What did America’s founders believe about human nature? How might a deeper understanding of their perspective shape the way we think about our current and future challenges to democracy?
The Trinity Forum spoke with Dr. Tracy McKenzie, professor of history at Wheaton College and author of the award-winning We the Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy, to take a close look at the nature of American democracy and what it means for the future. We’ll discussed the view of human nature that was shared by America’s founding fathers, the implications of its abandonment, and explore the tension of fallen human beings entrusted with self-governance. This conversation of America’s history can help us see the present with fresh insight as we consider how Christians and the Church play a role in the public and political life of the country
Online Conversation | Tracy McKenzie | August 19, 2022
Cherie Harder: Welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation with Dr. Tracy McKenzie on “The Fall, the Founding, and the Future of American Democracy.” I’d also like to thank our sponsor that Molly mentioned, the Wheaton Center for Faith, Politics, and Economics. And welcome all of you. I think we have nearly 1,200 registrants for the discussion today with a special welcome to the nearly 100 first-time registrants joining us and the nearly 100 people joining us from at least 20 countries that we know of, ranging from Afghanistan to Ethiopia, Lithuania to Trinidad and Tobago. So if you haven’t already done so, send us a note in the chat box and let us know where you’re joining from. It’s always fun for us to see where people are tuning in from. And if you are one of those first-time attendees or otherwise new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space for leaders to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith, and through that to come to better know the Author of the answers. And we hope today’s program will be a small taste of that for you today. Our guest today is a historian who makes the case that an important cause of our current political dysfunction lies in our history of mistaken self-assessment. Namely, we think too highly of ourselves and our own wisdom and virtue, not just as a person, but also as a people. He believes we have largely abandoned the view of human nature, the guide to our country’s founders, that we are a fallen people, prone to selfishness and wrongdoing and in need of checks and balances, and instead base much of our political thinking and practice on a deforming, if enticing, faith in our own collective goodness—a false gospel that actually intensifies our polarization, increases our frustration with democratic institutions, and heightens our susceptibility to authoritarianism. It’s a provocative and a compelling argument made with eloquence and deep expertise in both American political and religious history by our guest today, Dr. Robert Tracy Mackenzie. Tracy McKenzie is the chair of Faith and Learning and professor of history at Wheaton College, where he’s focused most of his scholarly inquiry on the ways in which Christians in the US remember and internalize American history. He’s the past president of the Conference on Faith and History, a national organization of Christian historians, and the author of numerous works, including The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about a Loving God, Learning from History, How and Why to Study History, and, of course, his newest release, the award-winning We the Fallen People, which we’ve invited him here today to discuss. Tracy, welcome.
Tracy McKenzie: Cherie, I’m so glad to be with you today. I’m looking forward to the conversation.
Cherie Harder: Yes, we are as well. So I need to ask: you mentioned, I think both in the book as well as in various interviews, that you had both a deep sense of urgency as well as trepidation in writing this book. What led you to do so?
Tracy McKenzie: Well, the sense of urgency just has to do with my concern about the state of American democracy, and even more so really about the testimony of American Christians in this moment. So that’s where the state of urgency lies. The trepidation comes in that, for a historian, I actually refer to the present a lot more than we’re typically comfortable with. But this comes out of a deep sense of burden for the witness of the church. And so I found it necessary to speak forthrightly.
Cherie Harder: Yes, absolutely. So one of the things I noticed is you both start and end your book with a disputed quotation, often falsely attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, that sounds really pious and even inspiring. In this quote, he talks about searching for the genius of America. And he looked in government and he didn’t find it. He looked in commerce, didn’t find it, and said that not until he went into the churches of America and heard their pulpits flame with righteousness did he understand the secret of her genius and power. And then concludes, “America is great because America is good.” Now we’ve heard this quoted by many different politicians, speakers, and the like, and it sounds really enticing. You don’t think so. Why is that?
Tracy McKenzie: Well, first of all, I loved sharing that quote because it is, I think, just ubiquitous in our past. Alexis de Tocqueville never said such a thing, nor did he believe such a thing. In fact, it’s interesting when you read Tocqueville’s correspondence, when he first arrives in the United States, he almost immediately is impressed that Americans have a very high opinion of themselves. They thought they were good. But Tocqueville actually arrived at a very different conclusion. And I think more to the point, the framers of our Constitution had a very different conclusion. So the fact that we have embraced this idea that the heart of our success as a nation lies in our essential goodness I think is a very telling clue to what has happened culturally in the period since the founding of the country.
Cherie Harder: Mm hmm. And you make the case that not only is it a mistaken, but it’s also deeply damaging. And you have pointed out a variety of ways. I’d love for you just to walk us through that. What damage does it do to believe in the comforting fiction of our own collective goodness?
Tracy McKenzie: It is comforting, but I think its results are pernicious on multiple levels. So if we focus on some of those political consequences, first of all, I actually think this very positive view of human nature makes it more difficult for us to cooperate with individuals who disagree with us. If our assumption is that people are by nature both good and discerning, then it’s very difficult to explain why we disagree. And so the idea that two sides to a debate can actually be principled is something that’s foreign to us. And before we know it, we’re beginning to question whether those who disagree with us are really genuinely part of the people. Once we assume that we’re basically good, it’s ironic how quickly we begin to discuss those who disagree with us as not fully part of the people, not the real or true American. So it has that implication out of the bad. It makes cooperation more difficult.
One of the things that I think is a little bit counterintuitive, but I believe passionately, is that it actually makes us more susceptible to the temptation of authoritarianism.
Cherie Harder: And how so?
Tracy McKenzie: The framers of the Constitution would have said, because we are fallen, because we are selfish by nature, power is always a threat to liberty. It doesn’t matter whether it’s wielded by a monarch or a dictator or a popular majority. But if we start with the assumption that human beings are basically good, that we sort of naturally seek the welfare of others, we can deceive ourselves into believing that a strong leader is not automatically a threat to our liberties, as long as that leader is one of us, if he shares our essential goodness. So I’m firmly convinced that we are in dangerous territory when we accept this understanding of human nature.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, I’d love to come back to that in a second, but before doing that, I was hoping you can tell us a little bit to sort of unpack the founder’s view of human nature. You’ve said several times that it is certainly very compatible with a Christian worldview of man being made in the image of God and having inherent dignity, but also being bent towards selfishness and even wrongdoing. At the same time, the doctrine of original sin has been called perhaps the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine—or it doesn’t necessarily require a faith in Christ. It can be observed and deduced. Is there a difference between the founder’s sense of the falseness of human nature and a Christian sense, or simply kind of just operationally, the way it works out, close enough?
Tracy McKenzie: Yeah, that’s a great question, Cherie. I don’t argue that the framers of the Constitution particularly were necessarily proceeding explicitly and consciously from the Christian doctrine of original sin. I argue basically that their view is compatible with it. But just as you have said, they would have argued that a close attention to history, that a deep immersion in philosophy and literature, would point them toward this conclusion, really in much the same way as the orthodox teaching of Christianity would do. So they firmly believed, not that men and women are sort of wholly evil—they never would have said that—that we have a capacity for great moral virtue, we have that capacity for moral behavior. But they would have said that is always combined with a propensity for self-interested behavior. If virtue is defined as denying one’s self interest for the public welfare, they would have said that most of us really are not naturally virtuous. We’re willing to exalt our self-interest above the good of the whole when those two are in conflict. So that’s not exactly the orthodox Christian understanding of original sin, but I think it’s very compatible with it.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. One of the things that—well, so many of our recent debates, cultural battlefields, have been around our history and around our founding. And there’s been a lot of heat, perhaps not a lot of light, around whether our founders were devout Christians, whether we were founded sort of inherently as a Christian nation and the like. But there hasn’t been all that much attention paid to the shift in our collective view of human nature. Why are we so concerned about the former and so blasé about the latter?
Tracy McKenzie: Yeah, great question, Cherie, and I only have a theory that I cannot absolutely nail down. But I think, you know, I joke in the book that when someone comes up to me after I’ve spoken somewhere in a public venue and they want to know more about whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation, my inclination, at least under my breath, is always to ask, “Why do you want to know? Why is it important to you?” And I think too often the honest answer is we’re really searching for leverage in our contemporary cultural conflicts. I call this the approach to history as “history as a source of ammunition.” And we believe that if we can simply make the case that the country was distinctively Christian in its founding, that really gives us a stronger argument for certain Christian kinds of principles in our public life today.
I think we don’t put the same stock in the question about the framers’ view of human nature in a large part—and here I’m sort of, I guess, being a little bit more provocative—but in large part because we have equally abandoned the framers’ understanding. I mean, most surveys of the last 30 years at least suggest that a large majority of self-identifying Christians in the United States believe that human nature is basically good. That’s true from the sort of the mainline denominations where maybe three quarters of respondents will say we’re basically good. But even among self-identifying evangelicals, it’s still a majority. So I think we don’t want to talk about the framers’ view because we’ve largely stopped listening to them on this question.
Cherie Harder: Now, that’s fascinating. And to dig into that a bit, you kind of trace some of the shift that happened there—which it sounds like we, the church, have even entirely swallowed—to Andrew Jackson’s rise of power and his knack for setting himself up as a symbol of democracy, even while largely flouting the rule of law and acting in quite an authoritarian way. Can you walk us through how at least you believe Andrew Jackson shifted our consensus about human nature and democracy?
Tracy McKenzie: I’m glad to do that. And the first thing I would say, just to sort of clarify, is I really I wouldn’t argue that Jackson caused this shift, but I think he wonderfully embodies it. And I’m sure that he reinforced it and sort of accelerated it. So a lot of things about Jackson’s public campaigns are things that today we would absolutely take for granted, not even notice. But he’s really the first presidential candidate to mount a campaign that identifies himself as “the people’s candidate.” That really had never been a claim made or theme rhetorically before. He’s the first president to suggest that people are intrinsically virtuous. He’s the first president to argue that his election was a kind of mandate. And beyond that, one that carried moral authority. He’s the first, really, to say that “my election by the people means I have been given a kind of imprimatur from the highest authority on earth.” And, of course, the paradox of all this is that he’s often using this tribute to the people to justify a pretty significant concentration of power in his own person. We think today about a kind of imperial presidency where the executive branch wields such sprawling kinds of powers. Well, Jackson really is the beginning of that story. It’s a long story, but he’s the first president, I think, really to bring to the executive branch an expansion of power. And he does so paradoxically in the name of the people.
Cherie Harder: Fascinating. You know, one thing that’s sort of—one almost has to laugh with Andrew Jackson and his sense of demagoguery. And I loved how you described him. You wrote about his “supreme unshakable belief in his own righteousness.” You mentioned that you have read tens of thousands of his documents and never stumbled across one time where he admitted that he had done something wrong. It’s interesting that even among Christians who believe in original sin, you know, who do understand that we are kind of selfish by nature and who would affirm the importance of servant leadership, of humility, of charity, of kindness, there seems to be an undeniable appeal to the supremely self-assured leader who sets himself up as kind of a “mandate” who can do no wrong, who never backs down. This may be a psychological question, but I also would be interested in politically, sociologically, why is that?
Tracy McKenzie: It’s a good question, for which I have no psychological answer, at least in terms of plumbing the depths of the psyche. What I do believe, and I’ve sort of alluded to this already, I suppose, is that as our understanding of human nature becomes more and more positive, we’re more likely to believe that it’s possible for someone who can be our champion, who will not abuse the power given to him or her, who will use it virtuously for the welfare of our group, whatever that group may be. One of the things I think is, as we sort of examine our own hearts in the way that we respond to political rhetoric today, there’s a lot of inconsistency in our behavior—I would argue, because we’re selfish and fallen—and in our whole thought about power. I mean, the reality is we tend to be only skeptical of power when it’s wielded by others. I joke in the book and say we’re pretty sure that Nazis should not have power. We’re leery to give our teenagers power. But we’re pretty open to the possibility that we could exercise power pretty safely—or our designated champion. And I think that’s what you see even in the 1820s, when Jackson is really beginning to violate the law and abuse his power; those who supported him were pretty much mute and any criticism was pretty much along partisan lines.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, it’s fascinating. I want to pick up on something you alluded to earlier, which has to do with one of the inherent challenges or contradictions within the belief of our own goodness and wisdom, you know, the collective genius of the American people—in that it seems like if you have that belief, you also have a conundrum, which is, as you were alluding to, what to do with people who don’t share your point of view and are actually vigorously opposed to it. And, you know, one of the ways that we have kind of seen that play out is, as you were saying, there’s a reason why those other people either aren’t fully human—in the case of Andrew Jackson and the Cherokees—or somehow aren’t the real people, which you saw with like the French Revolution. Somehow the aristocrats didn’t count. There was all sorts of democratic goodness, but it didn’t extend to aristocrats. Would love for you to kind of flesh out that a little bit more. Is there an inherent danger to marginalization or even dehumanization that is inherent in this kind of belief?
Tracy McKenzie: Well, Cherie, I think you’ve already, in some sense, sort of foreshadowed the answer to your very good question. And that answer is a resounding yes. Again, in a way that probably strikes us as a little bit counterintuitive, when we attribute to human nature these positive characteristics, I think it increases the likelihood that we begin to create new boundaries that exclude some people. The moment that the rhetoric, certainly in the American context, the moment that the rhetoric begins to turn to the idea of the people having a kind of unassailable moral authority, then the question became, who actually is sort of given that status of being part of the people? You hear a lot today—we have heard for the last several years—a lot about “populism” and “populist rhetoric.” Coming back to Andrew Jackson, he’s really one of the first real practitioners of that kind of rhetoric. And Jackson is a master at this. He positions himself as the champion of the people. But the reality was, he never gets much more than a majority of the popular vote. There’s always close to a majority of Americans who oppose him, and in some sense they have to be explained away. And so they are unwitting dupes of enemies of the people. Populism tends to say, if you have two parties, only one of those can ever truly be legitimate. And I think that’s something we need to have our eyes very much awakened to.
Cherie Harder: You know, one thing that occurred to me as I was reading through your book is that the founders made all sorts of statements that could be construed to have some sort of support for the idea of the virtue of the people. I think about John Adams saying, “Our Constitution was only made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Or Benjamin Franklin: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” Or George Washington: “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of government.” And I wondered how you kind of weigh those kind of statements with the argument that they all kind of held this sort of deeply grounded view of our fallenness and bent toward selfishness.
Tracy McKenzie: That’s just a great question. It puts your finger and calls our attention to one of the challenges. These are complicated individuals that we’re quoting who often left a detailed, written record that spanned decades. And our temptation typically is—it’s not malevolent in its intent—but it’s to cherry-pick. It’s to find particular quotations, pull them from their context, and give them a kind of authority. You mentioned John Adams, so I’ll just talk about him for a moment. So Adams is making that statement in a particular context during his presidency. He’s speaking at a rally of Massachusetts militia. And I think in its context, that can only be read as a kind of exhortation to his audience to pursue virtue. But at the same time—in fact, the same year the Constitution is created—Adams is writing to correspondents, and he’s saying, “Our countrymen have never merited the character of exalted virtue.” The framers no doubt believe that virtue, to the degree that it could be cultivated and nurtured, would strengthen the American republic, no doubt about that whatsoever. But it’s also no doubt that they never thought that virtue was natural and they never expected it really to be widespread. So they’re constantly exhorting it, trying to promote it, while all the while assuming that that’s not the reality that lawmakers will typically deal with. And so to me, that’s the way that you bring these two together and reconcile them.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. So before we turn to questions from the audience, I’d really like to spend a little bit of time hearing you kind of flesh out, you know, if all this is true, essentially the question of “what then?” We are at a time, as you’ve described, of increasing polarization, of declining trust in democratic institutions. Christians have not been immune from these trends, in many ways have participated with them. And I would love to kind of hear you talk and think about what not just orthodoxy would look like in terms of our political theology, but also an orthopraxy. How then should we engage?
Tracy McKenzie: Yeah. Yeah. Well, that’s, you know, that’s the question. I just want to be a little bit proactive in heading off one response from our audience. I never in the book nor will I now try to make a case for exactly how we should now proceed politically, what our strategy should be, how we should vote, mobilize politically. That’s not the level at which I want us to be thinking. And actually, I don’t think the Bible scripts in any specific way how we are to apply biblical principles about what we might call theological anthropology. But I think to be faithful in our engagement in the public square, whatever that means, surely it means that we are proceeding sensitive to, aware of, how the Holy Scripture describes the human condition. So I think that starts with these two pillar doctrines, belief in original sin, and the belief that we are all created in the image of God. So that would be the orthodoxy. That’s sort of where we start. Now, what does that mean in terms of orthopraxy? How do we live that out? Well, there I think we can have a really good conversation, but I try to throw out some possibilities in the book’s concluding chapters. One of the things I think is that we start our engagement in the public square believing that the fall has touched every part of human existence, that it has affected every political leader, every political party, every political movement that we will ever endorse.
On the other hand, imago dei actually informs and should inform how we perceive everyone who disagrees with us, every political movement that we understand to be a rival. So what does this mean specifically for Christians? I think it means that we need to be very on guard against the possibility of a form of idolatry where we connect ourselves so strongly, so exhaustively, to a particular leader or movement that we begin to really tarnish or mar or corrupt our witness. I think it means really taking the danger of power seriously. I joked earlier, we don’t want to give power to our teenage kids, but we’re pretty comfortable with it ourselves. When you apply that to the public sphere, how often, for example, do we bemoan an imperial presidency with the hundreds of executive orders that a particular president may issue, until our person is in the White House and then those concerns sort of go away? I think we need to strive for much greater consistency.
And part of what we need to do—I take this example, this exhortation, from Alexis de Tocqueville—we need to think about more than just tomorrow. Tocqueville said that when he came to America, that the people he interviewed thought about tomorrow only. That is to say they were thinking about the very immediate consequences of their political decisions. We need to strive to look much farther down the road, I think, than we do. And there’s one final thing. We have to take rhetoric seriously. I don’t think we do. I think we fall into this temptation of thinking it doesn’t matter what candidates or officeholders say, as long as their policies are the ones that we think are appropriate. But the stories that we tell one another are powerful and they shape how we understand ourselves. They’re not just white noise. They’re profoundly important.
Cherie Harder: We could do a whole conversation on that, Tracy. I have anticipated there will be a lot of questions. So I want to allow the next half of our program to deal with some of those questions. And just as a reminder to all of you watching, you can not only ask a question in the Q&A feature, but you can also “like” a question. And that helps give us a better sense of what some of the most popular questions are. So our first question today comes from Kamesh Sankaran, and, Kamesh, my apologies if I mangled your name. Kamesh asks, “Would you please comment on the differing visions of human nature held by Jefferson versus Madison and their result in the unconstrained tone of the Declaration of Independence versus the constrained tone of the Constitution?”
Tracy McKenzie: So great question. So let’s see what we can unpack there. Jefferson—first of all, we want to situate Jefferson. If we think of a continuum of understandings of human nature among prominent founders, Jefferson is going to be way on to one end of that continuum. He has arguably the most positive view of human nature of any prominent statesman in that revolutionary generation. But even Jefferson himself largely accepts the idea that power itself is dangerous because of its capacity to corrupt this. So Jefferson is going to write, for example, in a document that he creates in the 1790s, that when we’re talking about power, “hear no more of confidence in human nature, but bind individuals down with the chains of the Constitution.” The irony here, of course, was that, again, he was less averse to exercising power when he was in the White House. And so I just have to throw that out there. I don’t think Jefferson was hugely consistent.
I think the difference between the Declaration and the Constitution has everything to do with the difference of its function and its purpose. The Declaration, of course, is making a statement to the world about the cause for revolution. The Constitution is having to make a functional framework for an operating government system. And so in a way that was not necessary with the Declaration, I think the framers of the Constitution believed that they had to take human nature into account. As George Washington puts it, just before the Constitutional Convention, “We must take human nature as we find it,” is what he says. And so I think that explains the much more circumspect, we might say, realistic or skeptical understanding of human motivation there.
Cherie Harder: Interesting. So our next question comes from Tim Pattison. And Tim asks, “Could our attraction to self-assured leaders be an unconscious longing for a savior?”
Tracy McKenzie: Well, first of all, you folks are asking deep questions. I suspect that is entirely possible. I guess it was Calvin, maybe others, have said that the heart is an idol factory. And so I think we do have this in our fallenness, this tendency to find a source of hope in some location. And it’s quite possible that this is kind of a misplaced desire that God has actually planted in our nature.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. So a question from Angela Bala. Angela asked, “To what extent do pre-modern or early modern notions of natural law play into the founders’ understanding human nature?”
Tracy McKenzie: Oh, that’s a good question. I’m not sure that I explored a lot the connection between natural law and human nature. I think certainly that an understanding of natural law informs their thinking about the function of government. It’s at the heart of their belief that government must be limited because they think that natural law precedes any sort of human contrivance or construction. If you think about individuals like John Locke or Thomas Hobbes, the ones I probably know best, their understanding—of course, they start in their understanding of state of nature with the idea of a law of nature—but both of them in different ways posit that human beings don’t follow that law. And that’s actually why we have government in the first place. So when James Madison famously in Federalist 51 says, “What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” he’s really building on a philosophical tradition that says that one of the reasons government exists is because we don’t follow the law—that is either the law of nature or the Romans 2 law that’s implanted in our hearts.
Cherie Harder: So our next question comes from Rob Raimy. Rob asks—[coughs] excuse me, getting off a sinus infection—but Rob asked, “Beyond notions consistent with original sin, did any of the founders express views consistent with total depravity?”
Tracy McKenzie: So I understand—I want to make sure I understand what the listener is asking. I understand total depravity in that sense of sort of Calvinist theology as the idea that we’re utterly incapable of desiring God until regeneration takes place within our hearts. Here’s the thing—first of all, that’s not a question that I systematically explored, so take this with a grain of salt—but I don’t think, at least in their discussions about the formation of government, that the prominent figures of Philadelphia sort of spoke much on that level of sort of theological precision. So really, honestly, that’s about all I can say about that. I’m not aware of them speaking to that question very much.
Cherie Harder: A question from an anonymous viewer who says, “How can we recapture a Christian anthropology?”
Tracy McKenzie: Well, that is maybe the $64 question, right, that lurks in all of this. I don’t want to turn this into sort of some pious truism, but we want to pray for the ability to feel afresh both the weight of our fallenness, of our sin natures, and the preciousness of our creation in the image of God. And part of why I wrote the book is because I do believe that, in the public square, the messages that we receive are relentlessly going to be contradictions of both of those pillars of Christian orthodoxy. So I think maybe one step that at least we individually could undertake is just to do a kind of inventory of the sorts of messages that we expose ourselves to regularly. So where are we getting our information sources? What are the kinds of social media sites that we visit and so on? And I think we’ll find that in too many cases, the messages that we’re receiving, whatever the policies they’re proposing, the underlying messages are contradictions of the gospel.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. So our next question comes from Ben Su, and Ben asks, “When we as Christian Americans try to learn from our history, how can or should we avoid using history as our ammunition, as you referenced earlier?”
Tracy McKenzie: Yeah. So I talk to my students a lot about these two alternatives, that we go to the past for ammunition or we go to the past for enlightenment. Now, the reality is, I mean, you read any good sort of social psychologist, they’ll tell you that sort of by nature, we’re all subject to confirmation bias. We search for insights that reinforce what we already think is true or want to be true. And so there’s no way just to flip a switch and turn that off. I wish it were that simple. I do think that the first step is being aware of that. And I think from a Christian perspective, acknowledging that in our fallenness we seek to justify ourselves. So being alert to that is helpful. I think being in conversation with individuals who we have reason to believe will see things differently than we are is a really good, healthy thing to be doing, perhaps to expose some of our own blind spots as we’re striving to learn from the past.
Cherie Harder: So our next question comes from Paul Wettenhall and Paul asks, “As the role of government, both federal and state, has greatly expanded since our founding, does that reflect a hope that we can perfect human existence through government action? And does that reinforce a view that humans are perfectible?”
Tracy McKenzie: Wonderful question. So many of these questions, honestly, I don’t think I have absolute answers to. I think the sort of thesis that’s embedded in the question is entirely plausible. I think that the growth of government could probably reflect a range of understandings of human nature. But I think more often than not, it would be consistent with a kind of optimism, the idea that rather than power being a threat to liberty, power can be an implement or a tool that enhances liberty. And of course, I think the framers would never have said we have to choose one or the other. But they would have said, you want a government that is able to preserve liberty and serve the general welfare without becoming a threat to liberty. And that was where the heart of the challenge lay.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. So Roger Trigg asked, “Does the rising intolerance to those who disagree with us, the rise of virtue signaling, and a preoccupation with self of our current age, stem from a self-satisfaction and lack of humility because we think we’re already good?”
Tracy McKenzie: Most of these questions so far I could just answer yes, because I think there’s good insights embedded in the question. So why are we intolerant of those who disagree with us? I think there’s many reasons that could explain that. I actually think in our particular context that fear may be part of that, a deep sense of unease, of sort of losing control of those aspects of our culture that we think are very important to the good society as we understand it. So I think fear is part of that. But I think you also would have to argue that embedded in that—in a sort of propensity for intolerance—is a fundamental lack of humility, an unwillingness to acknowledge, to quote Solzhenitsyn, that “the line between good and evil runs within all of our hearts,” and beyond that, that some portion of everything we believe is probably false. And that’s just not something that any of us probably happily embraces.
Cherie Harder: So several questions keep coming in—lots of questions about Andrew Jackson in particular. So I’ll throw a few of those out to you, because I know you’re an Andrew Jackson scholar. There’s a request from Victor Heinrich to comment on the corrupt bargain election with John Adams and also a request to comment on the fight with the Bank of the US.
Tracy McKenzie: Okay. First of all, I love to talk about Jackson. He is such a colorful figure. With regard to what was called the “corrupt bargain,” first thing I would say is buy We the Fallen People and read chapter three, because I devote a whole chapter really to that election. That 1824 election—time does not allow us to go into all the details of it right now—but the fundamental outcome was, at the end of the election, some significant portion of the American people were convinced that the true or appropriate winner had been denied office. So without going into too much detail, I mean, you could argue that this was sort of the first time that Americans were convinced or some Americans were convinced that an election was stolen. And the reality is, Andrew Jackson absolutely fuels that perception. But there’s not a lot of evidence that there was any kind of “bargain” behind the scenes. And the reality is, I show in the book, that in the election of 1824, only about a fourth of the electorate actually bothered to vote. And only about 2/5 of that 25% actually voted for Jackson. So actually he had only received a tiny fraction of the popular vote of the American people. And yet immediately the message was, “The will of the majority has been thwarted. This election has been stolen.”
The other episode that the question alludes to is the so-called “bank war.” And it’s a complicated story, but let’s just put it this way: There was a struggle to re-charter what for its day was the largest corporation in the United States, really the greatest concentration of economic power. And Jackson determines to prevent that from happening. And ultimately, I think you can argue, broke the law in making sure that that did not happen. And it’s a classic example of him, actually, I think, abusing power in the name of the people.
Cherie Harder: Thank you. A question from Mary Teresa Webb. And Mary asked, “How is our American brand of Christian nationalism related to your thesis that a large percentage of Christians believe we’re basically good?”
Tracy McKenzie: Yeah, well, you know, that’s an interesting question. It’s not one that I have explored much. I thought more about the relationship between the populist rhetoric and the populist strategy of the period I was studying and the Christian nationalism that we see today. Both tell a story. I think all political arguments tell stories. So there’s nothing exceptional about that. But that story is, in some sense, “the rightful people are being deprived of what is their rightful due.” And whether it’s an Andrew Jackson saying that the bank is bent upon subverting your liberties or if it is some Christian writers or speakers saying that a secular elite is robbing you of your religious heritage, it’s the same kind of argument. A kind of fundamental injustice has been done, and it rests on, often, an argument about history. We don’t have time to go into all of the nuances of that. But the argument about whether the United States was founded as a Christian country and whether sort of being true to that legacy requires something of us today, it’s just an argument that has not generated, I think, very much light and I actually think has often done damage to those who engage in it.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. So Mark Coleman asks, “My question is how do we build wisdom and righteousness while avoiding a contrarian character?”
Tracy McKenzie: I’m not laughing at the question, but I do think that last part, avoiding a contrarian character, is a challenge. My wife once joked that I have the spiritual gift of discouragement, and I can sort of see something that I’m writing in this book telling you, you know, we need to remember just how fallen we are and how selfish we are. And that really can come across as being a kind of crank, telling folks unwelcome information that they’d rather avoid. I actually think that, you know, we always hold that truth—that we are fallen— again, in tandem with this equal truth, that we are created in the image of God. And as C.S. Lewis put it, there are no mere mortals, no ordinary human beings that we’ll ever encounter. We’re all of sort of incalculable worth in that sense. And so to some degree, we always come back to mentioning both of these. The challenge is that they’re somewhat in tension with one another, and we tend to gravitate to one or the other and lose the sort of balance. In We the Fallen People, I emphasize the importance of original sin because it struck me that all the survey data suggested that most Americans aren’t troubled about the idea that they might be created in God’s image and precious in his sight. Not many Americans are particularly drawn to the idea of original sin.
Cherie Harder: Fair enough. A question from Jenny Bowls, and Jenny asks, “If virtue is the denying of one’s self interest for the good of others, how did the founders see the government’s role in caring for the common good? And in particular, how can a limited government take care of the general welfare and not just protect rights of life, liberty, and property?”
Tracy McKenzie: Yeah, so there’s a lot there. This idea that virtue is the denial of one’s self interest for the good of the whole, we’ve talked about that a fair amount, I suppose, already. How a limited government can simultaneously promote the common good, that’s a challenge. And one of the things I would say is I don’t go back to the framers of the Constitution as if they were sort of in and of themselves authoritative. I went back to the framers of the Constitution to say, how can we think Christianly about what they claim to believe and how they understood government? Clearly, their understanding of government largely, largely believed that a powerful central government was to be avoided, so that to the degree there was a role of government actively to promote in a kind of fine-grained daily way, the welfare of the people was probably at the state or the local level, or maybe even more so it was the purview of other institutions like American churches. That to me, though, is a question where Christians can disagree. We can have a good conversation about what active role government should be playing in dealing with the weak and the vulnerable, the poor and the powerless. In the back of our mind, though, always holding in tension the belief that the framers had, which is that the more active government is, always comes with a potential to abuse power as well as to use it in an appropriate way.
Cherie Harder: So Nicholas Knopf asked the question, “Have you found success persuading irreligious listeners to your arguments, which presuppose granting some legitimacy to theological concepts? And if so, how?”
Tracy McKenzie: It’s a great question. The truth is, I wrote We the Fallen People primarily for Christian readers. And that’s not because I didn’t want to be able to enter into conversation with individuals who do not share my faith. And I’m convinced that there are questions that the book wrestles with that are relevant, regardless of your religious perspective. But I’ll just have to say that the book grew out of my own sense of calling, as I understand it before God, and I think of that calling as a calling to remember the past and to remind the church. And I’ve tried to write in ways that deal with religious truth, but in a way that would be equally accessible to nonbelievers and to believers. And I find that just a—I don’t know that it’s an impossible challenge, but I think it’s been beyond my abilities to do that.
Cherie Harder: Again, several questions about Andrew Jackson keep coming up, including Andrew Jackson’s own faith convictions, and also to combine that with a question from Isaac Lasseter, who asked whether there’s other examples of presidents refusing to obey Supreme Court decisions. So his faith and other examples of flouting the Supreme Court.
Tracy McKenzie: So when it comes to Jackson’s faith, I always want to be very careful here because speaking dogmatically about sort of someone’s innermost spiritual convictions is something that we rarely, if ever, have enough information to be absolutely confident about. But when it comes to Jackson, I think most biographers would suggest that if he began to think deeply about truth claims of Christianity and maybe to accept faith, it was something that probably happened very late in his life. His wife, Rachel, is often described as quite devout. And Jackson himself helped to pay for a church on his plantation. But I think that was much more an expression of sort of the noblesse oblige of a large landholder than it was anything else. All I would say is that during his presidency, I just have found no evidence that—no explicit evidence—that his faith convictions played any role in the way that he thought.
With regard to whether there have been other presidents who basically ignored Supreme Court decisions, let’s start with Abraham Lincoln. During the early months of the American Civil War, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger Taney, is really trying to interfere with some of the policies of the Lincoln administration. The Lincoln administration has been arresting individuals that they believe were trying to promote secession in Maryland in particular. And Taney issued a decree to order the release of some of these individuals who have been arrested. Lincoln briefly considers arresting Taney and then decides to just ignore him, which is what he did. So that’s an example that comes to mind. You know, Franklin Roosevelt certainly had lots of difficulty with Supreme Court. He didn’t ignore the court’s decisions, but he certainly implicitly threatened the court. If you know about his so-called court-packing scheme, he floated the idea of expanding the size of the Supreme Court dramatically. And whether it was a coincidence or not, the court really began to be much less of an obstacle to his policies thereafter.
Cherie Harder: Interesting. So we’ll conclude with a question from an anonymous viewer who is going back to a lot of the questions that have been raised about both orthodoxy and orthopraxy. And they asked, “Do you have any thoughts about how the church in our day can bear faithful witness to the gospel, starting with our need of a true savior, and return to this doctrine, this doctrine of human nature? What would repentance look like for us on a national scale?”
Tracy McKenzie: It’s just such a wonderful question, and I just am wholly inadequate to answer it. You know, it’s the burden of my heart. I wrote We the Fallen People, in part, for Christians who I thought would be open to that question, for pastors who I hoped would be wrestling with that question. I think the book helps us to see how far we have fallen away as a culture from these values of two centuries ago. I don’t think we can think Christianly or take every thought captive about values that we’re not really aware that we hold. So I hope that the book helps us to sort of be more aware, positions us in a place where we can begin to try to think more in alliance and accordance with scriptural teaching. But how that will come about, I do not mean this irreverently, I would say God only knows. And I think certainly that kind of renewal and revival will be the work of the Holy Spirit if it is to happen.
Cherie Harder: Well, Tracy, this has been fascinating. Thank you so much. And in just a moment or two, I will give you the last word as we wrap up. But before that, a few things to share with you. Immediately after we conclude, we’ll be sending around an online feedback form. We’d love for you to participate. We read every one of these. We take your counsel to heart, and we use them to try and make these programs ever more valuable to you. As an incentive for doing so, everyone who fills out one of those feedback forms will receive a download for a free Trinity Forum Reading of their choice. And there are several Readings that we would suggest to accompany today’s Online Conversation to help deepen your understanding and stoke your interest in some of the topics that have been discussed, including “The Federalist Papers,” our Trinity Forum reading on Alexis de Tocqueville, which of course Tracy quotes from significantly, “Politics, Morality, and Civility” by Vaclav Havel, and Reinhold Niebuhr’s essay “Children of Light, Children of Darkness.” So as you scan through the Trinity Forum library, those are four that we believe are particularly germane to our conversation today.
In addition, all of you who have registered, we’ll be sending around an email tomorrow, which includes a recommendation of further resources, as well as a link to today’s conversation. And we welcome your sharing this link with others. Start a conversation yourself. There’ll be, as I mentioned, additional resources there if you have reading groups or discussion groups around our topic today.
In addition, we wanted to invite all of you who are watching to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people that helps advance the Trinity Forum’s mission of providing a space and resources for leaders to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith, and to cultivate, curate, and disseminate the best of Christian thought. There’s a whole variety of benefits that are associated with being a part of the Trinity Forum Society, including a subscription to our quarterly Readings, a subscription to our daily list of curated readings, which we call “What We’re Reading.” And as a special benefit to all of you watching today, we will send you a signed copy of Tracy McKenzie’s book, We the Fallen People. So we hope that you will avail yourself of that invitation, and we’d love to have you as part of the Trinity Forum Society.
In addition, our next Online Conversation will be next week on August 26th. We’ll be hosting an Online Conversation on religious freedom and liberty in partnership with the Center for Public Justice, as well as the Initiative for Faith and Public Life, the American Enterprise Institute, with Stanley Carlson-Theis and Christina Arriaga. There should be a link in the chat feature where you can register, and we’d love to see you next week as well.
Finally, as promised, Tracy, I want to give you the last word.
Tracy McKenzie: Thank you, Cherie, and thanks to all that are listening online. It’s been just such a privilege to interact with you. So here would be my final word. I think for most of the last two centuries, Americans have defended democracy for the wrong reason. And it matters. It renders our system less stable. It heightens our partisan polarization. It leaves us more vulnerable to authoritarianism. But more importantly, for Christians it tarnishes our witness and it jeopardizes our hearts. We are storytelling creatures and the stories that we tell one another, the stories that relentlessly we hear in the public square, are stories that tell us that liberty and justice and human dignity can all be upheld by leaving our hearts untouched. That’s not the message of the gospel. As Christians, I think we recognize that the democratic gospel is not going away any time soon. This message that we hear, that by the grace of God, we can refuse to applaud it and reward it, and above all, we can prevent our hearts from being shaped by it. Thank you.