In the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about something Alexis De Tocqueville implied in his classic Democracy in America: America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.
I’ve been thinking about this because, right now, we need America to be great. We need to rise to one of the toughest challenges this country has faced and prevail as capable, strong, and free. This is a moment that demands American greatness.
But for that to happen, we need to ask ourselves a more fundamental question. Is America still good? One of de Tocqueville’s primary observations as he travelled through America was that democracy will only work if there is a commitment by both leaders and constituents to be moral.
I have been in politics a long time and, without going into detail, have seen some ugly stuff. I have seen what power, or the desire for power, can do to people. I have seen the corrupting influence of money and privilege in our system. I have seen, as they say, how the sausage is made, and it ain’t pretty.
Over the last ten years, I’ve seen politics devolve even further. Because of hyper-partisanship, dark money influence, the 24-hour nature of the mainstream media, and the information overload of social media, our country’s morality has been tested, and, quite frankly, come up wanting.
As the apostle Paul said in Romans 5:3-4, “we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character, and character, hope.” At moments like this, in the stillness of self-isolation I have found myself asking God, “What can I do to make this situation better for others?”
Indeed, many of us have seen and read about quiet and remarkable acts of charity and kindness, which spur this very hope that our politics doesn’t have to be what it has become. Just the other day, I had a remarkable conversation with a Safeway employee about how Christ is helping her get through her day. I don’t ever recall having a conversation at Safeway about Christ. Surely, that was the freshest produce I had ever purchased!
I recall Governor Brewer, in a State of the State address during some of the heretofore darkest hours of the last recession, beseeching all of us, “for fewer actors on the stage, and more workers in the field.”
We are at a crossroad. And it’s not whether or not we will be great, but whether or not we choose to be good. The crossroad is the choice between seeing politics and government as a means to serve ourselves and the special interests that court us, or a time to serve others, the people who count on public servants and elected officials regardless of political affiliation to keep them safe.
Good, in this situation, is to use the influence and power those of us in public life wield to care for and serve the people counting on us right now. It means putting others interests before our own and restoring His calling to the first and foremost motivation in our life – and that includes sacrifice. We are going to have to sacrifice and do what’s best for Arizona, not necessarily what’s best for us.
As C.S Lewis said, “If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” Indeed, it is natural to be very uncomfortable during these difficult times, particularly if we are putting other people’s interests before our own.
If Arizona is going to be great, it needs to commit to being good. If we continue on with politics as usual, we will fail to meet this crisis with the American resolve of our history. This will break us, at least for a while.
Despite all the ugly I’ve seen, I have also seen politics work to do what it was intended to do. I’ve seen good people do good things to serve Arizona in a way that has made it better. I have seen leaders cross the aisle to accomplish incredible legislation. I’ve seen men and women in public office work tirelessly for the sake of protecting the poor, building the middle class, and ensuring that long-term infrastructure doesn’t get forgotten.
In John Steinback’s novel, East of Eden, Adam Trask, along with his butler Lee, ruminate over the Hebrew word Timshel. The question he asks, particularly in light of the drastic difference in nature between his two twin sons, Cal and Aron, is whether or not a man can change his moral disposition. If someone seems predisposed to evil, must he remain so? Adam and Lee conclude that the meaning of the word Timshel is, “thou mayest.”
The ultimate conclusion of Steinbeck’s novel is that we are not doomed to our past choices. If we need to change course, move from the ugly, petty, and partisan politics that define our past to the united, productive, and service focused politic needed now, thou mayest.
I believe, as Lincoln said, in our better angels. I believe we mayest. I believe that in times of crisis, not only does America choose to be great, but she chooses to be good.
Let’s not give up in choosing the good. American greatness depends on it.