“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism…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.”
In his Farewell Address to the nation (1796), a retiring George Washington made it clear that while the new Constitution was a sound foundation for a growing nation, it was by no means foolproof. Though designed with checks and balances to protect against the tyranny of both individuals on the one hand and the masses on the other, one thing it could not withstand was the tyranny of factionalism.
Our first President was not conjuring bogeymen to frighten us; partisan division was already a reality, the seeds of which had been sown even before he declined a third term. Now, without this unifying figure, almost universally revered, the country would surely descend into factions. He saw this in his own cabinet: with Jefferson and his camp on one side, and Hamilton’s party on the other, the acrimony was growing daily, pitting those who wanted less government against those who wanted more, a nation of gentleman farmers against a new moneyed class, an agrarian economy against a mercantile one, the wealth of the soil against the wealth of cities. In the press, in the taverns, on the streets, in the halls of Congress, the two sides began to demonize each other. Yes, the Constitution could withstand many things, but it could not withstand leadership that put party above country.
In many ways our Constitution is a realistic document, a work of genius and compromise, with safeguards based on a keen understanding of power, fallen human nature, and history: how democracies die, how some are overthrown or others rot from within. Yet it is also a hopelessly idealistic one, taking for granted that those who safeguard it will be men and women of principle who put the public interest before any other. Over the past year we have seen just how naïve a document it is and how limited in power, especially if the people entrusted with implementing it will not do so because they are bound to party over country, or selfish ambition and greed over the rule of law. This is how democracies decay, falter, and eventually collapse.
And where is the church in all this? Well, the most powerful and vocal part of it is poised defiantly on the funeral pyre crying for more tinder, more kerosene. There is something so attractive, so hypnotic about a conflagration. For decades pulpits from coast to coast have either thundered with anathemas against “liberals” or echoed with silence in the face of growing intolerance. Instead of railing against poverty, intolerance, racism, militarism, American exceptionalism, and the greed of fundamentalist capitalism, many ministers have sided with the moneychangers, turning instead on the “lazy” poor, immigrants, and the weakest, most broken members of society, or else aiming their cannons at a manufactured “war on Christmas.” Now constantly fed by a powerful propaganda machine fueled by corporate and foreign cash, it is perhaps improbable that these Christians will ever come to their senses. Ironic isn’t it, that this country should be destroyed by the very church that could have saved it?
Politics is all about compromise and tolerance. It takes both sides to keep the political log rolling. Fundamentalism, however, does not function that way. It is all about drawing lines in the sand, refusing negotiation, excluding and anathematizing the opposition. That is why fundamentalism destroys whatever it touches, including democracy. Fundamentalism and tyranny go hand in hand; they are both about control, my way or the highway, fear of dissent. The opposition is demonized, treated with contempt, because dissent and differing points of view represent a threat.
I would add that among the left, a contempt for religion, a disdain for religious values and language, and what is viewed as a pandering to the non-religious segments of society have alienated America’s heartland. Americans are a religious people. That’s what makes us resilient and hard-working. But if conservatives have claim to being a “party of biblical values,” so should liberals. Issues such as racial and economic equality, or caring for the poor, are just as biblical as the rights of the unborn, traditional marriage, or prayer in schools. That certainly used to be the case when, for example, in the wake of the Second Great Awakening, American evangelicals took on the evils of slavery, poverty, child labor, and poor working conditions. If the far-right has now co-opted Christianity, it is because the left has allowed them to do so without even a fight.
It is interesting that what we call Washington’s Farewell Address was probably written in stages by his constitutional adviser James Madison, a protégé of Jefferson, and later Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, both representing the opposing factions. Compared to these men, Washington was no scholar but he certainly must have laid out what he wanted to say; the idea of warning against factions was something he felt deeply and would probably not have originated among the members of the warring factions themselves. Still, he entrusted to these very men the laying out of the case, a task they performed with their usual erudition and skill. Their success is nothing short of ironic, and one wonders what was going through their minds, given the fact that as they wrote it, they were probably already plotting who would succeed him.
We will see within the next year or two whether our Constitution can withstand such a test, or whether Washington’s frightening vision was true, that partisanship just might prove our undoing. Our first President was certainly an idealist, and though he was no friend of factionalism, he admits that political parties are perhaps unavoidable, may even be a necessary evil. What he is appealing to here, however, is what Lincoln would later call “the better angels of our nature,” our love of country. The question still resonates: will we learn to put aside party spirit for the good of the Union, or like a noisy gang of two-year-olds, will we smash it all to pieces if we can’t have our way?
It is a tragedy that the church has nothing to say in this regard. If only the Scriptures had something to contribute on the subject of mutual respect or tolerance, selfish ambition or party spirit, instead of “Shatter the teeth of the wicked, O LORD!” and “Slay mine enemy!”