Tag Archives: Elections

The Secret to Greatness

Alexis_de_Tocqueville SketchThis is the 240th year of my nation’s independence. From those humble beginnings in 1776, America quickly became “great”. This anniversary also took place amidst a dismal train wreck of a presidential election year here. Among the many sound bites and slogans thrown around in the course of the national election, was one suggesting that we “make America great again.” As slogans go, it’s good; it’s short, catchy, memorable, and just vague enough for people to make out of it what they want to hear. But if America was once great, and we desire to make her great again, perhaps it would behoove us to look at what made her great the first time.

Alexis de Toqueville was a young Frenchman who wondered that same thing in 1831 when he arrived in the US. America and France presented an interesting contrast. While both had gone through revolutions during the previous 60 years, and both resulted in the formation of a republic, France’s revolution was a blood-drenched anarchic nightmare compared with America’s much more orderly (and stable) quest for freedom. So Toqueville came to America, selecting “the nation, from amongst those which have undergone it {democratic revolution} in which its development has been the most peaceful and the most complete, in order to discern its natural consequences, and if it be possible, to distinguish the means by which it may be rendered profitable” to his French people. [1]

What did he find? While there is a beautifully stirring quote popularly attributed to him summing up how America’s greatness is not found in all her various resources, but rather in her churches, I’ll refrain from quoting that here as it is, by all appearances, a false attribution. Nevertheless, the last sentence of that misquote, does, I think, hold a kernel of truth in it. It goes like this: “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.” If the candidates in a representative form of government like ours are reflections of the people, then it may be safe to say at this point that we have “ceased to be good,” and may never be great again, in spite of hopeful political slogans.

When it comes to “greatness”, might I suggest that we take a lesson from engineering design? No product or process can be expected to excel if it is used in ways contrary to its design intent. The highly-engineered sports car will likely disappoint the driver that attempts to take it off-roading. In my own field of structural design, the heavily-reinforced concrete underground shelter that is ideal in a tornado may become a water-filled coffin in a hurricane’s storm surge. The two events have different requirements, and the optimum solution for one may be counter-productive in the other event.

Our nation, this grand experiment in liberty and self-governance,  was designed by, and for, a peculiar citizenry. As John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”[2] We are a nation designed to exemplify the truth and grace of God in this world, and we will not return to any kind of meaningful greatness until we return to fulfilling our design. As we have denied the Christian foundations of our nation, and rejected the Christian doctrines that established us and made us “a city on a hill”[3] and a light to the nations, we have slid further and further from true greatness. We would do well to remember the proverb that tells us that “righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” [Prov 14:34] True greatness will not be obtained from any political savior, regardless of the political party or ideals they represent. No matter who wins this election, America will continue toward becoming just another name in the history books of another broken and bygone nation if there is not a transformation of her people. Political change is always short-lived, and often today’s revolutionaries become tomorrow’s conservatives fighting to preserve what they fought for against the newest batch of revolutionaries seeking to overthrow the “status quo”. If you seek for salvation in political, economic, or cultural change, you will only find yourself in a depressingly vicious cycle. Only God provides the inner transformation of man, at his core, that stops the cycle and provides stability to an individual, and consequently, to a nation of transformed individuals. Until we address the “heart” issue at the heart of our national sickness, we are simply rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic while we continue to sink.


[1] Alexis de Toqueville, Democracy in America, Introduction, Location 503, Kindle Edition.
[2] John Adams, “Letter to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts”, 11 October 1798
[3] John Winthrop (Govenor of Plymouth Colony), “A Modell of Christian Charity”, sermon delivered c. 1630. The phrase is taken from the Sermon on the Mount, by Jesus (Matt 5:14).

Engineering a “More Perfect Union”

Constitutional Signing_Small
Today, on this Election Day here in the US, I want to take a break from talking about correlations between engineering design and Christianity to point out similar correlations with our electoral system. Sometimes tiresome political ads and mudslinging candidates can make us forgetful of what a well-planned system of government we were given. Have you ever gotten a kit with detailed instructions for assembling all of the parts that have been carefully designed to work in unison efficiently once fully assembled? Have you ever skimmed through the directions of a complicated kit, or even ignored them entirely, and finally, hours or days later, had to start over again following the directions to the letter? Engineered products often have interdependent parts and require assembly in a particular order to function, whether talking about a skyscraper, a sports car, or your kid’s Christmas gift. It turns out the same applies to elections.

Our Founding Fathers were all too familiar with our fallen human nature so thoroughly explained in the Bible. They and their ancestors had come to these shores fleeing the abuses of power resulting from that propensity toward evil. They had seen for themselves the tendency of kings toward such abuses, as described in the Bible millennia before in 1 Samuel 8.  So they decided to eliminate that possibility by forming a very weak, decentralized government through the Articles of Confederation, but it was too ineffective to take it’s place among the nations of the world.  And so they sought to form a “more perfect union”, a government limited in its power over the people, accountable to the people, with power spread out in different branches and with the branches countering each other through many “checks and balances” to prevent the inevitable power plays that people dream up when given authority over others. They also recognized the tendency of a true democracy to deteriorate into mob rule, a “might makes right” condition best described as 2 wolves and a sheep deciding on dinner.   The middle road between tyranny of the government and tyranny of the majority was our Constitutional Republic, a government bound by the Rule of Law rather than the whims of the men in authority or majority.  But one key component of this experiment in self-governance was an informed, dutiful, and moral citizenry: informed both on current issues and history, so that they can make wise decisions for the future and not repeat the mistakes of the past; dutiful in that they would not be apathetic and leave their responsibility for self-governance in the hands of those all too eager to assume more authority; and yes, moral, in that only a moral people will do the right thing, even when it’s not in their own self-interest. In the words of our 2nd president, John Adams, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

So, much like a thoughtfully designed product (which it is, really), our political system has some key components that are vital to its functioning correctly. And when we try to operate it without those parts in place, we will continue to be frustrated by it malfunctioning.  Let’s look back to the instructions left us by the designers of our Republic, and get back to building it and maintaining it as it was intended. While this 2014 election has come to a close, may I heartily ask a future favor of everyone – study to know what and who you’re voting for, take part in your governance all the time, not just once every 2-4 years in a general election, and vote for what is right and not just what is popular, or “feels good”, or benefits you personally at the expense of others.