I have joined a new book club that will be focusing on historical books - fiction and non-fiction. For our first book, American Lion by Jon Meacham. This history has had some excellent reviews and was awarded the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. This biography focuses on Andrew Jackson and his years in the White House.
The times that Jackson lived through and the politics of Washington seem very familiar. Many people want to go back to a simpler time politically speaking. However, the more I read history, the more I realize that things never really change. Human nature doesn't really change. The ways we communicate, the ways we move in our world may change, but how we deal with our fellow human beings doesn't really change.
Back to the book, while reading Chapter 5, Ladies' Wars Are Always Fierce and Hot, I came upon the figure of Jeremiah Evarts. "Evarts was one of the great American moral figures of the first decades of the nineteenth century."
What struck me about Evarts was just what kind of person he was. He was moral and religious, but he did not insist on inflicting his beliefs into the government. He wanted the government - and, by extension, the nation - to be virtuous. I believe that many of the evangelicals and those that believe we are an essentially a Christian nation could learn much from him.
One of Evarts great passions was to fight against what he saw as a grave injustice: the forced removal of the Indians from their homes to lands west of the Mississippi. He became a "force calling on the country to respect the rights and dignity of a persecuted people." He was infused with this idea of Christian service while attending Yale in 1798. The president of the college at that time was Timothy Dwight, a grandson of Jonathan Edwards. Dwight suffused the college with the idea of Christian service. He gave a sermon entitled "On Personal Happiness" in which he preached: "In whatever sphere of life you are placed, employ all your powers and all your means of doing good, as diligently and vigorously as you can."
Evarts was influenced by Dwight and the whole atmosphere at Yale. He believed, like Dwight, that "faith was not only about personal conversion but social transformation and the health of the nation." He believed that "there was a direct connection between the godliness of the people and the fate of the country."
This statement really struck me. I imagine many of the evangelicals would say this as well. However, I believe that it is more than putting the word God and Christ into our government. In fact, we cannot do that. In my mind, godliness is more about our actions. By being virtuous and "Christlike" in our actions that is important.
Reading further in this chapter, I discovered that Jackson also believed "that virtue was essential to the maintenance of a republic." But he also believed - and this I believe is an important point - that "religious and philanthropic organizations were as corruptible and susceptible to manipulation by the powerful as any other human institution." Wow.
This is a very important point. I believe that our government does need to be virtuous. This doesn't mean that we should focus on hot button issues like gay marriage, prayer in schools, putting Christ back in Christmas, or abortion. I think it means more important things. It means that we should be more consistent with our values. We espouse the values of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and all our equal before the law. Then we should support these values in other countries and not prop up regimes and governments that crack down on these things. If we criticize one government from persecuting a sect, religion, or race, should we not let our allies know when they are committing these abuses as well?
We should put the individual back at the center of our government's responsibility. Our government's primary responsibility should not be protecting businesses and industry over the people that make up our citizenry. It should be protecting our interests. Now, this does not mean socialism - as many on the right erroneously accuse the left of - nor does it have to offend libertarians or fiscal conservatives. It should mean that everyone should have equal rights before the law - regardless of race or financial position. It should mean that government should protect everyone's right to live their life - financially, materially, and spiritually - not dictate their life.
I'll be the first to admit that I lean to the left. I believe that this country needs to provide a social safety net for its citizens. I believe that churches need to stay out of politics and the government. And I support gay marriage and abortion rights. But, I am not a socialist or an atheist. Our country should be more moral and I believe in the free market. But, do we truly have a free market? When we provide tax breaks to big business and industry and bail out companies and financial institutions that made very bad business decisions, can that really be classified as free?
Our politics have become so divisive. Pundits and special interests have created so many false ideologies and muddies the waters that many people cannot see that they have more in common than they think. The left and the right have vilified each other so much that people do not actually talk about the issues. The Republicans have spent three years opposing the Democrats and President Obama's every action over the interests of their constituencies. We need to get back to what really matters. I think we can learn from history.
Recently, a poll showed that people that get their news from Fox News are less informed than those that don't watch the news at all. The best informed get their news from PBS and NPR. Liberal or conservative, I believe that we can all learn from history. Being informed and well-read and educated should not be viewed as being elite. In the past some of our best presidents came from humble beginnings but devoured knowledge and took every chance to better themselves. Two that come to mind are Garfield and Lincoln.
Jackson thought of himself as a republican - "a man who believed that the best government was the one that meddled least in the affairs of the governed." I think that many Republicans today could identify with that. But, if you look honestly at the party, is it really true? Jackson felt the "primary duty of federal power, once invoked, was to protect the many from the few." I think both the left and the right could surely agree on that. Whether the few are the whites of South Africa suppressing the Africans or if it's the rich 1% suppressing the rest of the American citizens, shouldn't we work at stopping these injustices?