The Shortcomings of Democracy

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I’ve written before about the relationship between democracy and Christianity. The piece linked here was from about three years ago, wherein I wrote that democracy does not ensure inherently more moral outcomes than other forms of government, but rather is just as subject (if not more so) to the poor judgment of human beings, and thus just as likely to produce immoral and undesirable governing outcomes (see Trump, Donald.)

As I was reading When War is Unjust by Yoder last night, I came across this passage that struck me as making the same point, but in a more concrete and insightful way. Here is Yoder:

In order to gain a popular mandate and seem stronger than their adversaries, politicians may exploit nationalistic and xenophobic, even racist, enthusiasms of common folk, thereby putting themselves under pressure to perform in a way as “patriotic” as their campaign language. Once the battle has begun and lives have been given, it is far more difficult to contemplate suing for peace. The medieval vision of the prince as a responsible and wise decision-maker, able to lead his people because he knew more of the facts, had studied the craft of governing, and had the courage and also the power to make unpopular but right choices, is replaced be elected politicians who become captives of the patriotic sentiments and short-circuited analyses their own campaigning stirred up. The medieval monarch could, if wise, cut the losses and make peace. Democratic leaders may be less free to be wise, especially once they have cranked up the fervor for war. Whether we speak of the relatively genuine democracies, in which popular suffrage is effective, or of the many places in which the facade of an electoral process is used to cover less worthy policies and less valid processes of decision, it often appears that to involve the masses in decisions about war and national honor does not provide for more effective defense of the real interests of most people. The issues at stake are subject to rapidly changing moods and to deceptive rhetoric. Decisions about whether to have a war, about what, and how long are not made more wisely just because there are elections. Democratic forms may well work against restraint.

I don’t post this as an endorsement of a return to medieval monarchy as a government (or, even less, as some sort of theocratic technocracy bringing together Plato and Aquinas.) Rather, I read and share this as a reminder of my point in the earlier piece: democracy is not a cure-all for what ails the world and the nation socially and economically. Those of us who have stood opposed to Trump since early on should know this as well as any, and in fact, his election is what awoke this line of thinking in myself. The same democracy that elected a Barack Obama is just as likely and capable to elect a Donald Trump. It is also just as likely to turn around and elect an Elizabeth Warren next time, and who knows what after that.

I do think this passage is interesting in the sense of what Yoder points out specifically as the things democracy does less well. He notes the accumulation of facts, the art of governance, and the ability to use restraint as three things that the idea monarch could bring to bear that democratic forms of governance fail at more often. The depredations and downfalls of monarchy often impeded the exercising of these good points, but then again, the depredations and downfalls of democracy often override the positive elements of it as well. The use of restraint, and the making of hard decisions, stands out to me most as what the American project in democracy is failing at most often; we seem unable, as a democratic populace, to make hard decisions involving sacrifice or the giving up of privileges, in order to achieve a greater and broader good. Our democratic guidance seems all too often geared towards maximizing our own good in the here and now, at the expense of any longer-term vision. This is evident on the right in the denial of and refusal to deal with the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change; on the left, we see this in the drive for further atomization and individualization of the body politic, driving towards intensely personal understandings of cultural engagement at the expense of some form of national coherence and unity, something that is key to the success of any community of any size and form.

When I think about these shortcomings of pure democracy, it makes me think of how prescient were the Founders in this sense, in their writing in of checks and balances in our governing documents. Madisonian democracy, enmeshed in the Constitution, is representative and limited, for the purpose of ensuring some semblance of a ruling elite; I like to think that this ruling class could be one that is elite in it’s ability to make hard decisions for the greater good, in it’s knowledge of governing forms and policy, and it’s attention to facts and details. But again, the ideal runs up against the realism of human fallibility; history has shown us that any form of a ruling elite inevitably turns into a kleptocratic, oligarchic economic elite.

This all brings me around to the reminder I feel I am constantly banging away at for Christians, namely, that democracy is not a “Christian” form of governance, any more than any temporal form of human governance is. As we get closer and closer to the 2020 elections, we cannot lose sight of the fact that all the problems we face will not be wiped away by the election of more favorable candidates to higher office; even more importantly, we cannot forget that no matter who assumes (or retains) the presidency and Congress next year, our role as Christians is one outside the structures of coercive power. Even our friends need a robust voice of criticism pushing them on towards a higher vision of the Good, beyond the needs of the next electoral cycle. Christians are not democrats; we are Christians, first and last.

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How to Not Welcome the Stranger

With a potentially bad election day looming for Donald Trump and Republicans next week, they and their propaganda machine have gone full tilt into promoting the story that a caravan of Honduran migrants is making its way north through Mexico, towards asylum in the United States. Predictably, the news is being used to mine fear among conservative voters and drive turnout in the midterms.

Among the groups most vocally speaking out against the migrants is, of course, white evangelicals, Trump’s most persistent base of support. At Vox, Tara Isabella Burton writes of the theological pretzels evangelical leaders are twisting themselves into to deny the very clear words of Scripture imploring Christians to welcome the stranger and the immigrant. Here is Burton:

This willingness to define seemingly straightforward passages in the Bible along politicized terms — reimagining what it means to be someone’s “neighbor” — speaks to a wider issue within white evangelicalism. The degree to which white evangelical identity is increasingly predicated on politicized whiteness — and on an insular and isolationist vision of community — reveals the extent to which white evangelicalism has become synonymous with Christian nationalism under the Trump administration. And, increasingly, white evangelicals are willing to selectively reinterpret the Bible to justify this.

“We’re seeing literal verses with long histories of interpretation, that favor the poor, that favor outcasts … redeployed in ways that fit now,” Bass said. “They’re inventing a new interpretation, whole hog, to fit the age of Trump.”

One of the most famous verses in the Bible is Galatians 3:28, which highlights how Christianity is supposed to transcend barriers of race, class, wealth, and nationality. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”

It’s unclear how white evangelicals will reinterpret that verse now.

For many white evangelicals, the faith they subscribe to no longer credibly resembles Christianity in any traditional sense. Instead, it has become a form of white ethno-nationalism adhered to with religious fervor, fueled by fear and allegiance to Donald Trump.

Scripture is unequivocal: those who claim to be disciples of Christ are called to welcome the stranger and care for the needy, to love our fellow human beings as our neighbors. There is no grey area in this. The words of Christ in Luke 4 and Matthew 25 attest to this.

The migrants approaching our border are fleeing from their homes in Honduras, a nation with the world’s highest murder rate for at least six years running.  They are fleeing a nation that suffered the coup of a democratically elected government five years ago that we failed to counter in any way, and which is being racked by the violence of drug gangs, the result of deliberate US policy choices in Central and South America in the War on Drugs. In short, they are fleeing a problem created in large part by the United States. We owe these people. They are not a Soros-funded plot to destroy America. They are human beings who have heard their whole lives that America is the greatest country on the planet, and they took our marketing seriously. We have an obligation to address their arrival in a humane and logical way, rather than in a way driven by fear mongering and politics.

It is shameful that the loudest Christian voices are speaking words of the Anti-Christ about our suffering neighbors, but it certainly isn’t surprising. This is Trump’s America, and Trump’s church.

The Bookshelf: Believe Me

Of all the confounding and frustrating things that the Donald Trump era has brought us, one of the most perplexing to me has been the embrace of a shallow, insecure, and immoral businessman from New York City by white American Christians. Donald Trump, to the eyes of this aspiring theologian, is the antithesis of everything I know Christianity to be: cruel rather than compassionate, brash rather than reserved, egocentric rather than humble, incapable of introspection, or forgiveness, or self-restraint.

35224850_10216116132396646_2037149979729985536_oThis isn’t arm chair psychology, either; one merely has to watch him for five or ten minutes in almost any setting (or, even, just peruse his Twitter feed) to see that this is a person who is pure, undiluted Id, who rarely looks inward or even takes time to think things through, and who certainly rarely, if ever, thinks of others first.

Most frustrating of all to me, is that I have family members, people who are good, Christian people, full of love and grace and compassion and intelligence, who are ardent Trump supporters, or at the least, defenders of him, the party he leads, and the conservative movement that birthed him. It baffles me, how God-fearing men and women, who were so offended by the Clinton scandals, who have for so long fought so hard for family values and public decency, could make such a hard turn and support Donald J. Trump to lead our country, and, even more shockingly, to praise him as some kind of exemplar of everything they believe.

John Fea, professor of history of Messiah College, has been grappling with this same conundrum at his blog, The Way of Improvement Leads Homesince Trump burst onto the national political scene several years ago. Fea himself is a self-described evangelical Christian. Having read his blog daily for almost three years now, I can safely say he is a true moderate in every sense of the word, someone who never seems, in writing at least, to swing too far left or right from his center, but who doggedly sticks to his moral foundation that is rooted in Christianity. On his blog, you will find posts praising Barack Obama for showcasing a singularly Christian attitude during his presidency, side by side with posts condemning abortion in unequivocal terms and pushing back against the kind of secularism embodied by Bernie Sanders and the progressive movement. He always approaches these issues from the dual lenses of his evangelical beliefs, and his knowledge of American history. If you aren’t a regular reader of his blog, well, you should be.

All of that is to say, Fea is uniquely placed to think and write about the phenomena that is American evangelicalism’s rabid support for Donald Trump. And, he has done just that, in his newest book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. In this book, Fea traces the history of American evangelicalism, and the apocalyptic fear it has always carried around, to the current situation it finds itself in, where its numbers are rapidly shrinking and its influence on the cultural conversation has diminished to the point that the need is felt to throw the weight of the movement behind a thrice-married, openly admitted adulterer and reality TV star. Its the kind of move that reeks of death throes and desperation, and that becomes clear in the pages of Believe Me.

Fea unequivocally points to existential fear as the driving force behind American evangelicalism today. The opening sentence of a chapter entitled “A Short History of Evangelical Fear,” reads,

“Despite the biblical passages exhorting followers of Christ to ‘fear not,’ it is possible to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of Christians who failed to overcome fear.”

Fea traces the history of evangelical fear all the way from Puritan fears of witches and Native Americans, to fears of deism and secularism in the earliest years of the republic, through 19th century fears of Catholics and southern and eastern European immigrants, to post-bellum fears of freed and empowered blacks, right up to today’s fears of immigrants who look different and speak different languages, incomprehensible terrorists who seem to want to burn everything down, and secular leftists who want to drive Christians from the political and social realm.

Of course, fear either leads to fight or flight in human beings, and Fea shows how evangelicals very quickly realized that fighting was the only way to combat what they saw as an increasingly terrifying world. Evangelical theology was subsequently built on top of this fear and the drive to fight back, rather than the other way around. In the process, evangelical ideals were sidelined and put to use to serve the needs of a conservative movement that was reeling in the Seventies in the wake of Watergate and Supreme Court rulings that took away prayer in schools, segregation, and religious iconography in public places. Fear is a powerful motivator in democratic politics, and the Republican Party has learned well over the last forty years how to exploit the existential fear, and the desperate fighting instinct of a cornered animal, to win elections.

Donald Trump is but the culmination of this decision, something that becomes clear through Fea’s book. This is perhaps the most important work Fea does here, showing that Trump is not a one-off phenomanah or abberation, but instead, is the logical conclusion of a conservative evangelicalism that is built on a foundation of sand. Donald Trump figured out to most potent way to harness the fear of evangelical voters, by promising to take them back to some mythical past, when all was right in the world and evangelicals ruled America. Fea exposes this nostalgia, exemplified by the Trump campaign slogan “Make America Great Again,” for the sham it is, in a powerful section where he runs through the eras evoked by Trump as times of American “greatness,” and reveals instead they were also times of upheaval, racism, genocide – in short, times in which, yes, a few white people may have been doing well, but times in which the great many, including people of color, were oppressed and injustice was done. As he writes,

“For too many who have been the objects of white evangelical fear, real American greatness is still something to be hoped for – not something to be recovered from an imagined past.”

Fea ends the book with a powerful call for a rethinking of American evangelicalism in its public engagement. Instead of fear, he calls readers back to the Christian value of hope; instead of the pursuit of worldly power, he prescribes the Christ-like attitude of humility; and instead of a nostalgic but ultimately false view of the past, he encourages an honest view of history, warts and all. Ultimately, he writes,

“Evangelicals can do better that Donald Trump…Too many of its leaders (and their followers have traded their Christian witness for a mess of political pottage and a few federal judges.”

Amen. Its amazing to realize how small and uninspired the worldview of so many evangelicals has become. Reading Fea’s book is to walk through the process of how we got here, to a place where so many Christians can imagine little more from their public witness than a few crumbs in the form of federal judges and harsh words about abortion, immigrants, and political correctness.

The last two years have been profoundly disorienting, for our nation, and for those who call themselves Christians. How did we get to this place, where so many millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ have spurred the values we thought they held so dear, and embraced a brand of politics so ultimately divisive and unChristian? If you, like me, have been struggling with this question, then I can’t recommend Dr. Fea’s book enough. The answers we need in the fight to reclaim a public Christianity that looks like the form of faith we see embodied in the example of Christ are rooted in understanding our past. Believe Me explains that past clearly, and in doing so, claims an important place in the conversation about the future of Christianity in America.

Believe Me comes out June 28. You can find more info and pre-order here.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Eerdmans Publishing Company. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commissions’ 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”