America’s leaders need to hear our prayers, and we need to hear America’s history
While America’s enemies abroad are real, there is an increasing sense that the greatest danger to our Republic is the slow, corrosive weakening from within
Our American Republic was only a few years past its 60th anniversary when a young Abraham Lincoln gave a speech on “the perpetuation of our political institutions.” Having inherited the “fundamental blessings” of unprecedented civil and religious liberties from the Founders, the next generation, Lincoln urged, must consider how they would safeguard “the legacy bequeathed” to them. The young nation, Lincoln foresaw, would not be conquered by some foreign “military giant.” Rather, any danger to the Republic “must spring up amongst us.”
Nearly two centuries later, Lincoln’s warning rings as true today. While America’s enemies abroad are real, there is an increasing sense that the greatest danger to our Republic is the slow, corrosive weakening from within.
Among these threats is a subtle erosion of respect for American civic history. Earlier this fall, a self-described progressive, writing in The Atlantic, lamented the lack of civics education in his 10-year old’s New York public school. His son had studied ancient civilizations around the world and had learned about the “genocide” of Native Americans and slavery. “But he was never taught about the founding of the republic. He didn’t learn that conflicting values and practical compromises are the lifeblood of self-government.” And without that grounding, this father worried, his son had “no context for the meaning of freedom of expression” and “no knowledge of the democratic ideas” currently under attack.
A parallel threat is the increasing lack of civility in our political discourse. While we need few reminders of the polarized state of our current political climate, polling data highlights what many of us undoubtedly feel — America’s political parties are increasingly antagonistic toward one another. According to a Pew study, from 1994 to 2016, the number of Republicans with “very unfavorable” attitudes toward Democrats almost tripled, from 21% to 58%, and the number of Democrats with “very unfavorable” attitudes toward Republicans grew similarly from 17% to 55%. Feelings of mutual contempt, thus, have grown from “many” to “most” people. The declining standards of civility in our public discourse simultaneously reflect and reinforce this rising animosity.
The deterioration of civics and civility is a dangerous combination. As our citizenry learn less about how the virtues of our republican institutions work to resolve differences in a multicultural society, there is less trust in political outcomes dominated by polarized and partisan proceedings. In a recent lecture at Brigham Young University, New York Times columnist David Brooks reminded his audience that building “the first mass, multicultural democracy” has never been done before and is “something phenomenally hard” to do. We should expect failures along the way, but knowing the travails in our civic history can help us restrain our uncivil impulses in the present and give us hope for resolving conflicts in the future.
Our history can teach us to see one another more charitably, and keep us from allowing political disagreements to foster moral contempt for one another.
Our American history is an inspiring story. At heart, it is the story of the inherent worth of every soul to be free and of our need for redemption from the errors of our own self-government. John Adams warned, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.” But it was also made for an error-prone and imperfect people. Our republican institutions were designed to withstand our mortal frailties and weaknesses and are also the means by which we, as a nation, strive to find the better angels of our nature. When we sing “America the Beautiful,” we implore earnestly, “God mend thine every flaw.”
Our history can teach us to see one another more charitably, and keep us from allowing political disagreements to foster moral contempt for one another. The most important campaigns in our history were waged against false principles, not fellow peoples. From the divine right of kings, to the inferiority of the races, to the superiority of the State, our national enemies are first and foremost the falsehoods of human nature used to justify “man’s inhumanity to man.”
Lincoln did not hesitate to call slavery a “monstrous injustice,” but in the same speech avowed “no prejudice” to the Southern people. “They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up.” His advocacy against slavery without animosity toward Southerners reflected the words of the Apostle Paul, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, ... against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
No nation in history has made more friends of its enemies than the peoples of the United States. The Continental Congress offered Hessian mercenaries farm land and an opportunity for a new life as freemen. At the end of the Civil War, Lincoln sought to heal the nation’s wounds, “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” Despite the horrific atrocities of the fascist and imperialistic governments of Germany and Japan, the United States helped rebuild their economies and establish their democracies, making allies of the bitterest enemies. During the 1960s civil rights movement, courageous African Americans like Ruby Bridges and John Lewis prayed for those who despitefully used and persecuted them.
Thanksgiving is an opportunity to put aside the contention of partisan politics and to celebrate and give thanks for our American Republic, for its history, and for the many good, though flawed, men and women who currently serve us. The leaders of our Republic need our prayers, and our children need to know its history.
Michael Erickson is an attorney in Salt Lake City. Jenet Jacob Erickson is an affiliated scholar of the Wheatley Institution at BYU.