I’m in the classroom every day with college students, most of whom will be voting for president for the first time in less than a week. As a political science professor, I am curious to hear what the next generation is thinking about the current state of American politics.
What I hear consistently is what they don’t like about politics. They point first to the most obvious—the lack of character and integrity in the candidates and more generally in elected officials. They harbor an abiding distrust of politicians, who they see as fundamentally dishonest, willing to say anything to get elected. Like many Americans, they believe politicians are inherently self-interested, more concerned about their own power than the common good or the needs of the average voter. They are disgusted with the corruption they see in American politics. They want authenticity in their candidates. But more troubling, they are deeply suspicious of American institutions. They don’t trust the government at any level. They generally believe the economic system is “rigged” against them. And they are particularly disillusioned with the news media. As they prepare to vote, they are desperate to know where they can go for accurate information to inform their decision. They instinctively recoil at the “spin” of the news media, and distrust any political news, no matter the source.
These concerns expressed by the next generation are spot on, mirroring those of the American electorate at large. Polls show that trust in government and other institutions is at an historic low. An extensive Pew Research Center poll from 1958 to 2015 shows trust in government in a free fall—with today’s levels even lower than in the years immediately following Watergate. A recent Gallup poll reported that only 19% of those polled (less than 1 in 5) trust the government to “do the right thing most of the time.” Conversely, a full 80+ percent are convinced the government will do the wrong thing most of the time. Only eight percent of those adults polled expressed trust in either television news or the media.
The next generation senses that when it comes to American politics, something is seriously wrong in the republic. So, how might our founders diagnose what we are seeing in American politics today?
Their own words give us the first clue as to what they thought it takes to make our government and its institutions function properly. George Washington in his “Farewell Address” (1796) noted: “[V]irtue … is a necessary spring of popular government.” Second President John Adams warned: “No people can be great who have ceased to be virtuous.” James Madison, often referred to as the father of the Constitution, wrote as the ratification process began: “I go on to this great republican principle, that the people will have the virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom. Is there no virtue among us? To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without virtue is a chimerical idea.” Thomas Jefferson succinctly wrote: “Without virtue, happiness cannot be.”
As we take a serious look at the troubling state of our republic on the eve of the 2016 election, missing from our political culture is what the founders identified as “virtue”—a shared standard of social values and morals, rooted in biblical truth, to provide an informal guide for behavior of private citizens and public officials. Although we rarely hear calls for virtue in American politics—it seems an outmoded, quaint idea in our contemporary political world—our desire for politicians of character, for integrity and honesty among our elected officials, is what the founding generation understood as virtue.
Like the more familiar voices of the founding generation quoted earlier, the leading female intellectual of the Revolutionary generation Mercy Otis Warren insisted on the importance of virtue. She argued that virtue and freedom were inseparable political concepts, writing in her Revolutionary drama The Adulateur (1773) that the colonies “fought in virtue’s cause.”[i]
As a devout Christian woman, Warren saw George Washington as an example of virtue in the public square. In her 1814 History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, Warren noted that Washington’s “good genius was ever at hand to preserve his character invulnerable.” The Revolutionary War drew to a close and General Washington retired from his military commission. As Warren recorded: “Thus, the renowned Washington, without arrogating any undue power to himself, which success and popularity offered, and which might have swayed many more designing and interested men, to have gratified their own ambition at the expense of the liberties of America, finished his career of military glory, with decided magnanimity, unimpeached integrity, and the most judicious steps to promote the tranquility of his country.”[ii]
Although she is referring to Washington and an era in American politics long past, her description echoes our longings for character in our political leaders today.
Not only would the founders insist on a revival of virtue in the public square, they would also encourage mixing religion back into politics. For Warren and the founding generation, the concept of virtue combined classical republican ideals of patriotism, courage, self-sacrifice and concern for the common good (the res publica), with Puritan values of honesty, fair dealing, industriousness, temperance and prudence, and with decidedly Christian morality rooted in God’s law and the Christian religion. Citizens and elected officials were expected to act in accordance with this standard of virtue.
In our political history, religion and politics did mix until 1954. Up until that point, ministers could support or oppose political candidates from the pulpit. That changed in 1954 when Congress passed the Johnson Amendment, redefining a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt entity (including churches) as one “which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”[iii]
Students are always surprised to learn that through the first 250 years of our nation’s history, from the Mayflower landing in 1620 until well after the Civil War, there developed a tradition of Election Day sermons. The community—citizens planning to vote, candidates for political office and elected officials—would gather in churches to be taught from Scripture about government and politics, and expectations for both political leaders and citizens. This Election Day tradition was widespread throughout New England, spanning 256 years in Massachusetts and 156 years in Connecticut. A collection of these sermons can be found here.
A typical Election Day sermon went something like this: It first asserted that government is an institution ordained by God (Romans 13) and founded on a covenant, or agreement, between God and the people to establish a political system that promoted His truth and the common good. Second, it encouraged the people to cast their vote in a manner consistent with biblical virtue, and admonished elected officials to act in accordance with the same.
These Election Day sermons still offer relevant insights as we approach our vote next week.
One representative example is found in the Election Day sermon by Rev. Samuel Dunbar in “Presence of God with His People, their only Safety and Happiness,” preached on May 28, 1760, in Boston.[iv]
Dunbar first offers advice to voters, directing them to pray and seek God before casting their ballot: “Would you be with God in the elections of the present day, you must, according to your best judgment, choose such as God will approve.” He further directed voters to choose “out of all the people, able men, men of sense and substance; such as fear God; men of virtue and piety; men of truth, hating coveteousness; men of fidelity, generosity, and a public spirit: for the God of Israel has said, and the rock of Israel spake; he that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.”
He warned them against voting without seeking and following God: “If, in the elections of this day, you have no regard to the intellectual powers, moral characters and qualifications of men: if from fear or favour, from party spirit or any sinister views, you knowingly make choice of those who want them; you will forsake God, and act without, or rather against, him … In this case, can you expect God’s gracious presence with you?”
Dunbar further warned them to choose wisely: ” Should you, from a vain conceit of your own wisdom and sufficiency, forsake God, and ask neither his counsel nor blessing … you may justly fear, that God will forsake you, turn you over into the hands of your own counsels, leave you to the darkness & lusts of your own minds, mingle a perverse spirit in the midst of you, suffer parties to be formed, dissentions to prevail, and passion, self-interest, and a party spirit, rather than reason, justice, and a public spirit, to influence and govern you. In this case, your counsels will be carried headlong; and, in all probability, be extreamly prejudicial, if not fatal, to the common-wealth.”
Dunbar had similar words of warning for those seeking or holding elective office: “God will be with you, in your assemblies, whether you be with him or no: judicially, if not graciously. He will be an inspecter, an observer, a judge. However unaccountable you may be to your people, you must give account to him.”
And also a warning to judges and local justices: “… high is your office, awful is your work … If you have been with God in the judgment, and studied to do justice, to discountenance vice, and to encourage vertue, you will be acquitted in the great audit day; and Christ, the judge, will confer inexpressible honour upon you … But, if you have forsaken God, and been unjust judges, wo unto you, a more severe & tremendous sentence will be past upon you, than you ever past upon the most flagitious criminal.”
Although written more than 250 years ago, many of the lessons from these and other Election Day sermons still are relevant: God ordained government for our good. We have an obligation to be informed and engaged. We must always seek Him as we vote. We are commanded in Scripture to pray for those in authority over us, so that they will govern with virtue. Finally, especially in this election cycle, remember that God is sovereign over all things political. As people of faith, we can do much – through both prayer and engagement—to transform our political world, a part of American culture in desperate need of God’s truth. Our founders will be cheering us on …
[ii] Mercy Otis Warren, History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution interspersed with Biographical, Political and Moral Observations, in Two Volumes, Foreword by Lester H. Cohen (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1994). Available at: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/815#Warren_0025-01_551http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/815#Warren_0025-01_551
[iii] IRS, “Charities, Churches, and Politics.” Available at: https://www.irs.gov/uac/charities-churches-and-politics
[iv] Samuel Dunbar, “Presence of God and His People, their only Safety and Happiness” (Boston 1760). Available at: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/sandoz-political-sermons-of-the-american-founding-era-vol-1-1730-1788–5. All quotes included here are found in this source.