Events of this past week remind us of Benjamin Franklin’s cautionary reply to a good question.
Legend has it a woman asked Benjamin Franklin a question as he exited Independence Hall after the Constitutional Convention in 1787. “Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” Franklin supposedly replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Franklin hit the nail on the head. The storming of the US Capital this past week calls into question whether Americans are capable of keeping our republic. Or if we even understand what it means that America is a republic.
A “republic” is a form of government in which the people hold power, but elect representatives to exercise that power. America is a republic, a representative democracy. The founders, steeped in history, feared direct democracy, as it often led to mob rule. Representative democracy isn’t supposed to, as it’s designed to cool the “passions of the people.”
Hence, George Washington in his fatherly Farewell Address, described our nation as a “great experiment.” Can a people be self-governed? The founders said yes, creating a Constitution that established a separation of powers. This was to dampen the passions and “prevent the rabble from passing sweeping new legislation in response to some passion of the moment.”
Our experiment in self-governance required a measure of freedom, or liberty, that had to be won (our War of Independence), ordered (the Constitution and our separation of powers), and sustained (i.e. kept alive). Hence, we have a republic… if we can keep it.
I’m less sure we can, given what happened last Wednesday. “This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic,” former President George W. Bush said in a statement. For the first time in our republic’s history, we witnessed the executive branch incite a crowd to march on the legislative branch. Then, when some in the crowd turned violent and stormed the Capitol, the President hedged his plea for calm with praise for the mob – all while continuing his plaintive (and appalling) cry that the election was rigged. Sure looked like mob rule.
So what can be done, especially if you’re a Christian? I suggest the following.
Become familiar with the great experiment. Augustine wrote that Christians ought to be the “best of citizens.” This requires what Thomas Jefferson called an “educated electorate.” Too much of American Christianity is an uneducated electorate. For example, we tout “passion” as an unalloyed good. Scripture disagrees. Passion ought to be limited. Madison agreed, writing how “passions” are “sown in the nature of man” and to be limited.
Become familiar with the golden triangle driving our experiment. The founders felt religion was vital, for it yields virtuous citizens. Only a virtuous citizenry can sustain liberty. Yet most American Christians are not virtuous according to Dallas Willard. Our levels of “unethical actions, crime, mental distress and disorder, family failures, addictions, and financial misdealings” are equivalent to those who don’t attend church.
Finally, do a digital declutter. We know the news makes us dumb. The explosion of news on social media makes us dumb and dumber, for while the cacophony of information has increased, the brain’s capacity to absorb it has not. Overload makes us opt for the familiar, leaving us operating in echo chambers. The only way out of the cacophony is to do a digital declutter, whether it be Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tik-Tok – you name it. Do it.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was right on point when he said: “If this election were overturned by mere allegations from the losing side, our democracy would enter a death spiral.” We might already be in one. I’ll leave it for you to decide whether we can keep our hard-won and rightly-ordered republic.
 Dallas Willard, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (HarperCollins, 1998), 209.