An Uneducated Electorate

Michael Metzger

Thomas Jefferson said the cornerstone of democracy rests on the foundation of an educated electorate. These days, an uneducated electorate is crumbling the underpinnings of the American experiment. Evangelicals are contributing to this.

Our experiment in self-government requires a literate electorate. “Whenever the people are well-informed,” Jefferson noted, “they can be trusted with their own government.” When they’re illiterate, the experiment disintegrates.

Political illiteracy is especially pernicious these days, especially among white evangelicals. They constitute Donald Trump’s base of support, although many are now shifting toward Dr. Ben Carson. Both candidates claim their greatest asset is not being a politician. This disdain for politics is unfortunate.

The church has long held that politics is inherently good. This comes from the “four-chapter” gospel seen in scripture: creation-fall-redemption-restoration. On the street, it’s ought-is-can-will. Everyone imagines how things ought to be, what is—i.e., what are things really like in the real world as a result of our shortcomings, what we can do to make things better, and what things will be like some day, when the world is fully restored.

In the four-chapter gospel, the foundational command is to govern the earth, to improve it (Gen.1:26-28; 2:15). The Bible starts in a garden and ends in a city. The Greek word for city is polis, where we get our word politics. My wife Kathy and I live in Annapolis, the city of Anne Arundel. Politics is the art of forging individuals into healthy communities, or cities. In this sense, we’re all supposed to be politicians.

It’s political illiteracy to support a candidate who revels in not being a politician. It’s predictable, however, that few evangelicals see this. Too many embrace a “two-chapter” gospel—the fall and redemption. God is good and politics is bad.

The outcome is white evangelicals opting for polarizing candidates or popular Christians. Trump and Carson fit the bill, appealing to naïve Christians. It’s a phenomenon plaguing the Republican Party. Candidates scare up voters about how civilization is on the brink of collapse. Every setback, like the passage of Obamacare, is the ruination of the republic.1 It’s evidence of a contempt for politics that infests the evangelical mind.

Black evangelicals on the other hand opt for politicization. This is when the faith community, as well as minorities, seek legitimacy through the rights conferred by the state.2 This is opposite of the framers’ vision where religion conferred the virtues necessary for self-governance. It yields an uneducated electorate.

In both cases, black and white, the assumption is that if we can get the right politicians in office and the right laws passed, all will be well. It’s astonishingly naïve. A wiser approach is remembering politics is inherently good (creation). Self-governance is difficult (fall). Best to build the institutions that encourage virtue while punishing evil (redemption). There will be politicians in heaven, when mayors govern cities (final restoration).

It’s the institution part that evangelicals will find challenging. The four-chapter gospel encourages the building of mediating institutions (including government). They arbitrate between the state and individuals and set boundaries. Christopher DeMuth, a distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute, notes how American Christians have contributed to the erosion of these institutions.3 Evangelicalism in particular is pockmarked with cultural individualism, or what the sociologist Robert Nisbet and the political scientists Anthony King and James Q. Wilson call the “atomization” of American culture and politics. It yields an uneducated electorate.

A year from now, Americans will have elected a next President and Congress. No matter which candidate wins, Americans will get the leader they deserve. But democracy will be the loser if an uneducated electorate determines the winner.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

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1 David Brooks, “The Republicans’ Incompetence Caucus,” The New York Times, October 13, 2015
2 Jacques Ellul, The Political Illusion (New York: Random House, 1967).
3 Christopher DeMuth, “The Decline and Fall of Congress,” The Wall Street Journal, October 18, 2015.

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15 Comments

  1. Noting Mike, you choose not to mention the concept of ‘the personal being political’. Recognising that the volitional capability of a person signifies political status. The real tensions of democracy being between the personal, the institutional and the structural(cultural). A simple mantra of ABC often sufficing. Getting from A to B as quick as possible, by Cing(seeing)a solution.The introduction of D(iscerndment) and E(mpowerment) adding depth and wisdom.

  2. I would just like to remind everyone that the United States of America is a Representative Republic and not a Democracy (pet peeve). We elect people that we feel will best represent our individual interests within the framework of the Constitution. Or at least that is how it is supposed to work.

    Why do our elected leaders need to be life long politicians? Our founding fathers weren’t?

  3. Interesting Greg, does that mean you are happy with the present ‘state of play’, or see that further developments could be enacted to create a democracy ?

  4. As an observer of USA politics I find the following interesting(source Wiki)
    “This idea of having one chamber represent people equally, while the other gives equal representation to states regardless of population, was known as the Connecticut Compromise. There was also a desire to have two Houses that could act as an internal check on each other. One was intended to be a “People’s House” directly elected by the people, and with short terms obliging the representatives to remain close to their constituents. The other was intended to represent the states to such extent as they retained their sovereignty except for the powers expressly delegated to the national government. The Senate was thus not intended to represent the people of the United States equally. The Constitution provides that the approval of both chambers is necessary for the passage of legislation”

  5. Mike, It doesn’t sound fair to dismiss a Trump or Carson lead in the polls as the result of an uneducated white evangelical resistance. But I’ll admit it might not sound fair of me to say that’s exactly how Obama was elected: edged over the top by the masses of America’s uneducated – with the assumption that America’s educated R & D equally cancelled each other out. CNN’s John King (D) noted that since 2008 every set of elected offices has increased in R’s being elected. A reaction to a D in the White House? Maybe. Or that serious voters (R!) vote all the time, not just for President. Hard to say what will happen in 2016, but I’m not afraid of a Trump presidency – I’m much more fearful of another D in the White House.

  6. Thanks for the reminder of the 4s.I wonder if and how Americans can become educated politically, given the fall, and consequential predilections?

  7. Marc: At the very least, I’d urge churches to reacquaint believers with the “four-chapter” gospel. Better and broader way to understand government, the American Experiment, and the necessity for good politics and wise politicians.

  8. To your point Mike, “Too many embrace a “two-chapter” gospel—the fall and redemption. God is good and politics is bad.”
    Greek dualism dominates the evangelical pulpit, and with it the overt focus on heaven instead of engaging the fallen creation and sharing the gospel as the controlling narrative over and above the political circus. Painful stuff to watch. Thanks for helping me process it better. It keeps my Irish temper from getting the best of me.

  9. As a white evangelical, I’m having a bit of trouble with this one Mike. I was with you when you quoted Jefferson and added that “Political illiteracy is especially pernicious these days”, but it seems to me you went off the rails when you blamed that on white evangelicals. It’s probably true that they constitute Trump’s support, but Carson? Are you serious?

    It’s true that both candidates claim their greatest asset is not being a politician. It’s also true that both of them breathe air. Both observations, it seems to me, are similarly relevant. They otherwise could not be more dissimilar.

    What is your definition of “politics”? Seems you may have a far different one than I do. You say that “Politics is the art of forging individuals into healthy communities, or cities.” I doubt that very many, even among the highest-information voters, would define it that way. Politics, it seems to me, is that dirty business of pandering to the “needs” of your voter base without being hung by your own petard, as GHW Bush did with his “read my lips” promise.

    But the real problem, in my opinion, is the low-information voter. It’s maddening to me how many of them make ‘being well informed’ their civic duty.

    I do agree with your overall point (I think this is it) that the Church has not done a very good job of teaching us how to engage the political system. But the far bigger challenge is convincing us that we have a biblical obligation to do so.

    I do not agree that there will be politicians in heaven. Rulers, yes, but not politicians. Ugh!

  10. Mike, far too vast an opening for me to get my head around. It is definitely a head-tilt, but but seemingly unanswerable in practical terms. How can the influencers be influenced in finite time and numbers?

  11. Barnabas I am actually for the opposite, I would like to see a move back to the original framework of the constitution. To your second point on the 2 houses of the legislature, I would like to see it go back to the original process that the governors of the states appointed the their senators vs having the masses elect them. They would then represent the states and not the masses.

  12. Thankyou for the clarity, Greg.

    It is very enlightening. when considered, in contrast to Australia and the UK.Noting who is actually represented.

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