A Historic Piece of Mike’s Mind…
As I write these words, we still don’t know the outcome of the presidential election, and it’s likely that all of us are sick to death of politics. If that’s you, I apologize. I’m still thinking a lot about democracy right now, because I think what passes for ours is under attack and in serious trouble.
Some of my reading recently has been about the constitution and the period it was written, 1786-1787.
The rich, white, (mostly) slave-owning men (no women invited) who wrote and ratified that fabled document had a dilemma. They recognized the need for government, but they didn’t trust the idea of government. They believed deeply in the social and spiritual potential of human beings (spelled: rich, white, men) and that freedom was an absolute necessity for that potential to flourish. Pursuing “happiness,” meant to reconcile our true nature in virtuous acts and virtuous living.
Beyond the individual, they brought to their work what can be described as a spiritual/humanist vision of community, in which the meaning of “equality under God” includes an obligation to respect each individual (rich, white, man) as a part of a larger, common greatness. They felt that just as the inner harmony and potential of an individual meant reconciliation with our deepest and truest nature, our task as a society of human beings was also to reconcile and make harmony with our potential as a human community. Beneath the political arguments, these men shared a foundational belief that wisdom, conscience, virtue, and greatness would arise from the gathered community of people who would be dedicated to these principles.
But they were not naïve. They understood the corrupting lure of power and the cruelty that human beings were capable of. They knew intimately what the shackles of dogma, doctrine, and despotism did to the human spirit, and the near universal tendency of human beings to create those shackles. In The Federalist Papers, James Madison famously wrote: What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed and, in the next place, oblige it to control itself.
The last line of that quote is precisely where our current president and his sycophants in the Senate, in my humble opinion, have lost their constitutional bearings, and I don’t think any philosophical, political, or constitutional argument is going to change their minds or their behavior. All we can do politically is try to vote them out.
But that’s not all we can do.
The spiritual roots of democracy, as implied in the constitution and articulated in the private writings of 1786-1787 require us to do more than vote and occasionally give to charity. They require us to approach our fellow citizens with deep respect for their sacred autonomy, and to call all of us to something higher and more transcendent than the quest for materialism and power that is leaving our society so empty and so desperate, our planet devastated, our politics devoid of decency.
Yes, the American constitution is a product of its time: racist, patriarchal, cis-gendered, homophobic, and classist. Even with those limitations, the underlying belief/aspiration is that there is such a thing as the common good, created and maintained by and for free people; created in order to grow the potentials of the human spirit in freedom, while keeping real limitations on the power of government. That is the underlying idea, the frame, as it were, behind the mere words of the constitution.
All of this is and will always be a moving target. These are ideas that have we have to soak ourselves in over time, and practice, with determination and faith. Otherwise they are nothing but words that will pass out of both our understanding and our world.
In hope and faith,