A Voice From the Not So Distant Past
Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary." R. Niebuhr
It is a good time in our national life to think on things we all agree on (or certainly should), and since we are the Church, to focus on those that have a theological dimension. To do this I want to recall the Christian voice in public affairs most influential in the latter half of the 20thcentury (except perhaps Martin Luther King), Reinhold Niebuhr. A Presbyterian, he taught for many years at Union Seminary, and his most famous work was The Nature and Destiny of Man.He is often called a ‘realist,’ by which is meant a writer with a strong sense of the brokenness of human nature, of the doctrine of sin. Niebuhr himself would have attributed this insight to his study of St. Augustine. He famously opposed the pacifism of much of American thought in the years leading up to World War II, for, while pacifism is an indispensable witness to the Kingdom, here and now evil must on occasion be resisted.
If you consider the oft-cited quotation in the header of this reflection, you find in essence a Christian defense of democracy per se, not in terms of the social good, nor in terms of inalienable rights, but rather in terms of human nature in its twofoldness. Insofar as we are made in the image of God, our potential for idealism cannot be denied. We ought not to fall into resignation. But insofar as we are children of original sin, we ought also to avoid all forms of naïve utopianism, for we are capable of grievous wrong. We humans need at once to be encouraged and restrained. We are ‘a little lower than the angels,’ and yet there is ‘no one righteous, not one.’ We need both avenues of progress and guardrails against tyranny. This sensibility is not lacking in our Constitution, whose balance of powers is a check against the authoritarianism we Americans fled, and its bill of rights is a guarantee of an element of freedom in keeping with the optimistic side of this seesaw. Things like term limits and financial transparency are consistent with this same ‘Augustinian’ skepticism. (I must confess I rather liked that proposal, offered by the ‘odd couple’ of Ted Cruz and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, to prohibit the lobbyist’s payday after public servant completes his or her service, a proposal neither party had any interest in).
In every American election, yet more important than either candidate is the electing itself. Thus universal franchise and honoring the electoral result have an important share in this theological warrant for democracy itself. We support them not only as Americans, but as Christians too. They matter also to the rest of the world, for it is to these, in spite of all our flaws, that aspiring nations look, since they are signs of hope in a ‘city on a hill.’