Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Some Thoughts on What De Tocqueville Called "The American Experiment"

(I realize that this post is being written against the backdrop of a military coup in Egypt, but this post was originally planned as an Independence Day reflection.  Nevertheless, I think both angles are applicable here. -E.A.)

When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote his two-volume magnum opus, "On Democracy in America," his purpose was to analyze why our representative democracy model of governance was succeeding here, whereas similar models were not over in Europe, especially in de Tocqueville's native France.  By and large, it is a positive portrayal of how our nation works--and keep in mind, this was an analysis written while we still had institutional slavery and were violently oppressing vast populations of American Indians.

In other words, we have come a long way.

But at least two of de Tocqueville's observations about our democracy remain extraordinarily true in my experience: first, that a democracy, if left unchecked, can devolve into a "soft despotism" that is more widely labeled today as a tyranny of the majority--that is, the majority gets what it wants at the expense of the minority's rights.  And second, that religious life here is so strong precisely because of, and not in spite of, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, guaranteeing separation from church and state.  If these two sound unrelated at the outset, I promise you that they are, in fact, very much intertwined.

Because we live in a nation far different than the Biblical Israel in which Christianity was founded--different in terms of language, culture, geography, social ethics--the whole nine yards.  Including, it must be noted, majority religion.

Christianity was not founded as a majority religion, nor was it a majority religion ANYWHERE for the first 300ish years of its existence, until Constantine the Great rolled along and instituted it as the Roman state religion.

And I have to think that somewhere in the midst of the past 1,700 or so years, we Western Christians have forgotten what it is like to be the minority.  There are nations today in which Christians are severely persecuted--Egypt being one of them--but the United States is currently not such a nation (though our history includes substantial persecution of Roman Catholics and Mormons).

It's truly an irony from my perspective: the American Christian church bemoans its loss of status, yet even as recently as 2008, it was getting same-sex marriage bans passed in states across the country, even in more left-leaning states such as Oregon and California.

But because of the setbacks dealt recently towards "traditional marriage" proponents--like the recent Supreme Court rulings striking down DOMA and Prop 8--I keep hearing this refrain that Christians are being persecuted here.

And that does not pass the proverbial smell test to me, because when we do things like trying to uphold DOMA, we are engaging in a form of that "soft despotism" that de Tocqueville writes about.  We are enabling the majority to have its way at the expense of a minority's rights.

Repealing laws that engage in that isn't persecution--it is a balancing of the scales.

And it is something that we have been good at in the past, and something we must continually strive to improve at.  Because if we are going to say that America really is the place where anyone can get a fair shake, that we are the last true meritocracy, that we, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., judge on the content of character, then we need to take seriously the praise that a French political philosopher doled out in heaps to our model of governance nearly 180 years ago.

We can be the newest and greatest version of the experiment of democracy that began all the way in ancient Greece.

But we have to want it.

And part of wanting it is recognizing that American Christianity is a religion, not a hegemon.

I do not expect such recognition to be easy, but it will not make the sky fall, and the nation we share will be better for us having done so.

I wish all of you a happy and safe Fourth!

Yours in Christ,

No comments:

Post a Comment