Robert Tracy McKenzie is Arthur F. Holmes Chair of Faith and Learning and professor of history at Wheaton College. The following interview revolves around McKenzie’s latest book, We the Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy. We the Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy: McKenzie, Robert Tracy: 9780830852963
I spend quite a bit of time reading and much of it is in history. Every now and then a book crosses my radar that I wished all Americans would read…carefully. This is one such book. We the Fallen People has much wisdom to offer during this divisive and confused time.
Moore: Your book is comprehensive, but not pedantic. It is thoughtful, yet accessible. This was quite an ambitious project to take on. When did you first conceive of this project? Did you ever wonder whether it would be worth the effort?
McKenzie: I have been teaching on American democracy for thirty-four years now, and We the Fallen People is a book that I always thought I would write, eventually. But there’s no doubt that the book was also propelled by a sense of urgency that has grown in my heart and mind over the last five years or so. As a historian, I am convinced of the fragility of democracy, and I am deeply concerned about the future of our democratic experiment. As a Christian historian, I am even more concerned for the testimony of the church in this polarized time. Together, these burdens convinced me that the time to act was now. Because I write slowly, “now” turned out to take about four years.
And, yes, I have frequently wondered if this would be worth the effort. We the Fallen People will not be a comforting book for many readers. Christians may find some of my argument troubling, because I contend that we have not done a good job of thinking Christianly about democracy, and our witness in the public square has suffered as a result. In those times when I have been tempted to doubt, however, I have reminded myself of why I began the project in the first place: out of a deep sense of calling to speak hard truths, in love, to the church. And in the times when I was most discouraged, my wife Robyn was there to help hold up my arms. From the beginning, she has told me that this is my “Esther moment.” God knows, and time will tell.
Moore: The Civil War historian, Gary Gallagher, always tells his students at the University of Virginia to steer clear of studying history if they are looking for simple answers. You remind us regularly in your book that complexity is part and parcel of being a good reader of history. Would you describe why we must be comfortable with complexity in order to study history properly.
McKenzie: The simplest answer, and I’m not trying to be dismissive here, is that history is complicated. Period. It’s complicated because human behavior is complicated. Our motives are invariably mixed. Our understandings of ourselves and our world are invariably flawed. Our ways of thinking and being are shaped by an intricate web of circumstances impossible to disentangle. This means that simple explanations of historical events are always bad explanations. They necessarily reflect a superficial understanding.
The problem is that we tend to prefer our explanations as simple as possible. I think this is partly because we lack the patience to wrestle with the complexity of a three-dimensional past. Google trains us to expect instant, black-and-white answers to all of our questions. Part of the problem, though, is that we often go to the past less in search of answers than in search of ammunition, that is, we’re looking for evidence to support ideological positions to which we are already committed. Simple, dogmatic answers are more politically effective than complicated ones. Alexis de Tocqueville put it memorably: “A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.”
Moore: Many of us American Christians do not have a very robust view of sin, including its own effects on us! How does a growing appreciation for our own sin aid in better understanding history?
McKenzie: It offers a powerful framework for understanding human behavior, for one thing. At the heart of all good history is the endeavor to understand the human condition more deeply. At its best, history gives us truer glimpses of ourselves. By giving us a vantage point far removed from our own, it can allow us to see our world, and ourselves, with new eyes. An understanding of sin also gives us a vocabulary for thinking about the cultures that human beings create. In We the Fallen People, I argue that an awareness of the pervasiveness of original sin helps us in scrutinizing democracy as Americans have experienced it these past two centuries. Finally, I would add that a robust appreciation of our own sinful natures will also remind us that we rarely crave the sort of transformative insight that history has the potential to deliver. In our fallenness, we naturally gravitate to memories of the past that are self-justifying and aggrandizing. We appreciate history that entertains us, and we think highly of history that affirms us, but we have little taste for history that convicts us.
Moore: For many years, I have been going back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s amazing book, Democracy in America. You use several insights from Tocqueville in We the Fallen People. Why is Tocqueville indispensable for understanding America?
McKenzie: Tocqueville was unquestionably brilliant, but one of the most important reasons why he was able to gain insight into American democracy is that he was neither an American nor the product of a democratic culture. Americans find it difficult to think deeply about democracy because, for those of us born in this country, it’s all we’ve ever known. To compound our difficulty, most of us tend to think about democracy with what the late Irving Kristol called “democratic faith.” We assume that a perfectly democratic society will be a just society, and this leads to the insistence that there are no problems in our democracy that more democracy won’t solve. Such circular reasoning gets us nowhere.
Born in a very different time and place, Tocqueville didn’t approach democracy with democratic faith, and that allowed him to see it more clearly. His greatest insight—the one that will revolutionize our thinking—is that democracy is morally indeterminate. Tocqueville echoed our Founders in his belief that human nature is predisposed to selfishness, and this led him to the conclusion that majority rule can result in a wide range of outcomes. He was convinced that democracy would become the predominant form of government in the West. The more pressing question was what type of democracy would prevail? Would it promote tyranny or liberty? Tocqueville’s answer is that it can do either.
Moore: Andrew Jackson was the first president to get a nickname. You spend much time detailing why his administration was a break from previous presidents. Would you highlight a few things that made Jackson a different type of president from what the American people were used to with the first six?
McKenzie: Jackson was the embodiment of what I have labeled “the Great Reversal,” a paradigm-shattering revolution in how American leaders understood human nature. The leaders of the Revolutionary generation took it as a given that human beings are essentially selfish. They believed that we are capable of acts of extraordinary courage or generosity or self-sacrifice, but they had no doubt that our default motive is self-interest. Jackson was the first president to espouse the American gospel that we are naturally good. He told voters that they were “uncorrupted and incorruptible,” marked by “good sense and practical judgment,” and renowned for their “high tone of moral character.”
Beyond this, Jackson was the first president to define his election as a popular referendum on his policies. He insisted that his election meant that “the people” agreed with him, and that his views had been upheld by “the highest power known on earth.” Finally, he was the first president to anoint himself the only “direct representative of the American people.” Although it will jar our ears to hear this, there is nothing in the Constitution to suggest that this is the executive’s role. On the contrary, the Framers actually took great pains to separate the executive from popular influence. In Jackson’s claim lies the justification of the inordinate presidential power that we take for granted today.
Moore: Scholar/pastor Greg Boyd had very few people leave his church over his theology that many find a radical break from Christian orthodoxy, namely Open Theism. However, when he preached a series on the dangers of confusing the American flag with the kingdom of heaven (mentioned in his interview with Charlie Rose) he had right at 20% or 1000 people leave his church. Boyd’s preaching series became a book that I read and recommend: The Myth of a Christian Nation (Zondervan). Why do so many American Christians merge love of country with the kingdom of heaven?
McKenzie: That’s a great question, but I can only speculate on the answer. Our sense of identity is always multidimensional and rests on numerous traits. If we are serious about following Christ, we will surely define ourselves as Christians. Depending on our circumstances, we may also define ourselves as members of a particular family, denomination, race or ethnic group, class, or sex; as practitioners of a particular craft or occupation; as loyal supporters of a particular political party or as the zealous fans of a favorite sports team. All this is natural and potentially innocent. But here’s the crucial point: life is simpler when the most important facets of our identity are mutually reinforcing rather than competing. (Social scientists refer to this as “stacking identities.”) We find it easy to persuade ourselves that our religious convictions, our national loyalties, and our partisan commitments all point in the same direction. Eventually, we reach the point where it becomes almost impossible to disentangle them, and what we call “Christianity” is less “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” than a confused jumble of Scriptural precepts and culturally-specific convictions that have little to do with the gospel.
Moore: Years ago, when I heard a thoughtful person warn about the fragile nature of our democracy, I tended to think the concern was a bit overwrought. I no longer feel that way. I am also seeing more historians using the word fracture to describe our present moment in America. How hopeful are you that Americans can come to some shared understanding of what it means to be a responsible citizen?
McKenzie: Apart from the mercy and grace of God, I see grounds for grave concern. The US is in the grips of a crisis of democracy fueled by a level of partisan polarization unequaled since the Civil War, and faith in our political institutions, and in democracy itself, is plummeting. I have no simple solution to offer, but the crux of We the Fallen People is my appeal to Christians to rediscover what the Bible teaches about each of us and to allow those truths to transform how we engage with American politics. Specifically, we need to feel afresh the weight of original sin, and remind ourselves daily that the Fall has left its imprint on every political institution we revere, every political party we champion, every candidate we vote for. In like manner, we need to marvel anew at the miracle of imago Dei, perpetually remembering that even our most bitter political opponents are “fearfully and wonderfully made” in the image of the God who loves them and gave his own Son for them. Were we to do so, it might not restore the health of our democracy, but it would transform the testimony of Christians in the public square and infuse a measure of humility and charity into our political debates, both of which, to our shame, are now conspicuously absent.
Moore: What are two or three things you hope your readers gain from reading We the Fallen People?
McKenzie: I hope that readers will come away with a new appreciation of the religious assumptions that invariably undergird our thinking about democracy, in particular our understanding of human nature. Second, at a time when our democracy is in jeopardy, I hope that readers will wrestle with the fundamental question of why we believe in democracy in the first place.
C. S. Lewis long ago observed that there are only two basic reasons to believe in democracy: because we have confidence in human nature, or because we don’t. On the one hand, we may think that humans are naturally so virtuous and wise that the general welfare suffers unless each of us is heard. On the other hand, we may view humans as essentially self-interested creatures, which makes it dangerous to give any one of them or small group of them power over the rest of us. I hope that readers will conclude, as I have, that Americans long ago embraced democracy for the wrong reason. Our Founding Fathers held a view of human nature that accorded closely with the orthodox Christian belief that we come into the world as fallen beings who want nothing so much as to rule ourselves and please ourselves. Within a couple of generations that understanding had been all but banished from the public square, and American democracy ever since has rested on the more comforting, though unbiblical view that we are individually good and collectively wise. The result is that we have weakened the very democracy that we long to see flourish.
David Moore is the author of the recently released Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians. https://www.amazon.com/Stuck-Present-History-Frees-Christians/dp/168426460X
[…] We the Fallen People: An Interview with Robert McKenzie […]
The bottom line consideration is that (in general) human beings are indeed fallen, fallible, and utterly selfish… and there is NO form of government or cultural structure which will be successful long term anywhere on earth. That is, none will do well and last until Jesus returns and sets up His eternal Kingdom.
As for democratic republics…
When people can vote and seek to elect those who promise to benefit the voters’ own selfish materialistic desires for gain, when those who vote for a living are more populous than those who work for a living, then it is certain that economic common sense will eventually be tossed out the window and the government will fail. When I look at the USA’s already monstrous debt and inflation, it is easy to predict that soon will come … another Great Depression. Sorry, folks, but we reap what we sow.
Thanks for reading Bruce.
I think you underscore some formidable challenges/intractable problems. All the major thinkers and historians I read (from all political and cultural positions) are soberly underscoring how much the American experiment is fracturing. We assumed it was not so fragile and we were wrong. As I mention in the piece, I was wrong on that count.
What to do? I am more convinced than ever that the well-worn statement of “think globally, act locally” applies more than ever. A good read is by the editor of Mere Orthodoxy, Jake Meador. It is titled In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World.
Great interview. Thanks.
One of the things that attracted me to evangelicalism when I was in college was its sober acceptance that we are indeed prone to wander. It was a refreshing break from the positive-thinking theology that made up most of my Protestant mainline upbringing.
It’s interesting to me that the two movements have basically shifted on this point in the past 20 years. I left evangelicalism a few years ago and returned to the ECUSA. Today in the ECUSA, I find little of the positive-thinking theology that prevailed in my youth. People are much more willing to accept that we are prone to wander. Meanwhile, evangelicalism is slowly embracing a gospel whose principal concern lies in promoting the inherent righteousness of those who comprise “real America.”
Thanks for posting, Ryo.
There are still some very good “evangelical” churches that have a robust and realistic view of human nature. Sadly, you are correct that the numbers seem to be diminishing. I remain hopeful, as I am sure you do, because God not man is building the church, even though it may not look like it!
Agreed. There’s still a fair bit of complexity and diversity within the movement. The book published last year by Perry and Whitehead show that. Even so, their research shows that about 75% of white evangelicals are either proponents of Christian nationalism or have accommodationist views towards it. That said, I too trust that Christ will continue to build the Church and that we will overcome these setbacks.