Written by Scott A. Shay
Never before in my life have I been so worried about America. The future of the Great American Experiment, a guiding light for so many inhabitants of this planet, is today uncertain. A more violent and divided America is a near reality if we stay on our present course. Our democracy is crumbling, and Americans across the divide no longer understand the conceptual foundations necessary to preserve it.
The Great American Experiment can be summed up as rejection of the European Ancient Regime in favor of political equality in the form of a constitutional republic. While America’s founding fathers excluded African slaves, native Americans and women from this equality, with devastating results, still the American Revolution was a first step – a turning point in human history. As the historian Jonathan Israel writes in his book The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848, the American Revolution set the tone for all the subsequent political revolutions of the modern era. American revolutionary ideals also continued to be the point of reference for those excluded from it in reality.
The foundation of the Great American Experiment was the Bible. It was the Bible that gave the founding fathers their concept of political equality.
As Eric Nelson writes in his book The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought, the founding fathers drew from British liberal thinkers steeped in the Bible and its model of a Hebrew Republic. They partially actualized the biblical blueprint in the United States. They founded a republic where all – propertied white men initially – would be subject to the same constitutional laws, and policy and would be made through rational debate for the good of all in Congress.
Today, at a time when we are finally coming closer to rectifying the most important omissions to the great American Experiment with regard to race and gender, we are also seeing an unprecedented breakdown of the democratic process. Despite a lot of talk about democracy and equality, Americans increasingly no longer understand these concepts. It is therefore worth returning to the biblical sources to reacquaint ourselves with the conceptual foundations for democracy and justice.
The Bible explains how political equality is meaningless without the practices that make it real. The Bible not only describes all humans as made in God’s image and therefore subject to the same laws, it implores us to “love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). The ancient Jewish sage Hillel said the entire Torah could be summed up as, “Don’t do what is hateful to you to your fellow. The rest is commentary, go learn it.”
Yet clearly not everyone does the right thing or is so lovable. Here too the Bible provides instruction. In the immediately prior verse to the command to love one’s fellow, the Bible commands: “Don’t hate your fellow in your heart, you shall rebuke/debate/engage your fellow, and don’t take upon yourself sin because of them” (Leviticus 19:17). With this command, the Bible explains that one should not hate others as human beings for no reason. But if a reason should arise, one must not remain silent. Instead, one must engage with them just as each of us would want to be engaged with, rather than hated.
We risk destroying the Great American Experiment because we have forgotten how to engage with people with whom we disagree. Instead, four practices of ‘non-engagement’ are steadily eroding American democracy
The Hebrew word that I have translated as “rebuke/debate/engage” is actually one word repeated twice for emphasis with a slightly different conjugation, hochiach, tochiach. This repetition underscores its importance. Talk to the person you disagree with, yes, do so sharply, debate, engage – and if what they are doing is criminal, charge them, if they wage war against you, defend yourself – but don’t write the other person off. Once you write them off, you are no longer treating them as an equal.
Today, we risk destroying the Great American Experiment because we have forgotten how to engage with people with whom we disagree. Instead, four practices of “non-engagement” are steadily eroding American democracy.
First, we slander one another. I am struck – whether watching MSNBC or Fox – at the mud-slinging. Egged on by these priests of ideologies, listeners get angrier and angrier, to the point that they no longer believe the other side is “redeemable.”
Second, we ignore one another out of disdain or disgust. I have also been shocked while listening to the news on how American liberals so often ignore communities in the Midwest and South while conservatives overlook immigrants and inner-city communities, each side implying that they will get what they deserve.
Third, we pretend to engage with one another without actually doing so. I personally experienced pseudo-engagement in 2018 when advocating for a banking bill (Senate Bill 2155) that provided relief to mid-sized banks from US$50 billion to $250 billion in size. The bill was debated vigorously, as it should in a democracy. During the course of the debate, I said it was unacceptable and bad for the economy that “by virtue of growing one day past $50 billion, we will be burdened with rules intended for the mega ‘too big to fail’ banks.” Opponents of the bill changed this statement to a quote ascribed to me that “it is unacceptable that we will be burdened with rules.” With a few words, an argument over genuine issues was turned into an argument against a straw man.
What is most disturbing is the rise in the fourth practice: demanding loyalty and demonizing the other side has become. On parts of the left, I have been told that until I become “woke” to the “truth” of the patriarchy, capitalist oppression, and a host of other ideologies, I will remain on the enemy side. Compromise in the meantime is of no value, since one can never compromise with “those people.”
If some leaders of the left slip up, or are corrupt, they should be given a pass since it is “existential” that no conservatives be given power. Think the State of Virginia. On parts of the right, the situation is in parallel: conservatives describe all liberals as immoral. I am told that the Democrats want to confiscate all guns to finalize the government’s monopoly on power to create a health-care system, which will bring “death councils” and speech regulations that will create a “thought police state.” If I don’t get all that, I can be dismissed. Some Republican senators opposed almost all legislation that president Barack Obama proposed even if they agreed with it, and will continue to do so with any Democratic legislation.
Remarkably, demonization of the other side is becoming more common, and Americans are willing to admit to it. In a paper titled “Lethal Mass Partisanship,” based on surveys taken in 2017 and 2018, Professors Nathan Kalmoe and Liliana Mason report that a majority of both Democrats and Republicans believed that members of the other party were a serious threat to the US. More than 40% of each party thought that the other party was not just politically worse, but that they were downright evil. Additionally, 16% of Republicans and 20% of Democrats thought the US would be better off if large numbers of the other party just died. I would surmise that the situation has worsened since these polls were taken.
The Bible sternly warns against such calls for ideological loyalty and demonization. Indeed, we have been down this road too many times before; it is called totalitarianism, or what the Bible calls idolatry.
Idolatry is not just about bowing down to statutes or concocting a Wiccan potion. Idolatry as the Bible depicts it is about something far more insidious: a set of lies about power. Idolatry ascribes super powers or super authority to finite beings as individuals, natural processes, ideologies and even animals – the exact opposite of human equality. All political oppression – from the God-king Pharaoh to Mao – is based on these lies.
The whole 20th century was a catalogue of god-kings who ruled according to such lies about power and authority: Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, the Assad family, the Kim family, and the list goes on. In idolatrous societies, the god-king is to be obeyed and believed at all times and his followers are to identify as one group; anyone who disagrees is to be defeated, ruled over and, if not converted, potentially killed. There is no human common denominator. There is no reason to question one’s own ideology. The other side simply can’t make any good or relevant points.
To keep the Great American Experiment alive and correct its omissions, we need to remember its foundational concepts and practices. Political equality demands that we recognize we are all equal and engage, rebuke, and debate with others when we disagree. If we do not, the kind of violence we saw at Charlottesville, Pittsburgh and San Diego is just the beginning. And it will come from both the sides – the right and the left.
Scott A. Shay is the author of In Good Faith: Questioning Religion and Atheism. Learn more here.