A shorter version of this essay appeared in the Springfield News-Leader, October 31, 2016, p. 2C.
That America is divided is news to no one—particularly in this divisive Presidential election year (2016). The body politic seems to agree on very little, and our citizenry as a whole seems to have very little in common. I don't usually stumble about in political issues, but since the election this year has been particularly fractious, it set me to thinking about the ethical center of the country. If there is such a center, what might it be?
Our grand experiment in democracy has not united us, as our current incorrigible political discourse attests. Because America is a nation of immigrants our ethnicity does not unite us—we are, and are destined to remain, a nation of diverse ethnicities with different values and cultural traditions. Not even our vaunted secular educational system succeeds in uniting us because of homeschooling and private religiously-oriented high schools and colleges. Our religion does not unite us in terms of beliefs and values because the melting pot that is America hasn't worked on religion—we don't even do toleration well.
What we seem to have in common is that we are a secular people—that is, our society for the most part is "rationally organized around impersonal and utilitarian values and patterns and receptive to new traits."
The preamble to the U. S. Constitution is a very hopeful statement of the ideals and intent of the founders of the country. It is a vision of a "shining city on a hill," but the reality is far different. Today we are scarcely a "more perfect union," and cannot even agree on the nature of Justice in the social order. Too often domestic tranquility hinges on the neighborhood in which one lives. Congress bickers, but cannot agree on, how much or how little should be provided for the common defense. We all want for ourselves and our posterity the blessings of liberty, and do not seem bothered that not all citizens fully share in liberty's blessings.
The only thing we seem to agree on is the emphasis in the preamble on promoting the general welfare, as long as the welfare being promoted is mine—and this is my point: we all agree on the utilitarian value that "my welfare" should be promoted; yet we seem unaware that a government formed "of the people, by the people, and for the people" comes at some individual personal cost; put simply: freedom is not completely free.
A representative democracy, and the high ideals of the preamble to the constitution, can only succeed if they aim at working for all citizens, and that means concessions are required on everyone's part. Hence the goal is not "my welfare" but should be "our common welfare." Economic benefits must aim always at providing for the common good. An economic rising tide must "raise the boats of all citizens" to be successful. The traditions and beliefs of a religious majority cannot be mandated so as to compromise the religious traditions of minority groups. In other words, for a democratic society to function toleration is required. The goal is to achieve the greatest amount of liberty under the law for the greatest number of people.
Politics is the art of the possible, which always involves compromise. Everybody gets a little and gives a little in return. In a democracy the most successful politician is the one skilled at deal making, for s/he moves the country forward.
A wise man once said, "a state divided cannot stand" (Mark 3:24-25). We would do well to heed his caution, and seek common ground.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University