Faith and the Hard Work of Democracy

| August 13, 2018

George Washington’s Farewell Address is one of the classic documents of American history.  Conceived by President Washington near the end of his first term, the text originally drafted by James Madison, set aside as Washington served a second term, refined by Alexander Hamilton, and released by Washington ten weeks before the electors cast ballots in the 1796 election, this great letter is addressed to the “Friends and Citizens” of America.

In it, Washington reflected on the nature of democracy, and outlined three great dangers to it.  He offered his sentiments, “which are the result of much reflection” for our “solemn contemplation and recommended to [our] frequent review.”  With an election soon upon us, and in Washington’s words “the time actually arrived when your thoughts must be employed in designating [the persons] to be clothed with that important trust,” and with Washington’s Farewell Address now celebrated in the song One Last Time from the musical Hamilton, this seems like a good occasion for such a “frequent review.”

To Washington, democracy is hard work.  It requires an intelligent and informed public, with people ready to look beyond their individual interests and to the public good. He speaks repeatedly of the unity found is seeking the common good, with each part valuing all the others, and the making of “you one people” undivided by the expanse of geography or political position.

The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. … You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes.

To Washington, the first and greatest danger to democracy was the disunity created by political parties.  He saw political parties (then called “factions”) as a necessary evil, but one with the dangerous potential to alienate Americans against one another.  He saw factions pushing back and forth against one another, seeking power of its own sake, rewarding its constituents and putting down its enemies.  “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, …  is itself a frightful despotism.”

Washington was fearful that Americans would trust party more than country, writing to “warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.”  In a 21st century America that feels sharply divided, his words of warning sound prophetic, that the allegiance to factions and parties:

… serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.

It is hard not to read Washington’s Farewell Address without a feeling of loss.  American politics has indeed become tribal, with each faction seemed intent on belittling, demeaning, and blaming the other.  It encapsulates all of our divides, whether it be race, education, or religion.  Each side has little understanding for the other, and even less respect.

This divide was vividly demonstrated with the release of a new study in The Journal of American Politics, “The Parties in Our Heads.”  It asked members of one party about characteristics of the members of the other party.  This is important, because so much of party identification is driven by “negative partisanship”, meaning loyalty to one party because you are against the other.

It turns out that the stereotypes each party has fostered of the other are wildly wrong.

For example, Republicans were asked “what percentage of Democrats are agnostics or atheists?”  Republicans as a group answered 36%.  The correct answer is 9%.

Republicans were asked “what percentage of Democrats are LBG?” Republicans answered 38%, which would be impossible given the very small percentage of LBG in America generally.  The right answer is 6%.

Or union members?  44%?  Wrong – just 11%.  Or African-Americans?  46%? No – really only 22%.

In other words, Republican voters were opposed to a political party that simply does not really exist, except in fear and stereotype.

The answers were no better when the roles were reversed.  Democrats were asked what percentage of Republicans are 65 years old or older.  Democrats as a group answered 44%; but the right answer is just 21%.

Perhaps the most laughably wrong answer was when Democrats were asked “what percentage of Republicans are earning more than $250,000/year?”  Democrats as a group answered 44%.  The right answer – a minuscule 2%.

Some might see such divisions and misrepresentations as an unavoidable consequence of today’s world of constant electronic communication.  But Washington foresaw the divisions based upon such “negative partisanship.”  His Farewell Address warned that “one of the expedients of party to acquire influence … is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other …  You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.”

So, what can or should be done, as the warnings of the greatest of America’s founders are today vividly on display?  Is this something just to be accepted in today’s world of sound bites and tweets?  Washington’s Farewell Address did more than warn of the problem, it offered a solution.

Washington acknowledged that party passions were unavoidable in a democracy, and a necessary vehicle for popular government – “a fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.”  The twin pillars of that “uniform vigilance” are faith and morality.

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens 

Standing with these “great pillars” is the enlightened education of society.  Washington urged us to “Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”  He saw education not as the opponent of religious faith, but a companion virtue:  “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”  This national virtue would manifest itself in high regard and respect for fellow citizens of the nation, building a unity of spirit and of purpose.

In other words, and to make this personal, Christians of strong faith should be in the forefront of fostering national unity; unity based not on the compromise of common ground, but on the virtues of higher ground.

After all, from Christians have repeatedly come great national leaders associated with both conservative and liberal causes.  Christians have groups historically aligned with both Democrats. Christians have the instruction of Scriptures to live as a testimony to Christ and the Gospel in humility, peace, and good will:

As free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God.  Honor all people.  Love the brotherhood.  Fear God.  Honor the king.          I Peter 2: 16, 17

But we urge you, brethren, that you increase more and more; that you also aspire to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, that you may walk properly toward those who are outside, and that you may lack nothing.  I Thessalonians 4: 9 – 12

Through our faith, Christians are equipped with all the virtues required for the hard work of democracy – humility, self-control, perseverance, confidence, morality, insight, and self-sacrifice.  As an election approaches in an America very much “agitate[d] with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms” and with “animosity of one part against another” should we not be found as those whose citizenship is in heaven, and whose lives commend them to the conscience of all.

Washington’s Farewell Address identified three great dangers to democracy, one of which was the animosity of factions was one.  What were the other two?

One was excessive public debt, which he counseled using “as sparingly as possible” and “avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt” for endless national debt is “throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.”

The other danger was entanglements with foreign governments, most especially those that do not share our love of liberty but are ruled by tyrants — the “insidious wiles of foreign influence [against which] … a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.”

Washington offered his words as the “counsels of an old and affectionate friend.”  His words are as timely now as in 1796.  He wrote to what he described as “a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation.”  That greatness we have achieved.  Now, as then, “religion and morality enjoin this conduct …  to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.

Great words, and worthy of “frequent review.”

Category: Faith

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Email | Website | Thomas Schetelich is a founding principal in the law firm of Ferguson, Schetelich & Ballew in Baltimore, Maryland, and a member of the United States Supreme Court Bar. He heads both the firm’s corporate/ business law practice and its personal legal services department. He is an AV rated attorney awarded for highest standards of professional skill and ethical practice. Mr. Schetelich devotes much of his practice to assisting charitable and religious organizations, and is the President of The Christian Professional Network. He is a frequent speaker on Biblical and legal matters throughout the United States.