan to read Dr. Joseph Loconte's God, Locke, and Liberty: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West.

The form of liberal democracy that constitutes the United States of America is not without its downsides and weaknesses, many of which, along with certain strengths, were well-chronicled by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th century in his Democracy in America. There is a lot involved with keeping our Republic. I agree, however, with those who assert that losing it is a very real possibility, which is one more proof against attributing to the establishment of our nation more providence than it is due.

Liberal democracy is the result of historical developments in the West from which it is difficult, probably impossible, to turn back. As unrealistic as turning back is, some think it is desirable to do so. I have flirted with some of those notions, but I don't think it's even desirable to turn back, especially not to monarchy, which seems to be the rage among a certain subset of Orthodox and Catholic Christians. Christ is King, I grasp that reality. Of the two strands of thought pertaining to the monarchy in the Old Testament, which contrast can be most clearly seen by reading 1-2 Kings along with 1-2 Samuel in contrast to 1-2 Chronicles, I go with the Israelites being lambasted by the prophet Saul for wanting a king other than God, after the order of the surrounding nations (see 1 Samuel 8). It's the clear that the United States, which was the result of the historical developments previously invoked, was not established after the manner of post-conquest/pre-monarchic, tribal Israel.

So, for better and worse, it's the system we have and, as a citizen, making it work is something to which I feel I need to commit myself. The first way I commit myself to it is by adhering to what St. Paul encouraged members of the early Church to do, which was echoed by St. Justin in his First Apology, namely being a good citizen by striving to be a good Christian. This by no means requires me to water down what it means to follow Christ. I know it is almost always problematic to assert a consensus among a diverse group of people, but I think I am safe in asserting that the consensus among the founders of the United States of America was that keeping our republic requires a virtuous, educated, actively involved, not to mention religious citizenry.

Ben Franklin


Given how our government in the United States is formed and how it has evolved, being involved in politics in a meaningful way likely means party involvement, which is not to say that everyone must join a party. For example, as a member of the clergy, while I may lean one way or the other, avoiding partisan politics is something I am bound to do and for good reason, namely the unity of the Church. But even if you're going to vote, you'll likely vote for a member of one party or another, even if it's a third party. I think our republic would be enhanced by having a multi-party, instead of our current two-party, system.

I also believe we need engage more in local politics: municipal, county, state, even our neighborhood associations. We have a lot more discretion over our affairs than most people realize. These can perhaps be best described as liberties we're usually content to leave on the table. Instead, we choose to focus almost exclusively on national and international politics. I believe there is a very non-revolutionary way for citizens to take our country back. Right now, the most urgent matter for the Church is ensuring the full guarantee of religious liberty in the face of what I can only describe as a major assault across several fronts.

One of the keys to Christian involvement in political parties is by keeping the main thing the main thing. To state the matter inelegantly, in politics, the main thing is people. Hence, when party politics begin to depart from the fundamental basis of any political engagement for a Catholic: the inherent and ineradicable dignity of every human being, the Christian must challenge this. This allows us to have principled discussions about the common good, essentially seeking most, if not all, the same ends but perhaps differing when it comes to means, which can lead to principled compromise. I think both major parties need serious Catholic involvement, not the half-hearted, vote-seeking pandering we usually see from politicians. This election year is no different and both parties do it. How do we defend against this? By being wise as serpents and gentle as lambs. This is why, rather than telling us for whom we should vote, our Catholic bishops in the U.S. seek to form our consciences so that we can make good judgments for ourselves when voting. While it may pain me to say it, Ted Cruz was correct, you should vote your conscience. You should also seek to form your conscience. One book I would suggest that I've found useful is Daniel Schwindt's The Papist's Guide to America.

This also means presupposing that politics are provisional, not ultimate. As Christians, our home is the Church, from which we're sent out at the beginning of each week to glorify the Lord by our lives. At end of the day the most convincing evidence that the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ is how much it transforms those of us who partake of it into the Body of Christ as made manifest by how we live. People of good faith can debate whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation. I tend to think not, at least not in any explicit sense. I do think our constitutional order depends on holding a transcendent view of human person, even if it is nebulously conceived. If Christians in the early centuries could live and thrive in an often hostile empire, how much more can we do so in our milieu?

I'll count this as my missing Fourth of July post.

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