The Persistent Myth

I feel like a rabbit trying to put out a raging forest fire by stamping out a few burning leaves. But the myth will not die.

While people before Copernicus did indeed think the sun and all the planets orbited the earth, the myth persists (even among the well-educated) that the ancients also thought all of creation was centered on humanity.

The myth lives in one author (who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty) who recently wrote, for example, that when Galileo saw through his telescope that moons were orbiting Jupiter, he “revealed that the Earth (and humanity) wasn’t the center of the universe.”

We can thank C. S. Lewis (and Jason Baxter in The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis) for setting us straight. In the old cosmology,

humankind is at the periphery of everything that really matters. This “geocentric universe [was] not in the least anthropocentric,” because it “made man a marginal—almost . . . a suburban—creature.” It was not only that “everyone” knew “the Earth is infinitesimally small by cosmic standards” but also that the Earth was made out of the dregs, after the purer bodies of stars had been made (a curious agreement with modern speculation!). Everything interesting, festive, fiery, light, clean, and harmonious was way out there, while we, poor fools, dwell at “the lowest point” of the universe, “plunged . . .in unending cold”; the earth was “in fact the ‘offscourings of creation,’ the cosmic dust-bin,” “‘the worst and deadest part of the universe,’ ‘the lowest story of the house,’ the point at which all light, heat, and movement descending from the nobler spheres finally died out into darkness, coldness, and passivity.”*

The heavenlies were thought to be perfect. Planets and stars were perfect spheres in perfect orbits. As we come closer to earth, we see that the moon clearly has imperfections, but less than the earth which is highly irregular with its many mountains and valleys, rivers and oceans. The most imperfect of all, hell, resided in the center of the earth.

As I’ve written before, the ancients knew our place in the universe—lowly, fallen creatures in need of grace. Ironically, the modern, scientific viewpoint does not. Humanity is the apex of evolution and the conqueror of physical world. We arrogantly elevate ourselves, thinking we stand on our own.

Only in recent decades has the myth of human progress been tarnished by the twentieth century, the most violent century in human history, with over 160 million killed for political reasons. Racism and ethnic strife persist. The environment continues to be polluted.

We think the ancients have so much to learn from us. The reverse is true.

*Jason M. Baxter, The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2022), 150-51. The quotations are from Lewis’s The Discarded Image and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century.

We Aren’t As Reasonable As We Think

Most of us think of ourselves as reasonable, rational human beings who make decisions and come to conclusions using facts and logic. I know I do.

That’s also what Langdon Gilkey thought of himself and his two thousand fellow prisoners in a Japanese detention camp during World War II. He was amazed to find out how wrong he was.*

Since the Japanese allowed the prisoners to run some of their own affairs, he was, for a time during the internment, on the housing committee for the camp. That team’s role was to help create as much fairness as possible in crowded conditions.

When, for example, a group of eleven men complained that their living quarters had the exact same square footage as a group of nine, he took up their cause. Surely the nine would see the justice of the concern. They would be willing to accommodate one more. They were not.

The nine came up with every possible defense of the status quo. “We are already crowded ourselves.” “Why pick on us? Aren’t there worse problems to deal with?” “We won’t consider it. Get out of here.”

Not only in this one situation, but nearly every time they sought to solve a housing issue to create more comfort, care, or fairness, they were intractably opposed. No appeal to logic or ethics swayed anyone. Gilkey found this was true regardless of class, occupation, culture, nationality, or gender.

We may think that the stress of imprisonment in harsh conditions makes people more likely to defend what little they have through emotional reactions and transparent rationalizations. But years of research have proven otherwise.

In study after study, Jonathan Haidt discovered what he calls the rider and the elephant at work in each of us (also see here). We think in two ways. One is slower and more deliberate, including reasoning (the rider). The other is more automatic and includes emotion and intuition (the elephant). We tend to assume that the rider guides and controls the elephant. But as his studies have shown, because the elephant tends to react faster, the rider tends to follow the lead of the Elephant.

Riders are not mere lackies. They can learn new types of thinking (math, logic, technology, etc.) and explore alternatives which can help the elephant avoid disaster. “And most important,” as Haidt wrote in The Righteous Mind, “the rider acts as the spokesman for the elephant, even though it doesn’t necessarily know what the elephant is really thinking. The rider is skilled at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done, and it is good at finding reasons to justify whatever the elephant wants to do next.” [54]

Obviously, we do change our minds from time to time. The elephant is not totally unmoveable. But Haidt suggests that the elephant is more likely to change if it is addressed directly. That can then create enough openness for the rider to also be willing to entertain new ideas and different reasoning.

I enjoy thinking things through, deliberately working out questions and issues. But, like those civilized, educated folk in the internment camp as well as most everyone else, I also have intuition and gut reactions. I’m sure they guide me more than I think.

*See Langdon Gilkey, Shantung Compound, especially chapters 5-6.

Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

Being a True Patriot

We the Fallen People 6

Original sin is not a popular notion. You sure won’t find Oprah supporting it. The idea that we are born with a tendency to do wrong, to be selfish, to ignore the common good is just downright unAmerican.

As McKenzie notes in We the Fallen People, “A New York Times poll found that 73 percent of Americans believed that humans are born good. A 2014 Lifeway survey found that two-thirds (67 percent) of respondents believe that ‘most people are by nature good’” [250-51].

Today we live in what Tom Wolfe called the “Me Generation” and what David Brooks labeled in The Road to Character as the age of “the Big Me.” Yet, contrary to popular opinion, our sinful nature is, as Chesterton once observed, the only Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable.*

Admitting our flaws and weaknesses is the first step to improvement. That goes for us as individuals and as a country. As I’ve noted over several blog posts (beginning here), McKenzie makes the case that the Founders of America had a very different view of human makeup than we do today. They believed so strongly in our flawed natures that they structured the Constitution on this foundational idea to protect us from ourselves. McKenzie writes:

There’s nothing unpatriotic about acknowledging moral failures in our country’s past. G. K. Chesterton emphasized this truth over a century ago in his classic work Orthodoxy. In its essence, patriotism is less an expression of pride than a commitment to love a particular human community, and authentic love “is not blind,” Chesterton observed. “That is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound, the less it is blind.” Never for a minute accept the false dichotomy that pits patriotism against an honest acknowledgment of America’s failures and flaws. Because love binds rather than blinds, we are free to criticize our country without somehow betraying it. [259]

Living out a conviction of original sin will require that we confess the allure of power, acknowledge the danger of power, and work proactively to mitigate the abuse of power. If we accept the reality of original sin, we’ll know that the seductiveness of power is fueled by our self-interested nature. . . .

Heeding their [the Founders’] warning is complicated by two obstacles. First, in our heart of hearts we doubt that it really applies to us. Too much power may be dangerous in the hands of Nazis or Democrats or our teenage children, but we’re confident that we can be trusted. Second, we are blinded by our preoccupation with the present, unaware of how much the fall has left us short-sighted as well as selfish. [272]

It will require agreeing with the Framers that power is dangerous whoever wields it, not just when it is controlled by our political rivals. [279]

Criticizing the nation or the government is not disloyalty. Those from the right and the left do it all the time. True patriotism is love of country, celebrating what is good, and wanting what is best for all, but not blind loyalty. It is also admitting flaws in our past and in our present. Only then can we move from the good toward the better.

*G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908; repr., New York: Image Books, 2001), 8-9, noted in We the Fallen People, p. 70.

Image by Clarence Alford from Pixabay

Writing to Influence People

OK. You want to convince teens who don’t use sunscreen that they really should. How do you go about it?

Do you marshal facts about skin cancer? Explain how ultraviolet rays work? Add arguments about increases to health care costs? Then offer examples that support your case?

When we want to persuade someone, our tendency is to begin with a direct approach. Such a technique, however, is often ineffective. As I noted in Write Better, “When we put forward an argument, we can trigger the rational, judging, and evaluative faculties in our audience. As a result, they may respond (at least in their own minds) with arguments of their own” (p. 60).

Our brains aren’t just rational machines that pump out logic. We have another and probably larger dimension to our thinking that we often don’t consider. Some call this intuition or gut reactions. Jonathan Haidt calls them automatic processes.

Based on years of research into how people make moral judgments, Haidt believes we should instead start by being friendly, taking time to understand the other person’s point of view.

Why? Because our emotions have a profound effect on how we think about things. Emotions aren’t opposed to reason, he says. They are instead a way–a very important, very useful way–to reason. (Think about sociopaths who are very rational but lack many emotions and therefore make terrible decisions.) Emotions are not infallible in decision-making, but neither is a rational approach.

Contrary to what we might think, studies have shown that usually we initially have a hunch about what is right or wrong when faced with an issue. Then our rational faculties may or may not come into play, using our hunch as a starting point. If, then, you want to persuade someone (in person or in writing), start with that intuitive, emotional side because our hunches tend to guide our reasoning.

Haidt offers a model for how we might put together a persuasive case. Indeed he structured his book, The Righteous Mind, using this very approach. He tells us,

I have tried to use intuitionism [the theory that decisions begin with emotions] while writing this book. My goal is to change the way a diverse group of readers—liberal and conservative, secular and religious—think about morality, politics, religion, and each other. I knew that I had to take things slowly and address myself more to elephants [our intuition] rather than to riders [our reasoning]. I couldn’t just lay out the theory in chapter 1 and then ask readers to reserve judgment until I had presented all of the supporting evidence. Rather, I decided to weave together the history of moral psychology and my own personal story to create a sense of movement from rationalism to intuitionism. I threw in historical anecdotes, quotations from the ancients, and praise of a few visionaries. I set up metaphors (such as the rider and the elephant) that will recur throughout the book. I did these things in order to “tune up” your intuitions about moral psychology. If I have failed and you have a visceral dislike of intuitionism or of me, then no amount of evidence I could present will convince you that intuitionism is correct. But if you now feel an intuitive sense that intuitionism might be true, then let’s keep going (pp. 59-60).

That’s a pattern we can use too. If, then, we want to encourage people, especially teens, to form a habit of using sunscreen, is there a better way?

Could we connect with them at the emotional/intuitive level before going to a rational approach? We could begin by identifying with our audience about how much we love the tanned look. But instead of then moving to the topic of cancer, what if we stick with the beauty angle? Chip and Dan Heath suggest noting that too much tanning gives you wrinkles.* That distasteful image can get an immediate negative reaction from teens that can guide their thinking.

Will everyone be persuaded? No. But by approaching people as whole people, we are likely to persuade more.

*See Made to Stick, pp. 38-41.

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Do We Need the Cross to Be Forgiven?

A Lenten Reflection

Why would God need the cross to forgive us? Isn’t he powerful and merciful enough that he could just have declared us forgiven and reconciled? Why would Jesus have to die?

This is a point Muslims sometimes make. In fact, they say the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 backs their claim. The father (clearly a stand-in for God) did not die. We have no cross, no incarnation, no Son of God, no savior, no resurrection. In fact, the father doesn’t even pronounce forgiveness. The father simply wills their reconciliation and demonstrates that by restoring the son’s standing through clothing him in the best robe (which would be the father’s best robe) and putting the family signet ring on his finger.

No, they say, Jesus is clearly a good Muslim who affirms Muslim teaching. Christians, they say, have perverted his message.

This challenge was key in driving Kenneth Bailey deeply into this famous story. The result was his book, The Cross and the Prodigal. As he notes there, he found, to the contrary, that the cross, that sacrifice is profoundly embedded in this parable.

Long the father suffers. Devastated by the abrupt and painful rupture with his son, daily he waits, looking in the distance, hoping to see his son return, his son whom he misses dearly.

When he does spot him, the father sacrifices his dignity by running to meet his son. Nothing is more sacred to a Middle Eastern patriarch than his honor. Such men of his age and stature do not run in excitement like school boys. They float. They move with slow decorum, befitting their place in the community.

In addition, for such a man to run would require him to gather up his robes so he could move quickly and easily. This would shame him even more by exposing his legs in public. This may seem a minor point to those of us who do not live in honor-shame cultures. But for the father it was a very costly act.

The children of the town, “amazed at seeing this respected village elder shaming himself publicly,” would no doubt race after the man to see what the to-do was all about. Others would follow, including his servants who are present to receive instructions from the father regarding his son. In this way, openly for all to see, the father covers the son’s shame and humiliation, and takes it all on himself (p. 67).

Further, he acts as his own intermediary. Mediators are common in such cultures. Two people who are at odds do not confront each other directly lest one loose face. The father took this risk of rejection. Indeed, having been the grievously injured party, custom would require that the father wait and aloofly receive his groveling son—which is exactly what the son expects. The father again sets aside his honor for the prospect of joyful reconciliation.

I already mentioned the robe and the ring, costly gifts in themselves. The father also sponsors a lavish feast for the whole community. The son, you see, has not only alienated himself from the whole family but from everyone who knew of his despicable behavior—and in a small, tightly-woven village, everyone would know. They would all have felt shamed by the son. If the patriarch of their community is dishonored, they are all dishonored. The father must publicly demonstrate the son’s restored standing (restored honor) so others will do the same out of respect for the father.

During Lent, as through the whole year, we marvel at the God who surrendered his honor and his wealth to make forgiveness and reconciliation possible for we who wandered off.

Forgiveness comes with a cost. Our forgiveness comes with the cross.

Image by wal_172619 from Pixabay

The Perils of Religion and Politics

We the Fallen People 5

Should religion and politics mix? Many today decry the involvement of “evangelicals” while others hail their impact. Religion has always had an influence. But are there better ways and worse ways to do it?

In the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his classic Democracy in America that the clergy wielded extraordinary and positive influence in the country. How did they do it? Counterintuitively, they succeeded precisely because they deliberately distanced themselves from political parties.

As Robert Tracy McKenzie, in his landmark book, We the Fallen People, summarizes it,

It is by keeping all political parties at arms’ length, Tocqueville concludes, that America’s religious leaders have helped to make religion “the first of America’s political institutions.” By eschewing power, they have grown in influence. But note that this influence is indirect. “Religion in the United States never intervenes directly in government,” Tocqueville explains. “One cannot say” that it “influences the laws or the specifics of political opinion.” What it does is influence American mores, and it influences mores because “Christianity maintains more actual power over souls in America than anywhere else.” (p. 239)

McKenzie highlights Tocqueville’s exceptionally clear explanation of why direct identification with a party is so problematic for Christians, though really for any religion. This French aristocrat and nominal Christian shows a clearer understanding of the priority that the gospel should have over politics than many today.

American clergy in the 1830s recognized what so many contemporary Christian leaders have forgotten—namely, that political influence always comes at a cost to the church. When Christians ally themselves with a particular political leader or party, the church “increases its power over some but gives up hope of reigning over all.” The reason for this [writes Tocqueville] is straightforward: “Religion cannot share the material might of those who govern without incurring some of the hatred they inspire.” (p. 239)

I have friends, and perhaps you do as well, who have turned their backs on Christianity because they so disagree with the current policies and actions of the Republican party. Since they see so many Christians aligned with that party and its candidates, they reject Christianity too.

While those of us who are committed Christians are clearly called to support the causes of justice, this should not be at the cost of bearing witness to the kingdom. Indeed, many conservative Christians claim that the most important thing they can do is spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet they seem quite willing to sacrifice that on the altar of political power.

In a recent article Tim Keller echoes this sentiment:

In a polarized environment, white evangelicals’ strong identification with one party and one presidential candidate has produced deep and hostile reactions from the 50% of the country opposed to this political platform. And, in general, the 50% that it has alienated is younger and more multi-ethnic. Many fundamentalists consider this a victory, rather than a defeat. My informal perception is that many conservative Protestants voted for Donald Trump, but did so with far less enthusiasm or approval than fundamentalist Christians. But in any case, the identification of conservative religion with the political Right is now very strong in the public mind, and is a turn-off [to the Christian faith] to a large percentage of the populace.

Let me be clear. The reverse can and has happened. Some churches have been so identified with left-leaning politics that they also alienate half the population to the faith.

The separation of church and state is not just a good idea for the state. It’s good for the church too. One of the reasons the church in Europe has become so weak in recent centuries is that many countries have a state-sponsored religion. Two centuries ago Tocqueville saw that this practice generates disdain for the religion associated with detested political structures. Maintaining separation gives the church more influence in society morally and spiritually.

Should the church exercise public moral leadership? Yes. Work for justice and social reform? Yes. Become identified corporately with one party or candidate? No.

Image by alila1 from Pixabay

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of We the Fallen People from the Publisher. My opinions are my own.

Why a Flawed Democracy Worked

We the Fallen People 4

What has made democracy in America work despite its drawbacks?

One weakness Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his classic Democracy in America sounds all too familiar today. In the 1830s he saw that the most noble and qualified people were seldom elected. Instead those who won office often bowed to the lower impulses of the electorate rather than courageously doing what was right in the face of public opinion.

Another problem he spotted is also eerily familiar. Elected officials regularly offered simplistic answers which cannot hold in the face of complex problems. “An idea that is clear and precise even though false,” Tocqueville observed, “will always have greater power in the world than an idea that is true and complex” (p. 194). That is so whether the ideas come from the right or the left.

Why then, he wondered, did democracy still work in America? One reason he gave is geography. The country was so vast and open while the government was so small that it could not easily involve itself with the citizenry. In addition there is so much cultivatable land that the average citizen could prosper, adding stability to the country and the government.

A second reason was the Constitution with its brilliant collection of checks and balances (discussed in a previous post here).

Third were the country’s mores. Mores is a squishy term, but Robert Tracy McKenzie in his own exceptional book, We the Fallen People helpfully summarizes it and Tocqueville as a whole. Mores are “the common beliefs and values that shaped the ways that whites in Jacksonian America interacted with each other and their government” (p. 228).

Tocqueville labeled one such key belief as “self-interest, properly understood” united with Christian ideals. “The first trained them to believe that their short-term desires could betray their long-term self-interest. The second [Christian ideals] warned them that what they had the power to do was not always morally proper to do.

“What unified these seemingly disparate dispositions is that they both inculcated what Tocqueville calls ‘habits of restraint.’ In essence, both their religious beliefs and their commitment to ‘self-interest, properly understood’ conditioned Americans to question the wisdom of their natural impulses. To the degree that they did so, they discouraged a supremely self-confident and all-powerful majority from becoming agents of tyranny” (p. 229).

Americans lived by “enlightened” self-interest. It’s a big question whether we still do so now. Not only do children today rarely exhibit the virtue of delayed gratification; adults have trouble as well. Credit card debt is just one case in point. Concern for our economic well-being now can overwhelm long-term considerations for the Social Security system, the national debt, the environment, the country’s infrastructure, immigration, and more.

The appeal of both long-term self-interest and religion have diminished in recent decades. In the next post in this series we will consider how religion might have a more beneficial role in society.

Image by Mustafa Kücük – v. Gruenewaldt from Pixabay

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of We the Fallen People from the Publisher. My opinions are my own.

Where We Are All Above Average

We the Fallen People 3

You’ve seen the surveys. Most people think they are more friendly, more intelligent, more honest than average—an obvious impossibility.

We have a hard time seeing ourselves objectively. We are just too close, and too likely to accentuate our virtues and minimize our weaknesses. It’s true of groups (sometimes called ethnocentrism) as well as individuals. How can we then get an accurate view? An outside assessment can help.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America gave Americans just that. Writing after his extended visit and intense investigation into Jacksonian America in the 1830s, Tocqueville admired Americans for their freedom and hard work but was cautious of their overly congratulatory view of themselves. In this caution, Tocqueville’s thinking lined up with the Framers of the Constitution (see here).

People are and always will be a combination of “good instincts” and “wicked inclinations.” We are not getting better and better every day in every way. Human nature with its flaws and strengths has remained constant for thousands of years. (Are we more advanced, more civilized now than five thousand years ago? With 160 million or more killed for political reasons in the twentieth century, it is hard to argue it is so.)

Individuals embody this mix of traits as much as groups. Power, therefore, always carries dangers, regardless of whether a group or an individual wields it.

As Robert Tracy McKenzie summaries this in his outstanding, wide-ranging book We the Fallen People, “Power is always a threat to liberty and justice. This probably seems obvious under a monarchy or dictatorship, but Tocqueville is warning us that it holds no less true for a democracy” (p. 204).

Examples abound in American history including the forceable removal of thousands of Cherokees from Georgia under Jackson’s administration. Tocqueville didn’t think we should do away with democracy because of such problems. Democracy has many blessings. But we do ourselves a disservice when we fail to openly acknowledge that tyranny of the majority has happened here and that it can happen again. Therefore, we must always be on our guard—even from those we agree with who can also exercise that tyranny.

Tocqueville’s own family history made him sharply aware of this dynamic. Five of his relatives were guillotined (along with thousands of others) by the passions of a democratic majority in the French Revolution forty years before, and his parents were traumatized by the events for the rest of their lives.

Tocqueville viewed democracy in America with clear-eyed realism. He knew that both “Indians and Negroes suffer the effects of tyranny.” So while he did not have unalloyed faith in democracy, he nonetheless did have hope for it (despite his family’s history).

He saw its benefits at least among the white population, a diverse group by European standards. This country of immigrants was “a society compounded of all the nations of the world. People each having a language, a belief, different opinions: in a word, a society lacking roots, memories, prejudices, habits, common ideas, a national character” (p. 220). Yet in his view they were freer and more prosperous than any such population in Europe.

What made democracy in America work despite its drawbacks? That is the topic of the next post in this series.

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of We the Fallen People from the Publisher. My opinions are my own.

What’s Wrong with U.S. Politics?

We the Fallen People 2

Many think something is very wrong with the U.S. political system. In Robert Tracy McKenzie’s excellent book We the Fallen People, he contends that one problem lies with how we have wandered from the way the Framers of the Constitution understood human nature. As we saw in my last post, the Framers were realists who knew people weren’t reliably good.

A key turning point in this drift came almost two hundred years ago, just a generation after the Constitution was written. In the presidential election of 1824, one of the most contentious in U.S. history, Andrew Jackson pioneered three strategies which have been a staple of American politics ever since.

First, he “ran against Washington DC,” proclaiming himself the outsider who could fix a broken system. Second, he developed a populist strategy which many have followed (both liberals and conservatives) ever since.

McKenzie helpfully describes this, saying, “Populists see the world . . . as a struggle between ‘the people’—always clothed in robes of righteousness—and some insidious threat to the people, typically a corrupt elite who would subvert the people’s welfare for selfish gain. . . . When populist leaders pay tribute to ‘the people,’ who they really have in mind are the folks who agree with them. Everyone else is an enemy” (p. 161).

The result of the election? Andrew Jackson led the field with 99 electoral votes. But he failed to carry a majority with the rest spread among three others—John Quincy Adams with 84, William C. Crawford with 41, and Henry Clay with 37. With no majority in the electoral college, the Constitution required the decision go to the House which elected John Quincy Adams.

The Framers of the Constitution, you see, wanted the election of the president to be shielded from the passions of the crowd—thus they inserted the Electoral College and the House. As I noted here, the Framers feared not only the tyranny of a king but also the tyranny of a majority (even a majority of white men like themselves).

As a result Jackson and his supporters pioneered a third strategy—they proclaimed long and loud that the presidential election of 1824 had been stolen from “the people” even though absolutely nothing underhanded or illegal had been done. The Constitution had been followed exactly as written. Yet he kept asserting this for the next four years despite its obvious lack of truth. Jackson also falsely claimed that the Framers thought the person with the most popular votes should be President even though the Constitution clearly says otherwise. Jackson won in 1828.

“The Framers of the Constitution would have been horrified” at Jackson’s populist strategy and its success. “In Federalist nos. 10 and 51,” McKenzie writes, “James Madison had argued that the only way to protect minority groups in a republic was to hope that society would be so diverse and the number of distinct interest groups so large that majority coalitions would rarely emerge.” He stated that whenever “a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure” (pp. 169-70).

What’s wrong with U.S. politics? The Framers had an answer: “We are.”

That’s why they created a system that sought to protect all of us from ourselves. We forget this at our peril.

Despite the divisions during Jackson’s time, all sides listened to one major voice. He was an unlikely option not only because he was young and an aristocrat, but also because he was a foreigner. In addition, he agreed with Madison and dissented from the populist majority. His name was Alexis de Tocqueville, and his book (which I will discuss in part three of this series) was the timeless classic Democracy in America.

Engraving: James Barton Longacre, 1794-1869; Library of Congress–

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of We the Fallen People from the Publisher. My opinions are my own.

The Beauty of Gridlock

(We the Fallen People 1)

Complaining about political gridlock is our new national pastime. Congress seems to get barely anything done. What would the Founding Fathers of the United States think about all this? They’d be delighted.

Why? Because it would mean that the Constitution was working as intended—making change difficult and slow.

How did they achieve this? By spreading out power among various groups nationally (the executive, legislative, and judicial branches) and sharing it with the states (which have their own executive, legislative and judicial branches, as well as city and county divisions). We call this a system of checks and balances, and separation of powers. The intentional result, sometimes, is gridlock.

Why did they do this? Because they didn’t trust human nature.

In this first of a series of posts, I will unpack this story and several others told by Robert Tracy McKenzie in We the Fallen People, one of the most important, insightful, and worthwhile books of recent years. This vital work not only gives us some fascinating history but also offers key observations and wisdom for our own day.

So why didn’t the Founders trust human nature? “The problem as they understood it,” McKenzie writes, “is not that we’re wholly evil; it’s that we’re not reliably good” (p. 17). “The Founders were realists. They exhorted Americans to revere and practice virtue. They didn’t expect it” (p. 42).

Checks and balances are especially important because they didn’t want one person or group to be easily able to impose its will on others. While they rejected the potential tyranny of king, they also rejected the potential tyranny of the majority—even a majority of white males who were the only ones who could vote.

Hamilton observed that “this is why we have government in the first place: ‘because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint’” (p. 54).

The Founders were not perfect themselves in avoiding this problem—witness the tyranny of the majority of white males over slaves and Native Americans, and the absence of political representation by white women.

It may sound strange that they distrusted democracy, but it explains why originally the Constitution called for senators to be elected indirectly by the state legislators. It’s also why they didn’t want the President elected directly but through the Electoral College.

How things have changed! Today most Americans as well as most Christians (according to polls) reject the underlying assumption of the Founders that human nature is driven by self-interest, often at the expense of others. We the people now believe in the goodness of human nature—at least the goodness of American human nature. And if not that, then at least the goodness of those we agree with!

We the people have no doubts about how good and noble and true are our opinions, our motivations, and our goals. The Founders believed we should be very suspect of exactly these things, and they built that understanding into the Constitution.

Remarkably, the shift about human nature from the realism of the Founders to the optimism of today did not begin with Oprah Winfrey or Thomas Harris’s 1960s bestseller I’m OK—You’re OK or Norman Vincent Peale’s radio show from the 1930s and his The Power of Positive Thinking. What David Brooks has labeled in The Road to Character as the age of “the Big Me,” McKenzie tells us, began two centuries ago with the election of Andrew Jackson.

We’ll look at that story from We the Fallen People in my next post.

Image by Wenhan Cheng from Pixabay