Review: We the Fallen People

We the Fallen People, Robert Tracy McKenzie. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: An argument that we have witnessed a great reversal in American history from an assumption of fallen human nature to the inherent goodness of people, which the author believes could jeopardize its future.

“America is great, because America is good.” Have you heard that phrase? Likely, it was attributed to writer on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville. Except that Tocqueville never said it. Rather, he said, “I cannot regard you as a virtuous people.” And his two volume work, which many believe to be a paean of praise to American democracy is in fact much more guarded in its appraisal according to Robert Tracy McKenzie. He contends, along with Tocqueville himself, that this work is often misunderstood, if it has been read.

While there is a good amount of material about Tocqueville here, the real concern of this book is about a Great Reversal that occurred in American history concerning American goodness. He begins with the Founders and the writing of the Constitution. The young nation just wasn’t working. Dependence upon the good will of the states to contribute to the upkeep of a national government just wasn’t happening and the national government had no way to compel it. They were depending on virtuous behavior and it was not forthcoming.

In writing the Constitution, the framers started from a different premise, “taking human nature as they found it.” In biblical terms, they assumed a fallen people. On one hand, they created a federal government with a strong executive office to implement the laws passed by Congress. Congress had two houses, one that represented local interests, and one representing broader concerns to balance each other. They could override the executive’s veto. At the same time a third branch, the judiciary, could check laws that overreached the power of the Constitution. It both guarded against excessive influence of popular power, and any concentration of power within the government. They wouldn’t trust anyone too far. They assumed human fallibility and fallenness.

McKenzie proposes that a Great Reversal occurred with the election of Andrew Jackson, who presented himself as the people’s president. He represented himself singularly as the people’s representative. He described his victory as “a triumph of the virtue of the people.” The great reversal in all of this was a growing belief in the inherent goodness of the American people, and those they elect, an assumption that has continued to the present day. Accruing great power to himself, he encouraged the abrogation of treaties with the Cherokee people and their removal via the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. In a lesser discussed move, he worked to end the second Bank of the United States. Tracy sees in this Jackson’s use of populism, the People versus the Monster, although the Bank had engaged in no wrongdoing. It is this extension of the power of democratic majorities, a “we versus them,” where “they” are not worthy, that is deeply disturbing. Democracy provides no protection from abuse of power when unchecked by the structures and the underlying premises behind those structures conceived by the founders.

It was this that was Tocqueville’s concern, writing during this period. Tocqueville witnessed the rise of partisan politics in which Congress failed to check Jackson’s moves, nor did the judiciary. While he recognized the great energy and productivity of the country, and the breadth of freedom its white male citizens enjoyed–greater than in Europe–he also recognized how democracies could be turned to ill, depending on how majorities wielded their power. He recognized how people could exchange liberty and justice for safety.

At the same time, Tocqueville finds that it is not virtue but self-interest that can be a safeguard–the temporary denial of benefit for long term profit that produces a kind of discipline, and counters individualism with collaboration on shared self-interests like good roads. Tocqueville also believed religious piety of importance, not because of his religious views, but as an early sociologist and political thinker. Belief in an afterlife in which one gives account can serve as a partial, not total, restraint on egregious evil. Tocqueville saw the separation of church and state as a good thing, recognizing the loss of spiritual force churches experienced when intertwined with political power.

All of this challenges the rhetoric of American goodness and greatness. McKenzie believes there can be great danger in being blind to human depravity, whereas the recognition of this gives reason for the countervailing powers of government and punctures the pretensions of political leaders. In his concluding chapter, he not only applies this to our current political scene, but if anything, even more forcefully speaks to his concerns for the ways the church has allied itself with political power.

This also explains to me the efforts to sanitize the teaching of American history, expunging our sorry dealings with native peoples, our involvement with slavery from our earliest settlements, and the structures that continued to oppress blacks, other minorities, and women even after Emancipation. None of these things ought surprise those of us who believe in human fallenness, who also believe in the biblical remedies of repentance, just restitution, and reconciliation. But those who must hold onto the myth of our inherent goodness cannot admit these things–the only solution is suppression–a strategy that has been a heavy burden on our nation

This is a vitally important book for our time. It not only takes a deep dive into the Great Reversal of the Jackson presidency but also uses Tocqueville to challenge the stories we tell about ourselves. It calls us to be clear-eyed about the future of our democracy, and questions the naïve notion of our inherent goodness. Perhaps a severe mercy of the pandemic is that it has challenged such illusions. But do we still hide behind them by attributing wickedness to “them”? Or will we learn from Samuel Thompson, a Massachusetts delegate in a ratification convention in 1788, to whom McKenzie introduces us. He declared, “I extremely doubt the infallibility of human nature” and gave for the basis of his doubt “Sir, I suspect my own heart, and I shall suspect our rulers.” Will we suspect our own hearts and put our trust not in rulers but in the God who searches hearts?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Nature’s God

natures-god

Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic, Matthew Stewart. New York: W.W. Norton, 2014.

Summary: An argument that the key ideas at the foundations of our country were not Christian but rather traceable back to Lucretius and to European thinkers, the foremost of whom was Spinoza, whose ideas were shaped by Enlightenment reason resulting more in a materialist atheism or nature pantheism/deism.

There is an ongoing argument surrounding American beginnings as to whether these were Christian or more attributable to a kind of vague deism. While I as a Christian would love to believe it was the former, when I read the writings of Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and other founders, I find that while they recognize the place and importance of Christian churches, they are not Christian in any orthodox sense in the personal beliefs that shaped the thinking behind our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution (which omits even the mention of “God”).

Matthew Stewart explores the intellectual genealogy of the founders, but does so in an unusual fashion. He starts out with a book, The Oracles of Reasonwritten by Ethan Allen, of Green Mountain Boys and Fort Ticonderoga fame. This inelegantly written book conveys Allen’s repugnance of the idea of the Christian deity, argues for a god of nature, the place of reason (“self evident truths”) and a state free of control by the church. Where did Allen get these ideas, as an uneducated man? From Dr. Thomas Young, who exists around the edges of the more famous founders. Stewart will weave these two characters throughout the narrative.

What I think Stewart is trying to demonstrate is how widely held these ideas, often classed under deism, but in fact were closer to pantheism (“all is god”) or even outright atheism. He then follows back the lineage of these ideas to Lucretius, and Epicurean philosophy, which rather than being hedonistic, actually talked about the idea of living well, or moderately. Stewart follows these ideas into Europe to Benedict de Spinoza, Hobbes, and John Locke, who may clothe them at times in Christian language, but actually lays the groundwork for a view of reality that is sees God and Nature as synonymous (hence making this either pantheism, or outright atheism if nature is viewed simply as matter). Truth is “self-evident” in that what we think has an existence of its own that precedes all else. As with Lucretius, the pursuit of happiness is not wild pleasure-seeking but virtuous living. This leads to an “empire of reason,” a rational rule of law that recognizes the equality of all, unalienable rights, government by the consent of the governed, the right to abolish governments that do not serve these ends and to institute new ones.

The concluding chapter is titled “The Religion of Freedom”. It explores the fact that the founders, while protecting the free exercise of religious faith, believing that popular religion served a certain good in inculcating morals necessary for a good society, ultimately envisioned a government free of religion’s control, where the individual could believe what he or she wants without constraint. Stewart argues that many of the founders were free-thinkers who might be classified as atheists today. And while religion went through a resurgence, and continues to play an important role, by and large it conforms to liberal ideals and only causes problems when it is not content to exist in a very privatized form.

One gets the sense in reading Stewart that he thinks that this is not only the truest account of the genealogy of ideas that formed our beginnings as a nation, but that this is as it ought to be, and that the continued existence of religion is an annoying hindrance. He writes,

“The main thing we learn now from the persistence in modern America of supernatural religion and the reactionary nationalism with which it is so regularly accompanied is that there is still work to be done. For too long we have relied on silence to speak a certain truth. The noise tells us the time has come for some candor. It points to a piece of unfinished business of the American Revolution” (p. 431).

What bothers me in Stewart’s work is not the accuracy of the case he makes for the ideas that undergird our republic, but rather the selective treatment of Christian faith that presents a caricature featuring its most invidious expressions. Little attention, for example, is given to the educational enterprise, an extension of the churches, that brought together such a learned generation. No attention is given to another founder, Reverend John Witherspoon, President of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), who thoughtfully sought to integrate Christian ethics and enlightenment thought, serving in the Continental Congress from 1776 to 1782. It seems to me that Stewart’s intent is to marshal his evidence, as have some of our popular militant atheists, to make us want to eradicate “supernatural religion” (and one wonders if this also includes those who embrace it).

Likewise, for all it vaunting of reason and virtue, the tacit admission of the power of religious faith to foster morals, and public order suggests a certain weakness in this “empire of reason.” Might a more constructive course be one that admits both the distinctive contribution of founders who articulated a vision of a public square not dominated by a single faith, but open to all, and the vibrant, but messy competing ideologies that seek to shape the minds, hearts, and moral life of our people that allows a thing rare in the annals of human history–freedom of conscience?