Rising Leader Series: Week 27 – American Democracy: Overview
“In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility– I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it– and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you– ask what you can do for your country.” -- President John F. Kennedy, in his first inaugural address
July 4th is around the corner. It’s a day to honor our past; we do so by working towards a better future. One thing is clear about the future: America needs a new generation of leaders.
At this tenuous moment, with the post-WWII world order now shattered in Europe and democracy under attack at home, we Americans find ourselves called yet again into the struggle for freedom. We enter this fight weakened and divided. American democracy is broken; we must renew and strengthen it if we are to be a force for good in the world. This work falls to leaders of goodness like you.
We are a nation divided. It is for that very reason that we must work together to protect our core institutions and beliefs. Upon democracy’s pillars the fate of our nation rests. I believe America can again become that “shining city on the hill”, as Ronald Reagan once said, for the entire world. But it takes deep and honest reflection. We must name what’s wrong. Only then might American democracy be renewed– strengthened– protected.
You will remember from my previous letters that democracy is one of the seven steps on the ladder I call the “disciplines of goodness”-- steps that rise upward from our relationship with God:
There are many ways to govern a society: monarchy, oligarchy, dictatorship. Just one is sacred. Yes– it’s democracy. Democracy flows from God. God granted us free will; He granted us equal worth. He created our diversity. He knows our fallen state. He made us unique and interdependent. All of these make “government of the people, by the people and for the people” sacred: checked and balanced, self-healing, rejuvenating.
You might have heard the phrase, “America is not a democracy— it’s a republic”. It’s dangerous language because it can be used to legitimize actions that work against democracy. Indeed, we are a republic— and a republic is a democratic form of government. It is composed of elected representatives, and an elected presidency. Ours is not a direct democracy, for sure; ours is a representative democracy– as most democracies are.
American democracy is founded on five pillars, all sacred ideals:
Our constitutional, representative, republican democracy enables equal and free people (not despots) to select their leaders and laws. The constitution marks the guard rails. Power is loaned to those leaders who emerge victorious from free and fair elections. In between elections, the rule of law prevails. By this way, peace is maintained; the common welfare is ensured; stability and change are kept in balance.
But our democracy is at risk. A glance at the nightly news tells the story. We’re beset by differences — seemingly irreconcilable. Our biases and fears make us vulnerable to the siren calls of one media silo or another. Caught inside our echo chamber of choice, we demonize those on the outside. In our debates, we can’t even agree on the facts.
One fact has been especially difficult for millions of Americans to accept: Biden won.
Yet the truth is, Biden did win. This is not a DemocratIc truth, nor a Republican truth– just the truth. And it is the duty of every American to acknowledge it. It is certainly the duty of every Christian, called by God to live in truth. The 60 court cases, scores of investigations and recounts conducted by the various states, more investigations conducted by the Department of Justice, and the exhaustive work of the House January 6 Committee all make this truth irrefutable. And yet the “election was stolen” lie persists, at great cost. Sacred democracy is built on trust, which is built on truth.
We were seconds and inches from catastrophe on January 6. Democracy survived — barely. After all other attempts to overturn the election had failed (false fraud claims, court challenges, fake elector schemes, pressure on the Vice President to reject the certified electors and more), leaders of the losing side called followers to Washington DC. And the crowd came. Inflamed by hot rhetoric, the crowd became a mob; the mob invaded; the US Capitol was breached.
And they almost succeeded. What if Vice President Pence, whisked away just 40 feet ahead of the mob, had been caught and killed? What if the mob had swelled further, to gain full control of the Capitol, with many thousands more arriving the next day? Governments are overthrown by mobs all the time (France’s 1789 storming of the Bastille, the Spanish Revolution of 1854 and Russia’s 1917 February Revolution come to mind). We think it’s all so permanent– until it isn’t.
A healthy democracy is characterized by free and fair elections (with simple, universal voter access and sound vote tallying processes). It is pluralistic (multiple parties); it is one in which competitors fight fair (within the rules); it exhibits a transparent government; it preserves civil liberties; and it features a free press.
Last year, the United States fell to the 26th spot on the Democracy Index (list of the most-to-least democratic nations)– below Costa Rica, Spain and South Korea. We are ranked a “flawed democracy”. Another democracy review tool, Democracy Matrix, ranks the US a “deficient democracy”.
Good leader, ponder what I’m about to say. It is of utmost importance:
American democracy is more important than party, more important than policy positions.
Whether liberal or conservative, we all share a duty more fundamental than our political beliefs. That duty is to protect and strengthen democracy. That requires us to live inside the guardrails set by our Constitution. At the most basic level, democracy requires losers to accept the loss and concede power. This is at the heart. Was January 6 an attack on democracy? Of course it was. Is the continuing attempt to spread the Big Lie and whitewash what happened that day a current threat? Of course it is.
In our zeal for tribe, we have lost sight of our most sacred ideals– the five pillars (individual liberty, equal vote, equal justice, equal opportunity and truth) that hold up our democracy. Too often, our demands for liberty have come at the expense of others’. Too often, we have seen our own vote as more important than others’. Too often, our demands for justice in one context have ignored injustice all around us in other contexts. We have approached “opportunity” as a win-lose proposition. We have marginalized the truth-tellers, bending truth to our views. We have become less respectful in debate, less tolerant, more judgmental, and now more violent.
This is not the America anyone wants — a house divided, weakened from within by cynicism and distrust. We yearn for a fresh, new and vital America — capable of embracing the future; of giving us life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; of positive growth and change; of resuming its place as a beacon of hope for the world; of vigorous debate without damage to democracy itself. Sacred democracy needs leaders who will protect it– especially at times of deep division.
Whether it be as servant citizens or as one called to elective office, we advance American democracy when we strengthen its pillars (the five sacred ideals). In the next four letters of this series, I will write about all five of these. It is especially important to advance them at times such as this, when we are in the thick of our sharpest debates. Democracy is of God. It sustains in the here and now because past generations fought to secure our generation’s freedom– sometimes at great cost in blood and treasure. To be reminded of this, we need just look at Ukraine. Freedom is never free.
“When a land transgresses, it has many rulers, but with a man of understanding and knowledge, its stability will long continue.”-- Proverbs 28:2
God bless America, and God bless you! Happy July 4th.
P.S.: In American democracy, the people’s will is secured through free, fair and trusted elections– but trust can be easily undermined by demagogue-seeded doubt. This poem talks about that.
THE FLICKERED TORCH OF LIBERTY
In the end, America’s built on trust–
that servants serve, that votes are counted fair–
that once the hot campaign is rendered dust,
the loser will concede with graceful air.
But when by foul cry faith is undermined,
aggrieved side chases compensating acts–
to tilt the scales to fix the ugly lie
that issued out of manufactured facts.
Which pricks the anger of the other side,
then shatters that side’s faith in future votes.
One cycle, two, her raised torch flickers, dies–
last puff: democracy goes up in smoke.
Awaken now in nation God-borne truth!
Fast save integrity of voting booth!
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