Political temperance, which America’s Founders cherished, is now unfashionable, including in many Christian circles, where temperance should be especially esteemed. This recent column from a Protestant publication that wants a Calvinist confessional state declares that the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence, if once glorious, are now irrelevant. “America in 2023 is no longer a constitutional republic or a democracy,” it insists.
This writer calls for “extra-legality” and “extra-constitutional measures” instead of “artificial loyalty to mindless procedural norms that are impotent to preserve America.” Does “extra-legality” include violence? If not, what does it include? The writer complains of a critic who does not know “what time it is.” But what time is it actually?
For impatient zealots and perfectionists, typically young men, it’s never time for temperance. For them, the wicked are always ascendant, so there must be electrifying righteous action NOW to overthrow the corrupt order. Disagreement with this perspective equals weakness. For the Christian Realist, especially if seasoned by age and experience, the apocalyptic rejection of all current arrangements in favor of an imagined supposedly more heavenly alternative is always suspect. We are all finite and sinful, lacking the skill or ability to achieve a social fantasy. We also are called to appreciate what currently exists, which is rarely entirely evil, and which usually evinces countless aspects of God’s redemptive actions.
In contrast with most of the world and most people in history, we today in America are mostly wealthy, comfortable, and free. We live where we want, usually in nice homes, and we go where we want, usually in nice cars. We eat well, we befriend whomever we want, we say and think what we want, and we often complain, sometimes justly, about what we don’t have. More often, our complaints reflect the sense of entitlement that we, as covetous sinners, all have to some extent. Why isn’t God giving us more? Who is holding us back? Why are we victims of such injustice? Why must we live among people we know to be wrong?
There is always injustice. Satan roams the earth like a roaring lion, the scriptures warn. And even the best of us, by nature, often cooperate with Satan, even as we style ourselves good people. We imagine that others are ruining everything, even as we supposedly seek righteousness. The reality is almost always more complicated. And the sanctified saints among us are always very few. Even they are often lacking in wisdom. Personal holiness doesn’t guarantee expertise or even knowing “what time it is.”
What time is it in America? Are our founding ideals and constitutional principles actually eradicated so that we must resort to “extra-legality” against our perceived adversaries? In truth, our country has never lived completely within our founding ideals and laws. Slavery existed for 76 years under the Constitution, and legal racial discrimination existed another 100 years. The right to vote, within the lifetimes of people currently alive, was limited in many states to wealthy white people. (I was stunned to read recently that in 1940 only 12 percent of Virginia voted, thanks to poll taxes and other restrictions discouraging blacks and poor whites.) Women only gained the franchise 100 years ago, and women did not gain many legal rights until recent decades.
There have always been oligarchies, real and imagined, that wield undue power, inside and outside the government, at the expense of others. For most of American history, the banks, or the railroads, or the car manufacturers, moguls like Rockefeller or Ford or Morgan, or the local mill owner, or the big landowner, or the country club membership, held sway over everybody else. Harry Truman complained about the “high hats,” the people in every society, from the small town he knew so well to national life, who have the money and standing to lord over others with presumption. Wealthy Anglo Protestants, especially in the northeast, stayed ascendant until fairly recently, with hinterland Protestants, Catholics, Jews, southern European immigrants, blacks, and Asians living under their thumb.
And yet, amid all the disparities and injustices, somehow the republic has moved forward in fits and starts. In its greatest crisis, when one third of the country went to war against the federal government to keep 3 million black people enslaved, Abraham Lincoln did not despair of the Declaration or the Constitution. Instead, he asked supporters of the union to hearken to them, as they offered the path forward to a “new birth of freedom,” even when under the greatest assault. More Americans today have access to the promises of the Declaration that at any other point in our history.
The Founders in the Declaration articulated a lofty vision. But they had no illusions about human nature, nor did they believe they were founding a Christian republic, although they were Christian. They wanted to sustain freedom and stability by dividing powers and keeping factions checked by other factions. These balances among competing interests, they hoped, would perpetuate a relative peace, and ideally even synthesize into a relative social harmony pointing to America’s public good.
In his book 2009 American Babylon, Richard Neuhaus noted that America is Babylon “not by comparison with other societies but by comparison with that radically new order sought by all who know love’s grief in refusing to settle for a community of less than truth and justice uncompromised.” In 1996 Neuhaus had hosted a forum in First Things called The End of Democracy in which he and others wondered whether Christians could still affirm the republic amid judicial usurpations such as Roe versus Wade, which of course has since been overturned. And yet he affirmed towards the end of his life that America “is, for better and worse, the place of our pilgrimage through time toward home,” until which “we cannot help but, through our tears, sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land.”
Neuhaus also warned:
It is a self-flattering conceit to think we deserve a better world. What’s wrong with this one begins with us. And yet we are dissatisfied. Our restless discontent takes the form not of complaint but of hope. There is a promise not yet fulfilled. One lives in discontented gratitude for the promise, which is to say one lives in hope.”
Hope and “discontented gratitude” should be the emblem of Christian political aspirations, not intemperate calls for “extra-legality.” For the Christian Realist, the question is not so much “what time is it,” but how can we serve as redemptive agents where we are.