“A Republic, Madam—If you can keep it.”
Attributed to Benjamin Franklin,
in response to a question a woman is said to have asked him,
in the late 18th Century C.E., regarding what kind of government the
Constitutional Convention had established for their newly created nation,
The United States of America.
There are lots of different methods available to operate nations. Democracy is one of them. And democracy is a rather recent and highly unreliable form of government. Democracy is an upstart newcomer in the pantheon of national gods. The oldest, and most reliable, form of government is that of an absolute dictatorship run by one person, usually male, with the necessary backing of a loyal priesthood. This priesthood, if not forcing the common folk to worship the ruler as a god, represents the ruler to the people of the nation as either the living embodiment of a god, or as one whose authority to rule over all others of the nation comes directly from a god. King by the Grace of God.
This is the method of government set up, recognized, endorsed, and encouraged by that grouping of legal and literary writings and myths collectively known as “The Holy Bible.” Keep this in mind when chatting with those—sadly growing in number—who would have it that our land of freedom, our America, be “restored,” to “biblical values.”
But we just might not be all that happy with these biblical values. Democracy is not mentioned in the bible. The concept was unknown. The very idea of it would have been rejected. It would have been thought to be a notion as absurd as permitting women to make laws or to rule over men. The practice of voting had not evolved in those times, when there was no air conditioning or computers, when people thought dreams foretold the future, and believed the only way humans could know right from wrong was if some god gave them the rules and the priesthood of the god explained the rules to them. The closest thing to “voting” was choosing a thing, or someone to do something, “by lot.” This was a form of gambling, where each candidate might, for example, put the name of a thing, or their name on an object, like a stone or piece of wood, and one object, with the thing or the name on it, would be selected in some manner by chance alone. God was credited with providing the outcome, a result every bit as reliable as predicting the future by looking at the guts ripped with a knife out of the belly of a sheep. The idea of a jury is not found in the bible either. Nor is that of “due process of law.” Neither “compromise” nor “humanity” appear in the King James Version of the bible—the only bible used by fundangelicals until recently, when they discovered that their beloved good King James was, in life, a homosexual.
But I digress, and my editors are stern.
A totalitarian form of government works because of the Golden Rule. The one with the gold makes the rules. And that person has absolute power over everyone else. If one disagrees, one can be killed. Simple, effective, and stable. Our American democracy has thus far survived a little more than two hundred years. And in that short time has seen a Civil War that all but destroyed its delicate fabric. And we now face another crisis of division that could destroy us. More of this in a moment. By contrast, consider that the ancient Pharaonical government of Egypt was measured, not in hundreds, but in thousands of years. There was as much time between the first king of Egypt and Pharaoh Ramses II as there has been time between Ramses II, who died in 1314 B.C.E., and the November, 2000 Presidential Election. This fact should cause us to pause. For the latter event threatens to put our infant democracy as inexorably into the category of history past as other little understood events consigned to memory the kingdoms of those who prayed to Ra rather than to Jehovah for those fortuitous events of history they were pleased, when random chance operated in their favor, to call “miracles.”
Government by decree requires only that the one doing the decreeing have the ability—make that the power—to enforce the decree on those who might disagree with the decree, and if need be, to see to the elimination of those who disagree with, or disregard, the decree. Safety comes from obedience. Just as one can know what is right and what is wrong by relying on the safety of the certainly of obeying the law of the god. Obey or die. Simple, effective, easily enforced, and easily understood. To be free, you see, you need to obey the decree. As the church song puts it, “Trust and obey / For there’s no other way / To be happy in Jesus / Than to trust and obey.”
Democracy puts a bit of a kink in this straight and true path to the way citizens conduct their lives. This is something the fundangelicals of our free land have never understood. Their biblically endorsed forms of government simply cannot be reconciled with the idea of democracy that is foreign to their scripture. One cannot both obey authority and chart their own way. This is why, no matter what they think or teach, religious authoritarians really don’t believe in the concept of separation of state and church that was, and is, so central to the American experiment.
Democracy requires that those who participate in it be, to a degree at least, of one mind. The citizens of a democracy must all accept certain ill defined basics if this new experiment in human affairs of governing one’s selves has any chance at all of working. Happily, much of the time this is so. Thus, we have been free of the revolutions and civil conflicts that too often attend the transfer of power in lesser countries. By the processes of democracy and the democratic vote, and by accepting the will of the majority, we have become, in our short history, both great and unique among the parliament of nations.
But there are dangers; there have been, and are, fearful portents and omens. The Liberty Bell did crack into ruin when first it was rung. We did have a great Civil War. This bloodiest and most disastrous conflict in our nation’s brief history occurred when we were but “four score and seven” years. Now that we are not yet seven score years distant from that national disaster and shame, we are again threatened. And the threat is now, as the threat was then, a dagger aimed at the very beating heart of our democracy.
We have accepted a working illusion, an operational definition that has kept our republic afloat longer than expected by its detractors. This is because we as a nation attempted to live by our motto, E pluribus unum, “One out of many.” Sadly, in the 1950s, the unworkable “In God We Trust” replaced this motto and things haven’t been right since. Our Ship of State may, like other crafts that lacked the wit to survive, be destroyed while attempting to pass safely between the Scylla and Charybdis of our divided land’s oppositional perceptions of the world. These worldviews may be understood as a conflict between those who believe in humanism and those who do not. Our democracy thus far, and not unproblematically, has been able to accommodate those who truly believe in democratic principals and those who really, whether they know it or not, want us to be ruled by authority, by gods and kings of their choosing.
This was what our Civil War was really all about. We were then, and we are now, two countries. Two nations, divided by a common language, forced by our democracy to live in unhappy harmony under the loosely stitched together tents of two very different ideologies. This is true despite the seeming need of each side to mouth much the same god talk. During our Civil War, both sides claimed god was on their side. Lincoln then observed that both sides may be, and one side must be, wrong. Deep down, these two sides truly hate each other. Somehow, with the exception of our Civil War, that is still not over, that is still far from resolved, we have managed to keep safe from one another with the mutual acceptance of an uneasy peace. Until now.
The American Religious Civil War (ARCW), that was foretold, and has been reported upon, in these pages now threatens to destroy us, in consequence of an election so close that the voters of our democracy cannot agree on who won. This time the winners were not so clear that the losers could with honor fain the patriotism of acceptance and the humility of acquiescence to the public will. As we fractionate, each faction increasingly fears and distrusts the honor and motives of the other. Each side believes the opposition has cheated them of their rightful votes in an attempt to steal the election of our President and to pervert their democracy. At this writing, each side is in the courts, invoking the rule of law, our secular god, on behalf of their position. The only certainty is that without this rule of law, that we all have agreed, and must continue to agree, to accept, there will be nothing left to save. Should the judgment, the final decision, of the rule of law not be accepted by all sides… .
Apart from the clear and present danger of such a situation, it is truly high humor. Aristophanes would have loved it.
The ancient tensions and hatreds are straining at the tethers of civilization. And, as of this report, we do not know what end will come. There is little sign of compromise or restraint. There is mass confusion concerning just how the casting and counting of votes really operates. People are seeing defects that have been forever present, but, until now, not generally known. And moronic legal interpretations and opinions are creating a great pooling of shouting ignorance. Fanned by the public press, much shrill talk is shoving aside reason and legal knowledge. The ordinary citizens (peasantry in an earlier age) are already in the streets with signs. Soon they may come with pitchforks and torches.
That which could happen is too fearful to contemplate.
If it does not happen, which is likely, that which did not destroy us may strengthen us.
If it does happen, we will become a footnote to history. We will be one with Ramses.
It may be that we really do need two countries. Then, we of like mind can live in peace and harmony, and those others will have to get passports to come in. Relocating everyone should be easier that straightening out this voting mess. Surely we will be happier. After all, those on our side get along with each other, for we understand things in much the same ways. I think our country should be in the mountains, with woods, ponds, streams, and cool mornings. My Helen, for some reason, thinks it should be by the ocean, where it is hot, salty, barren, sandy, and full of sand fleas. Can you believe such irrationality?
Just hope the rule of law holds.