I’ve often been cynical about American exceptionalism. Especially on days when I walk into Barnes and Nobles and see the political bestsellers on display in the front of the store. Americans are exceptional? Really? Exceptionally tacky? Exceptionally self-righteous? Exceptionally deaf to opinions outside of our own echo chamber? Exceptionally good at building an industry off of paranoid hate and conspiracy theories?
One of the most exceptional Americans I know about, Mark Twain, famously said that “patriotism is the refuge of scoundrels.” There is something quintessentially American and even partly healthy about his cynicism. At the same time, I’m feeling contrite today about my cynicism and lack of patriotism because a dream and vision for humanity that was exceptional about our country is in the process of dying.
Democracy is more than just a biannual ritual of filling in bubble sheets; it’s more than just letting everyone have a vote because it’s the right thing to do. Democracy is a basic assumption about the potential for human community to make decisions together that Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle ridiculed, but which imaginative dreamers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison decided to try as a great social experiment. Democracy has taken a beating in the last couple of decades, mostly because of a nasty amalgam of forces created by the information age: bloggers (like me ), pundits, ratings-paranoid media executives, politicos, and analysts who have started a bonfire of scandal that our society has become addicted to. The ever-expanding appetite of this bonfire combined with the dull oblivion of our mostly sedentary modern lifestyle has created a monstrous form of human interaction. We see the monsters that we have become, but only in the behavior of “the other side.”
To believe in democracy means to believe that the perspectives of our ideological opponents are vital to our effective decision-making and contain kernels of wisdom that are worth studying and contemplating thoroughly. Believing in democracy means I know how ignorant and wrong I probably am, so I sit and listen to others who don’t make any sense to me until they teach me something. If there is one right answer and I’m positive that I have it, then I don’t need a democracy; I need a dictator who agrees with me.
One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Romans 3:4: “Let God be true, and every human being a liar.” True democracy is the embodiment of this principle. I don’t know what I’m doing; you probably don’t know what you’re doing either; but maybe if we come together, we can help each other do what we need to do.
One kind of Christian theology is compatible with believing in democracy; another kind isn’t. If I believe that the purpose of Jesus’ death for my sins is to make me a person capable of admitting my mistakes and letting go of my idols, then I’m going to welcome my harshest critics as angels sent by God to sanctify me of my ideological blind spots. Scot McKnight’s book A Community Called Atonement describes this kind of Christianity. Jesus’ atoning sacrifice creates a community of people who don’t play gotcha with each others’ mistakes, who are capable of disagreeing without demonizing, who ultimately see reconciliation as the final goal of any quarrel that arises. The basic difference between a Christian and a non-Christian for political purposes is that the Christian can admit that she’s wrong. There’s no reason to mistrust the insights that non-Christians have to offer Christians. We simply desire as Christians for others to enter into the freedom from self-justification that we have discovered.
Another kind of Christian theology thinks that the most important fact about the world is its division between the elect and the damned. The damned don’t have anything positive to contribute to the project of building human community. They are simply wrong and there’s no reason to try to understand why they’re wrong because God created them to be wrong. God put them here as automatons to persecute and test the elect, whose lives gain meaning through the challenge of waging war with the damned. The only thing to do with the damned is to defeat them. Trying to learn from them and working together with them collaboratively is morally hazardous. A Christian with this perspective does not really believe in democracy as an ultimate ideal. In this view, the purpose of democracy is not to learn and make better decisions through synthesizing multiple viewpoints, but simply to elect the elect; so the end-goal is not really democracy but dictatorship (once the damned are thrown completely out of office, why allow any votes to happen after that?). I don’t think anyone with this view thinks that the damned will ever be defeated completely. The elect simply fight the damned faithfully out of duty, until God comes and finishes the job by destroying the Earth (which of course we can help to expedite).
Obviously there are as many types of Christianity as there are are Christians, but these two categories do describe a basic divergence within American Christianity. As a Christian from the first category, I believe in the democracy that represents the dream that America once had, and I repent of all the snarky things I said about it when I forgot what a beautiful thing it could be. Because I believe that God speaks through all people, even those who haven’t yet discovered the freedom offered in Jesus Christ, I think my most important task as a pastor, both for the spiritual well-being of those to whom I minister and for the good of my country, is to help others find their way to the humble openness that the Christian gospel is supposed to instill in us, which means evangelizing many who think they’re already evangelical.