Category Archives: democracy
Announcing My Forthcoming Book: Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church (Cambridge University Press)
I’m excited to announce that my book, Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church: Christ’s Two Kingdoms, will final be released next month. You can pre-order it at amazon.com, though it may currently be less expensive if you purchase directly through Cambridge University Press. The book is part of Cambridge’s series of titles on Law and Christianity, edited by John Witte, Jr.
I’m grateful for the following endorsements from scholars who I greatly admire:
Nicholas Wolterstorff – Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology, Yale University:
It’s a superb piece of work, an important contribution and lucidly written. My guess is that this will become the gold standard in the field. Tuininga’s line of interpretation will be much discussed.
Barbara Pitkin – Religious Studies Senior Lecturer, Stanford University, and President of the Calvin Studies Society:
This is an outstanding piece of intellectual-historical scholarship. It will appeal to historians of medieval and early modern political thought regardless of their personal faith or political commitments.
Michael Horton – J. G. Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, Westminster Seminary California:
Lionized as a founder of modern liberalism and demonized as ‘the tyrant of Geneva,’ Calvin has been used more than understood. Placing the reformer in his own context, Tuininga exegetes primary sources while challenging anachronistic stereotypes. In the process, we meet a complex figure who offers important and relevant insights for Christian political reflection, even in – perhaps ironically, especially in – a secular age very different from his own.
David Little – Berkley Center of Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, Georgetown University, Washington, DC:
Tuininga’s account of Calvin’s thought is original, lucid, well-informed, and timely. It is based on a firm grasp of the primary materials, a comprehensive familiarity with the relevant scholarship, and a challenging interpretation of Calvin’s political theology with important contemporary relevance.
Elsie McKee – Archibald Alexander Professor of Reformation Studies and the History of Worship, Princeton Theological Seminary:
Tuininga’s thoughtful and cogent examination of Calvin’s two kingdom doctrine turns on one of the perceptive distinctions which make the reformer’s thought such a complex yet coherent expression of Biblical commitment joined with practical intelligence. Tuininga appropriately points to the often neglected eschatological dimension of Calvin’s thought to ground the way the reformer clearly distinguishes ecclesiastical and civil while also clearly affirming that Christ is Lord of both – ruling each in specific and distinct ways. The study focuses on the development of the teaching in its historical and religious context, providing a well-organized exposition of the interplay of scriptural exegesis with Calvin’s affirmation of the gift of natural law in the human realm. Tuininga then draws some very timely conclusions about the resources Calvin’s theology can offer for faithful Christian engagement in the modern pluralist world.
John L. Thompson – Professor of Historical Theology and Gaylen and Susan Byker Professor of Reformed Theology, Fuller Theological Seminary:
Tuininga’s book is exemplary and informative not only for its rich display of Calvin’s own thought but also for its serious engagement with the most important political theologians of our own day. His painstaking examination of Calvin exposes many longstanding generalizations and replaces them with a Calvin who is at once more nuanced, more contextualized, and even more compatible with political liberalism than usually supposed — a Calvin who displays remarkable currency for us today, especially when we see the poignancy and depth of Calvin’s concern for refugees and the poor.
David VanDrunen – Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics, Westminster Seminary California:
Tuininga provides a clear and thorough account of John Calvin’s doctrine of the two kingdoms, a topic much in need of such a study. The author’s careful reading of Calvin’s texts and thoughtful consideration of his context makes this a landmark work amidst the ample literature on the Genevan Reformer’s political thought. As much as this book contributes to our understanding of Calvin as a historical figure, however, its most important contribution may be its argument that Calvin’s two-kingdoms doctrine provides theological reason for contemporary Christians to support liberal democracy, at a time when many inside and outside the church question its viability. Christians who wish to think deeply about their political identity and responsibilities will find this a richly rewarding work.
And, finally, here is a brief description of the book:
In Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church, Matthew J. Tuininga explores a little appreciated dimension of John Calvin’s political thought, his two kingdoms theology, as a model for constructive Christian participation in liberal society. Widely misunderstood as a proto-political culture warrior, due in part to his often misinterpreted role in controversies over predestination and the heretic Servetus, Calvin articulated a thoughtful approach to public life rooted in his understanding of the gospel and its teaching concerning the kingdom of God. He staked his ministry in Geneva on his commitment to keeping the church distinct from the state, abandoning simplistic approaches that placed one above the other, while rejecting the temptations of sectarianism or separatism. This revealing analysis of Calvin’s vision offers timely guidance for Christians seeking a mode of faithful, respectful public engagement in democratic, pluralistic communities today.
If I might say it myself, this book would make a perfect Valentine’s Day gift for that special person near and dear to your heart. It might not seem like the most romantic gift, but I assure you, it is. We are living in the era of Donald Trump, after all.
Not persuaded? Here is the scintillating Table of Contents:
- Two Swords, Two Powers, or Two Kingdoms: Spiritual and Political Authority in Early Modern Europe
- Calvin, Geneva, and the French Reformed Churches
- The Kingdom of Christ
- Two Kingdoms
- Christ’s Spiritual Government
- Christ’s Political Government: Early Formulations
- Covenant and Law
- The Magistrate’s Care of Religion
- Law, Democracy, and Resistance to Tyranny
- Conclusion: Calvin’s Two Kingdoms and Liberal Democracy
Pope Francis’s visit to the United States has reminded Americans of the vital and positive role of religion in a healthy democratic polity. While pundits speculate on whether or not the pope’s visit will have any practical effect on politics, I remain hopeful that his words will do something to challenge the myth – popular among secularist liberals – that liberal democracy can survive without its religious foundation.
This is important because in a time when the numbers of the religiously unaffiliated (the “nones”) are surging, fewer and fewer people grasp just how theological are the origins and foundations of political liberalism. My politics students are always surprised to learn how central religion was to the political commitments and conduct of America’s founding generation, not to mention its pervasive role in federal and state governments throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The pope touched on liberalism’s dependence on religion early in his speech to Congress. Invoking Moses as both jurist and prophet, he declared to the representatives that “the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”
Echoing a speech by President Obama several months ago, he acknowledged that religion is often used for evil, but insisted that in America religion has typically served to strengthen society by encouraging fraternity and love. Thus he called Americans to act according to the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This rule, he argued, is the basis for human compassion for “human life at every stage of its development.”
Francis’s speech to the United Nations was even more pointed. While praising the UN for its role in promoting international law and human rights, he reminded his international audience that human rights depend on sanctity given each human being by God. The right to life provides the foundation for “pillars of integral human development” that are “essential material and spiritual goods: housing, dignified and properly remunerated employment, adequate food and drinking water; religious freedom and, more generally, spiritual freedom and education.”
There is, he claimed, “a moral law written into human nature” that demands “absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions.” Thus, he warned,
Without the recognition of certain incontestable natural ethical limits and without the immediate implementation of those pillars of integral human development, the ideal of ‘saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war’ (Charter of the United Nations, Preamble), and ‘promoting social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom’ (ibid.), risks becoming an unattainable illusion, or, even worse, idle chatter which serves as a cover for all kinds of abuse and corruption, or for carrying out an ideological colonization by the imposition of anomalous models and lifestyles which are alien to people’s identity and, in the end, irresponsible.
The pope was partly thinking about what nature teaches about the differences between men and women here, but he was also talking about the importance of protecting the environment.
[E]very creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures. We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it.
Thus it is a “certain sacredness of created nature” that calls modernity to embrace a “higher degree of wisdom, one which accepts transcendence, rejects the creation of an all-powerful elite, and recognizes that the full meaning of individual and collective life is found in selfless service to others and in the sage and respectful use of creation for the common good.”
Finally, returning to his American audience at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pope Francis invoked the truth of the Declaration of Independence that “all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that governments exist to protect and defend those rights.”
Yet rather than allow his hearers any sort of complacency about the rights to which liberalism is committed, the pope reminded Americans that “these or any truths must constantly be reaffirmed, re-appropriated and defended.” This led him to focus his speech on a right that has been much derided in recent years in this country, the right to religious freedom.
Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families. Religious freedom isn’t a subculture, it’s a part of every people and nation.
Our various religious traditions serve society primarily by the message they proclaim. They call individuals and communities to worship God, the source of all life, liberty and happiness. They remind us of the transcendent dimension of human existence and our irreducible freedom in the face of every claim to absolute power. We need but look at history, especially the history of the last century, to see the atrocities perpetrated by systems which claimed to build one or another ‘earthly paradise’ by dominating peoples, subjecting them to apparently indisputable principles and denying them any kind of rights… They call to conversion, reconciliation, concern for the future of society, self-sacrifice in the service of the common good, and compassion for those in need. At the heart of their spiritual mission is the proclamation of the truth and dignity of the human person and human rights.
To be sure, just as the state is responsible to protect the rights of religion, so believers are responsible to ensure that religion promotes the rights of others, “to make clear that it is possible to build a society where ‘a healthy pluralism which respects differences and values them as such’ is a ‘precious ally in the commitment to defending human dignity … and a path to peace in our troubled world.'”
These are salutary words indeed, much needed in the polarized world of contemporary American politics. Though I wish the pope had been more explicit about the way in which his convictions are rooted in the Gospel, his visit should remind all Americans, secular and religious alike, that, properly understood, Christianity and political liberalism are not enemies, but friends. In the world in which we live, they need one another to flourish.
I fear for future of American Christians if this country loses its liberal commitment to fundamental human rights, including the right of religious freedom, but I fear for the future of political liberalism even more. Pope Francis has reminded Christians that they ought to promote a Christian form of liberalism and he has reminded America and the world that political liberalism needs religion. I hope that Christians and liberals alike are paying attention.
In his well-known book Christian Faith and Modern Democracy, Robert P. Kraynak argues that Christianity is inherently illiberal and undemocratic. Nowhere does Scripture prescribe democracy or speak of human rights, Kraynak points out, let alone call for a separation of religion and politics. And while the Bible affirms the dignity of every single human being by virtue of her creation in the image of God, the image of God is conceived in primarily spiritual terms, in which obedience to God is more essential than liberty.
This spiritual view of the image of God, Kraynak argues, implies that human dignity is relative to degrees of human perfection. A more faithful person has more dignity – is higher in the hierarchy of value – than a less faithful person. Similarly, a man is naturally superior to a woman.
Herein lies the fundamental difference between the biblical and the contemporary understanding of human dignity. In the biblical view, dignity is hierarchical and comparative; in the modern, it is democratic and absolute. The Bible (both Old and New Testaments) promotes hierarchies because it understands reality in terms of the ‘image of God’ which is a type of reflected glory – a reflection of something more perfect in something less perfect. Hence, dignity exists in degrees of perfection rather than in abstract qualities. The dignity or glory possessed by something made in the image of a more perfect being carries moral claims of deference, reciprocal obligation, and duty rather than equality, freedom and rights. (60)
To be sure, Kraynak admits, the New Testament undermines all such hierarchies by asserting the fundamental equality of all persons in Christ, so relegating social and political hierarchies to secondary status. Still, this very relegation, this very separation between the spiritual and earthly cities, means such inequalities can be tolerated as long as spiritual equality is preserved. This is in sharp contrast to liberal democracy, which insists on social and political equality.
Kraynak thinks that the early Christian theological tradition only accentuated the Bible’s hierarchical tendencies insofar as it was infused with Platonic and Neoplatonic notions of the world. According to such Greek philosophical notions, the natural universe is “a hierarchy of beings, ascending from lower to higher substances in an order of rational perfection” (73). The understanding of the universe as a chain of being was integrated with Augustine’s orthodox doctrines of the two cities and of predestination to create a thoroughly hierarchical understanding of both church and society. Thus,
In general, traditional Christians were illiberal and undemocratic because they conceived of God’s created universe as a hierarchy of being and thought that institutions should promote rational and spiritual perfection. (73)
Kraynak admits that the Reformation undermined the church’s hierarchicalism and rejected systematic Neoplatonism, but he claims that in their doctrines of the two kingdoms and predestination Luther and Calvin maintained the theological commitments that lie at the heart of Christianity’s illiberalism. For Kraynak that is not a bad thing. Christianity is not inherently democratic, he maintains, and Christians have been wrong to imagine it so.
It is true, of course, that classic Christian political theology consistently distinguishes between the kingdom of God and earthly political structures (a distinction that has been variously labeled as the two cities, the two kingdoms, the two governments, the two jurisdictions, the two powers, the two swords, etc.). It is also true that this distinction makes Christian political theology a species of political realism. Politics is the art of the possible, not of the ideal. We must tolerate sin and injustice because only God can set things right. Our task is to maintain a general degree of peace, justice, and order.
But this doctrine does not make Christianity inherently illiberal. True, the toleration of the status quo has all too often meant the defense of oppressive gender relations, slavery, and tyranny, but this is hardly the thrust of the New Testament. In acknowledging the prophetic roles of women in the church, in maintaining the essential equality and consequent moral reciprocity between master and slave, in calling political authorities to submission to Christ, and in relativizing the spiritual priority of marriage and the family, the apostles set in motion an ethical trajectory that challenged all rigid conservative notions of the way things ought to be. (Paul called each person to be content with the situation in which he found himself, of course, but he also called slaves to seek their freedom, if possible, and he insisted that it is good for a Christian woman to devote herself to the service of Christ and the church rather than to marry and raise children.)
In my view, therefore, Christians have rightly identified equality, along with liberty, as an essential part of the gospel of Christ. This does not mean equality without difference, but it does suggest that Christians should aspire to forms of equality much more substantive than is implied by the bare minimum of political realism.
What about the doctrine of predestination? My friend and teacher Timothy P. Jackson insists that the doctrine of predestination leads Christians constantly to create distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’, distinctions that fall all too easily into the oppression of or apathy toward the ‘other.’ The only way to overcome this temptation, he insists, is to eliminate any distinction between the saved and the damned.
The objection has to be taken seriously. No doubt Christians have used the distinction between the saved and the damned, the elect and the reprobate, in just such nefarious ways. But in my view such misuses of the doctrine of predestination actually rely on a caricature of it – one common enough that it is proclaimed by some Christians as the teaching of Scripture (thus rendering plausibility to Jackson’s objection). In this caricature God wills the judgment of the reprobate, and thus no matter what such persons do in their lives, they cannot escape it.
That is not the Christian doctrine of predestination as it has been articulated by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, or Calvin. Christian theologians have generally distinguished between the revealed and normative will of God, on the one hand, and his divine sovereignty, which is hidden and mysterious, on the other.
The distinction amounts essentially to this. God desires that all people be saved just as he desires that all people act lovingly and justly. This is a genuine desire on God’s part. The one who is love does indeed love all persons made in his image, and he does good to the just and the unjust alike. It was out of love for the world that he sent his son to suffer as the lamb of God, the one who is the propitiation not only for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world.
But this does not deny the fact that as the sovereign Lord, God does, in some mysterious way, govern all that occurs. This governance does not take place on the ordinary plane of causality. Without dictating the actions of angels or human beings, God nevertheless governs them according to his sovereignty (or his decretive will). While hating evil and injustice, and while desiring the good for all people, he nevertheless ordains all things according to his purposes. This is not a doctrine that arises from philosophical logic but from faith. It is not a doctrine that we seek to explore to its depths, as Calvin pointed out, but one that we accept based on the recognition that God is entirely different from us, and cannot be measured by our notions of scientific or philosophical causality. Indeed, he cannot really be known or understood at all, apart from his revelation in Christ.
Christians are therefore called to conform to Christ in their attitudes towards all persons, laying down their lives in humility and service. Any other ethical use of the doctrine of predestination is ideological and self-serving.
None of this requires that Christianity is inherently liberal of course, let alone democratic. That would depend both on what is meant by liberalism and what is meant by democracy. But it does suggest that Christianity is not inherently illiberal or undemocratic. Perhaps we can agree on that.
I’m currently teaching Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as part of a course designed to familiarize students with some of the leading ideas and figures that have shaped western civilization. The scope of the class is sweeping, but it provides the opportunity to compare three broad perspectives that have shaped the West: the Greek (i.e., Aristotle); the Christian (i.e., Augustine, Aquinas, etc.); and the Enlightenment (i.e., Locke, Rousseau, etc.).
In a time when many assume that the teachings of Christianity can be jettisoned by western society without much loss to a liberal, democratic society, I think students are somewhat surprised to discover just how thoroughly religious and elitist was Aristotle’s vision of society. Along with Socrates and Plato, Aristotle was the leading pagan philosopher before Christianity came on the scene; his work on the good life, on ethics, and on politics represents some of the best the Greeks had to offer.
Take, for instance, Aristotle’s conviction that for human beings all things are to be directed towards one ultimate Good, that Good being happiness. Aristotle is by no means unique in his judgment that since ‘man’ is a social animal, and the city is greater than the individual, the science or discipline of the Good must be that of politics. The purpose of politics is to educate and train human beings in the virtues necessary to attain to the Good. Laws are measured by the degree to which they command virtue and forbid vice.
All of this may seem true to a certain extent. But my students – college sophomores – are quick to point out that if virtue and the good life are so important, it hardly makes sense to hand over their direction to the political authorities. Who is a politician, let alone a philosopher, to decide what is the good life, to tell me how to educate my children, to guide me in following the appropriate virtues? The modern instinct, in short, is to argue that if something is so important, that is precisely why it should not be subject to political control.
Aristotle’s ethics appear all the more troubling when it becomes evident just how elitist it is. Aristotle’s virtues presuppose a level of education and wealth that, as my students point out, seems utopian. But of course, Aristotle was not a utopian, and he did not think the ethics he was outlining was for the masses, the ‘slavish’ and the ‘bestial.’ On the contrary, Aristotle’s ethics was designed for that small sliver of human beings at the top of society, the citizens. The entire way of life of these citizens, their ability to study wisdom or to participate in politics, depended on the vast majority of human beings working for them as slaves. The latter were not expected to participate in any full sense in the good life.
It’s not that Aristotle was trying to justify oppression or the greed of the powerful. On the contrary, his virtues of liberality and magnificence outline the generosity and public devotion of the (wealthy) virtuous man. This man is not too concerned about acquiring wealth. He avoids shady trades like commerce and usury. His wealth – ideally self-sustaining – is simply a means to the end of doing good to others. The virtuous man will be paternalistic and do good to his inferiors – women, slaves, etc. Prudence never leads one to act unjustly.
Still, we are left with the unalterable conviction that Aristotle’s vision of society gives far too much authority to the politicians and describes the common good with far too much deference to the elites. In contrast to this it is fascinating to observe how Christianity was such a game-changer in the ancient world. Here is a religion that declares that every individual’s unqualified religious loyalty is to a man crucified and allegedly raised from the dead in Palestine. No Caesar or governor has the right or authority to dictate how a person worships or what a person teaches concerning the truth. Christians, as individuals and as congregations called out from the world, will follow their convictions regarding the good life no matter what the king or the city decrees.
It is no wonder that many sociologists and historians have found in Christianity the origin of the separation of church and state. Politics is no longer the ultimate, authoritative discipline, let alone the ultimate reference point for true community. Civil governments are merely temporal authorities with a limited, secular task.
But that’s not all. In the midst of a world whose philosophers and moralists speak only to the elites, and in which citizenship is a matter only for the few, the apostles of Christ address wives as well as husbands, children as well as parents, slaves as well as masters. They describe these socially unequal relationships in terms of equal obligations to mutual Christlike service and submission, declaring them to be eschatologically null and void ‘in Christ Jesus.’ They describe every Christian, slave or free, male or female, Jew or Greek, as being a citizen in the one city that matters.
It is no wonder that many historians and sociologists have found in Christianity the origin of a meaningful concept of the individual, not to mention the seed of the idea of individual human rights. Each person, regardless of social status, now has the obligation of a direct, responsible allegiance to Jesus Christ. Each believer has an important place as a citizen in Christ’s body, possessing an inalienable Christian liberty.
The early church was a long way from modern political liberalism, of course, and the two are not the same thing. Political liberalism – the tradition of democracy and human rights – has been successfully transmitted to thoroughly pagan societies like Japan. But there should be no doubt that Christianity laid the intellectual foundations that made modern political liberalism possible. And there is also good reason to be skeptical of claims that Christianity can be entirely jettisoned without undermining political liberalism itself. As my friend Tim Jackson likes to say, political liberalism may not be ‘Christianity translated into politics’ but it is certainly the ‘stepchild of Christianity.’ If you’re in doubt about that, go read Aristotle.
At the Huffington Post my friend Jimmy McCarty offers a thoughtful contrast between Egypt, which has seen its effort at democracy collapse in violence and chaos, and South Africa, which almost miraculously emerged from generations of racism, division and strife to become a democratic, multiracial, and relatively stable society.
At least one key difference, he suggests, is the role of South Africa’s first ever black president Nelson Mandela, who at age 95, has been in the hospital for the past two months. McCarty writes,
As the world watches the unfolding events in the streets of Egypt with a nervous gaze and watches the events in a South African hospital room with mournful admiration it is easy forget that it was not too long ago that South Africa was a country that political pundits were sure was going to devolve into a horribly bloody civil war (not unlike the concerns many have about Egypt today).
How did South Africa’s miracle happen? It was not by accident. And, though there may have been divine intervention, it was not “out of nowhere.” South Africa avoided civil war and established a stable, though always tenuous and in-process, democracy because its leaders, especially Mandela, were able to cast a vision of social life capable of sustaining a lasting peace. That vision can be summed up in the phrase, “We are each other’s keepers.”
McCarty goes on to outline the Genesis story of Cain and Abel, the first murder in recorded history. When God confronted Cain about Abel’s whereabouts, Cain responded with the famous dismissal, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Though not explicitly stated, we are taught in this story that we are, indeed, to be one another’s keepers. We are responsible for our fellow humans. Our own well-being is intimately tied to the well-being of our siblings, our neighbors, and even our enemies. We diminish our very own humanity when we do not act as each other’s “keepers.”
Nelson Mandela understood this, McCarty, points out. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela writes,
Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me. It was during those long and lonely years [in the struggle against apartheid and in the 27 years he was imprisoned at Robben Island] that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed … I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity … For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.
It was based on this conviction that Mandela led South Africa in a process of forgiveness and reconciliation that is unparalleled in the events of the 20th Century.
It’s the Fourth of July, and millions of Americans will spend the day at picnics, parties, and parades, all to be capped off with impressive displays of fireworks around the country. Most of them probably don’t know all that much about what happened on this date 237 years ago, but they do know that our colonial forefathers not only declared their independence, but successfully overthrew their British rulers in the most successful revolution in world history.
Despite the many problems America has experienced over the years, and the daunting legal, economic, social, and political crises we face today, the experiment has succeeded beyond any of the founding fathers’ wildest dreams.
Americans often use their liberty for destructive and immoral ends; but few of us would trade that liberty because it also allows us to worship as our conscience dictates, to build and provide for our families, and to pursue meaningful vocations and careers.
Americans often turn equality into a perniciously destructive force, overthrowing the very distinctions that make human life together possible; but few of us would trade that equality because it is the foundation for our basic dignity and security, the ideal that assures us that no one is going to enslave us, confiscate our property, or prevent us from saying whatever it is that we feel the need to say.
Americans have managed democracy and self-government in shockingly short-sighted, foolish, and misguided ways; but few of us would trade liberal democracy for a king or for the rule of experts. We are, when it is all said and done, doing surprisingly well. Most of us would rather live in this time and place than in any other, and a good portion of those who argue otherwise don’t really mean it.
This country is freer, safer, stronger, and more prosperous than any country in the history of the world, and by no means should we take that for granted.
If you’re in doubt about that, read this morning’s news. While we look back to our successful revolution more than two centuries ago, Egyptians – whose nation is the bellwether for the entire Arab world – wake up to find their revolution of last year – which resulted in the first democratically elected government in Egypt’s history – toppled in counter-revolution. The Arab Spring, which filled western democrats and Muslim Islamists alike with such hope, continues to slide into chaos. We are assured by the Egyptian military that there will be fair elections and democracy will be maintained. But who will be able to govern? And who will be able to solve the economic and social problems that President Morsi’s government was not able to solve? What leader can possibly maintain democratic legitimacy if his power is grounded in the military overthrow of the previous democratically elected leader?
Americans love to get excited about revolution and democracy. It’s in our blood. The explicitly stated foreign policy of the last two administrations has been to export democracy and freedom around the world. Whenever we see a foreign people overthrow tyranny, our heart goes out to them. But it is easy for us to forget that far more often than not, revolution and rebellion ends in failure, chaos, or worse. For every American Revolution there is the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution, both of which culminated in mass murder, totalitarianism, and international conflict. Even as I write, revolution and internal conflict rips apart countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, in all of which America has a hand. What’s more, much as we Americans would not trade our liberty and equality, the citizens of those countries would give much for a modicum of order and security. Look further around the globe and you will find the vast majority of men, women, and children living without political voice, religious liberty, or freedom of movement and association at best, while experiencing massive inequality, economic hopelessness, poverty, and war at worst.
It turns out then, that for all of our problems, and for all of the ‘culture wars’ that divide us as Americans, to live in a country that was birthed in revolution, that is free, equal, safe, powerful, and prosperous – and all at the same time – is a rare privilege indeed.
Happy Independence Day.