Our brilliant Founders built our democracy upon two different but complimentary pillars. The first and more obvious pillar is our constitutional system itself, what the writers of the Federalist Papers called the “new science of politics.” Our representative democracy would not be possible without our revolutionary constitution and the laws that uphold it, separation and enumeration of powers, and effective checks and balances.
The second pillar is more difficult to define but just as essential – nationally shared values and a common morality. Our Founders believed the natural expression of these shared values would be a patriotism and respect for our fellow citizens. In a functioning democracy where the government is a reflection of the people whose popular will directs it, civic virtue is a necessity. Alexis de Tocqueville, the French observer of early America, saw the source of our strength when writing “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.” Without the second pillar, our democracy would be broken.
Let’s go back to the first principles that united the people of our young Republic and guided our Founders as they began the great American experiment.
In the very first chapter of Genesis, we are told that God made humans in His own image. We are all His children and that makes all of us of equal and inestimable worth. St. Peter in Acts 10, and St. Paul in Galatians 3 and Romans 2, make perfectly clear that we are not to show “partiality,” to ascribe more moral worth to one ethnic or class group over another. And the second of the Great Commandments is that we should love one another as we love ourselves.
The Declaration of Independence echoed these great Biblical principles when it said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But, the truth of America is that we excluded black people from these principles at the very moment we appealed to the world to recognize our existence as a new and independent nation based on noble ideals. We didn’t live up to those ideals.
The drafters of the Constitution didn’t fix this failure. It took a civil war 75 years later, and the loss of 600,000 lives, to end slavery. And the end of slavery did not bring equality and justice to black Americans, who endured segregation and violence for decades until the Civil Rights Movement brought an end to legal segregation as well as passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. While we have made much progress since the 1960s, clearly we have more work to do.
Each of the pillars of democracy needs reinforcement, and our response to our current challenge will determine our nation’s course for decades. New laws are needed to strengthen the first pillar by taking steps to restore faith between the overwhelming majority of good and decent law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. Fortunately, there are areas of common ground between Republicans and Democrats. But we cannot forget the second pillar. As a civic-minded people, we have a duty to soberly reexamine and evaluate our values. By doing so, we can restore important foundational values while recognizing where they fell short and course correcting.
The only way to make America better is by building our nation up, not tearing it down. Perhaps we should remember these words of Tocqueville: “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”