The spirit of democracy

We had dinner in D.C. with a friend and her new boyfriend not long after the 2016 election. He’s a civil servant, high up in a federal bureaucracy, so I took the opportunity to ask him what many of us were worried about: Would the new administration destroy American democracy?

He was no fan of the president-elect, but he reassured me that American republicanism was up to the challenge. Our norms and institutions, including our federal bureaucracy, would easily withstand this threat.

Just over five hundred years ago, a similar threat presented itself to republican Florence when Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici took over the city with a papal army. The Florentine historian and political theorist Francesco Guicciardini, a contemporary and an acquaintance of his countryman Nicollo Machiavelli, wondered if Florence’s republic would survive the invasion.

Guicciardini’s Florence were a liberty-loving people. This was significant to Guicciardini because it limited what a would-be tyrant could do. A ruler, Guicciardini thought, was limited by the nature of the people he ruled. In a way, this approach to how a city could be governed anticipates Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws. Both Guicciardini and Montesquieu argued not for government based on universal standards but based on what a particular people needed. Guicciardini believed that “it is useless to speak of government abstractly and in general,” summarizes J. G. A. Pocock in his 1975 book The Machiavellian Moment. “One must take into account the individual character (natura) of both the people and the area (luogo, sito) to be governed.”1  And for the Florentines who were used to governing themselves, “good government is no substitute for self-government.”2

Guicciardini examined his country’s past. The Florentines were “anciently free.” (Pocock here characterizes Guicciardini’s thoughts.) Maybe the Florentines had taken a hiatus from this freedom in the years before the Medici family first came to power in 1434 to resolve Florence’s extreme factionalism, Guicciardini acknowledged, but Florence was free when Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici and his army invaded Florence in 1512.3 In 1495, in fact, a year after the Medici family was first overthrown, Florence had adopted a constitution that included the Consiglio Grande, a legislative body that institutionalized a democratic element in the Florentine republic. Thanks to the Consiglio Grande, according to historian Kenneth Bartlett, “never before had so many [Florentine] citizens been able to serve the state.”4 Even before the new constitution, Guicciardini argued, Florence was (again, in Pocock’s words) “addicted to concerning themselves with public business.”5

Detail from Raphael’s Portrait of Pope Leo X and His Cousins, Cardinals Giulio de’ Medici and Luigi de’ Rossi (1518 – 1519).

Such an addiction can change a people, Guicciardini argued:

The natures of the men, or at least their social and political dispositions, can be changed; but the only two forces recognized as capable of working such a change are custom and use on the one hand, which work slowly, and political participation on the other, which quickly works effects that it takes time to undo.6

Based on the quick work of Florence’s democratic innovations, Guicciardini concluded, the reign of the restored Medici was insecure.3 If de’ Medici was to be successful in converting Florence to an autocracy, he had better act slowly.

One wonders if the 2016 election found the United States with the “custom and use” of democracy or with the “political participation” to withstand the president’s depredations. Before the election, had we been fundamentally transformed in Guicciardini’s sense by our custom and use or by our experience of political participation? Would a ruler’s actions taken to delegitimize our elections, our intelligence community, our free press, and truth itself come across as acting “suddenly and brutally,” to use how Pocock describes Guicciardini’s characterization of the Medici’s actions, so that there would be little opportunity for the people “to forget the experience of citizenship”?8

I don’t think so. Our public realm, for the most part, is but a sleep and a forgetting. We have little democratic “custom and usage” or “political participation.” Voting is important, but it isn’t democracy. (Until the recent past, in fact, voting was considered an aristocratic practice; sortition was the more democratic way of filling offices.9) We have forgotten what Tocqueville discovered about us a generation after the Founding, which can be described in the same way that Sheldon S. Wolin defined democracy: “originating or initiating cooperative action with others . . . throughout the society in response to felt needs.” Through this action, “political experience is being made accessible, experience that compels individuals to deal with the complexity of interests and the conflicting claims that have hitherto been reserved for politicians and bureaucrats.”10 This is the transformative experience that would slow down or stop Guicciardini’s would-be tyrant. Instead of this, however, we have what Wolin in 1989 called “a politics without memory” and a “democracy without the citizen.”11

Florence’s democracy, limited though it was, exceeded ours in direct participation. Despite this, just before Medici’s army entered Florence in 1512, most of the functions of the Consiglio Grande had been taken over by an aristocratic senate.12 Likewise, we began to self-identify more as consumers than as citizens long before 2016. Wolin, in fact, wrote Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism eleven years before our last presidential election. We’re used to being managed.

Medici, who later became Pope Leo X, and his successors in Florence ultimately destroyed the country’s republic. From the time of the 1512 invasion, the Medici family ruled Florence continuously until 1737.

  1. J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment, at 141.
  2. Id. at 141.
  3.  Id.
  4. Kenneth Bartlett, The Italian Renaissance Course Guidebook, The Teaching Company 2005, at 162.
  5. Pocock, supra.
  6. Id. at 144. This is, again, Pocock’s summary of Guicciardini’s writing.
  7.  Id.
  8. Id. at 143.
  9.  Id. at 134; see also Montesquieu in The Spirit of the Laws 2.2 (13): “Voting by lot is in the nature of democracy; voting by choice is in the nature of aristocracy.”
  10. Sheldon S. Wolin, The Presence of the Past, at 150.
  11. Id. at 184.
  12. Pocock, supra, at 122.

Antidisestablishmentarianism

[The English people] do not consider their church establishment as convenient, but as essential to their state, not as a thing heterogeneous and separable, something added for accommodation, what they may either keep or lay aside according to their temporary ideas of convenience. They consider it as the foundation of their whole constitution, with which, and with every part of which, it holds an indissoluble union. Church and state are ideas inseparable in their minds, and scarcely is the one ever mentioned without mentioning the other.

– Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

3PictureFrenchRevolutionJust thinking out loud here. I won’t use any sources other than what I’ve been reading or what I remember having read. With that confession of ignorance, I give myself permission to write, even though I’m giving my subject short shrift.

What has been the effect of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause (i.e., “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . .”)? Is there any downside to not having a state-sponsored religion? Suppose we had tolerance – say, perfect tolerance – for dissenters based on a well-administered Free Exercise Clause (i.e., “. . . or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”). What would the further addition of a state-sponsored religion get us?

I’m currently reading nothing on the Establishment Clause or on the English Civil War, that poignant fulcrum for English and American church-state issues. Instead, I’m reading Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and Joyce Appleby’s book Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination. One of Burke’s arguments against the French Revolution, however, is also an argument against some of his English contemporaries who wanted to disestablish the Anglican Church.

Edmund Burke’s vision of society and the state was typical of Whigs in his day, J. G. A. Pocock states in his thoughtful introduction to Reflections. Burke thought that society and the state needed an established church. Society needed an established church because society needed order and manners. Pocock summarizes Burke’s view on the social order:

The social order in his mind was natural; it was an alliance between heaven and earth; and property . . . was the means by which the human actor assumed a place in this natural, but also dynamic and historical, order (Kindle location 602).

The confiscation of church property in France for collateral for the nation’s debt shook Burke. If the church didn’t own property, the church wasn’t a player.

Within this alliance of heaven and earth, the clergy nourished manners, and manners, Burke and his fellow Whigs believed, were the modern equivalent of the virtue of Greek and Roman antiquity and the outcome of medieval chivalry. Manners, Whigs also believed, were necessary for an economy that relied more and more on commerce.

The state, on the other hand, needed an established church in order to maintain its sacred character. Eighteenth century English Whigs felt the established church legitimized the state in the sight of a religious polity:

The separation of church and state would mean that the sacred character of the latter had no ecclesiastical or institutional expression, and could be affirmed only by such undenominational religion as men were able to agree on, irrespective of church membership or doctrinal belief; in the words sometimes ascribed to President Eisenhower, society would be based on a fundamental religious faith, but it wouldn’t matter what it was (Kindle location 414).

Eisenhower’s exact words (though the quote is arguably apocryphal, and I’m not allowing myself to Google it) are, according to Pocock, “Our society makes no sense unless it’s founded on a fundamental religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” I don’t think Eisenhower was an antidisestablishmentarianist, though I confess I know little about him. But I do think he was onto something.

Because we have no established church, we’ve had to scramble. James Madison’s elaborate checks and balances, three branches, and bicameral Congress were designed in part to win America’s respect for the new Constitution, according to Charles R. Kessler in his excellent introduction to The Federalist Papers:

The Federalist’s concern for veneration of the Constitution shows that a purely calculative or self-interested attachment to government is not sufficient to secure republicanism. The Constitution must attract the loyalty, admiration, pride, and even reverence of American citizens if the rule of law is to be firmly grounded – if republicanism is to be responsible (xxx).

Reverence for government is tough, Burke would say, when the first amendment to your constitution doesn’t permit its government to establish a religion.

The need for a religious cast for American government persisted. Lincoln’s famous 1848 Lyceum speech advocated a “political religion,” a notion that grew from mere adherence to laws in 1848 to include sacrifice and redemption in Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address and in his 1865 Second Inaugural Address.

It’s ironic that Lincoln’s narrative of American history includes redemption. In Burke’s time, advocates in England who wanted a church-state separation based their thinking on Locke’s “theory of natural rights which made no appeal to a theology of redemption” (Pocock, Kindle location 427). Yet Lincoln was a Lockean liberal.

Lockean natural rights theory is itself a civil religion and one well suited to America, which has largely rejected Pilgrim and Puritan notions of the community’s primacy in favor of the individual. Locke’s state of nature starts not with society but with an individual, a child of God, much like Adam in the Garden of Eden. Appleby captures the religious appeal of natural law for the generation between Madison and Lincoln:

During these same years evangelical Protestants successfully propagated an individualistic Christian message that challenged much of Calvinist orthodoxy. They compared liberation from sin to liberation from tyranny as a kind of individual empowerment, thus providing a Christian foundation for the civil religion forming around natural rights (4).

But evangelical Christians in our own day have lost sight of natural law. In a related development, their relation to the federal government has become fundamentally antagonistic. America to many evangelicals is like the Roman Empire before Constantine – before it made Christianity its official religion. But we’re also a democracy in which over ninety percent of the population believes in a monotheistic God. Consequently, our politicians rarely throw Christians to the lions.

Instead, many evangelicals speak of a war on Christmas, pointing to courts that order local governments to take crèches down from courthouse lawns. We have claims of anti-religious acts when the I.R.S. denies a religious organization tax-exempt status. Every now and then – most recently a federal district judge’s decision in Wisconsin – someone threatens the I.R.S. housing allowance under which a minister is allowed not to report as taxable income any money he or she uses to pay a mortgage on and to otherwise maintain a residence. As I recall, these challenges end up with Congress reaffirming this sweet tax break in almost unanimous votes.

It must be noted that questioning a tax break for clergy is a good deal less tyrannical than confiscating all church property, as happened soon after the outset of the French Revolution. Certainly, some evangelicals see Free Exercise Clause issues where some courts see Establishment Clause issues. But why are these evangelicals so vociferous in their denunciation of the federal government, so adamant that the government is out to destroy their faith, even though the same government gives clergy and nonprofits special tax breaks? I think Madison, Kessler, Lincoln, and Eisenhower point to the answer.

Many evangelicals would have more respect for the federal government if it were to revoke the Establishment Clause and adopt a religion, like England. I think this desire to revere government, as Kessler might put it, underlies, for instance, many evangelicals’ claim that we are a “Christian nation.” An acceptance of the Christian nation theory would take at least some teeth out of the Establishment Clause. After all, why would evangelicals make this historical argument if its acceptance wouldn’t be a kind of guide to political action?

America’s Christians would be better off taking a hard look at Locke, who in the past has served as a means of unifying Christians and the rest of Americans in a common understanding of government. Non-Christians and unorthodox Christians – Unitarians and Deists – in Burke’s England and in Revolutionary America who wanted to separate church and state were Locke’s followers, but so were Lincoln and many participants in the Second Great Awakening.

Locke’s theological understanding of political science goes deeper than the patently flawed Christian nation claim. Fortified by Locke’s understanding of our mutual status as God’s children – the understanding that underlies Locke’s notion of our fundamental equality – evangelicals could again find what Pocock calls “the sacred character of the state” without bothering with the antidisestablishmentarianism. The Deists were wrong: Locke’s concept of equality before God is redemptive. It was after his resurrection, after all, that St. John’s Jesus first announces our equal status as God’s children: “Go to my brothers, and tell them that I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”