The Tie That Binds

What to say in the aftermath of Wednesday’s insurrection riot?

I certainly agree with Heather Cox Richardson when she wrote, “The tide has turned against Trump and his congressional supporters, and they are scrambling.”

It was late coming, but it’s never too late to expose evil. 

So much is being said, quite well I would add, about what has happened that there is no value in my repeating any of it. But two things I believe deserve sober reflection in light of the events of the moment have not so far as I know received the attention they will require if we have any real hope of healing from these wounds. 

One is what made the Trump presidency possible in the first place, the near-complete breakdown of the social contract that is always constitutive of a democracy’s survival. 

As defined by philosophers such as John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau, a social contract is “an implicit agreement among the members of a society to cooperate for social benefits.”

The Constitution the states ratified in 1788 is the American expression of the social contract we made with each other when our democracy was established, a collection of laws, rules, and customs necessary for a self-governing system that is of, by, and for the people.  

The extent to which today’s Republicans in general still affirm the great American social contract is unclear. 

Mitch McConnell spoke in support of it last Wednesday during the confirmation of the Electoral College vote, yet this same Mitch McConnell opposed everything President Obama proposed solely because he proposed it, and then refused to allow Obama’s nomination of Merritt Garland to the Supreme Court even to get a hearing.

So is he genuinely committed to the Constitution or not? We just don’t know, and it is astonishing that we must ask the same question of all his Republican colleagues? 

We already know that Trump Republicans no longer have any genuine commitment to the Constitution, to the social contract that binds us together as a nation.  

In their blind support of Trump they broke the social contract by putting loyalty to him above loyalty to their own oath of office. Even after the Capitol had been cleared, Trump Republicans in the House and Senate voted to reject the electoral victory of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

Unthinkable, yet it happened, an unambiguous signal that they were willing to lend support to Trump’s assault on our democracy. 

This breakdown in our social contract is the gravest threat we face to the United States of America remaining “united” in any meaningful sense of the word. 

But a second thing I want to mention is as important as the first because it is actually the reason our social covenant has been broken – America is in a spiritual crisis.

It is common for people to study the laws, rules, and customs described in our social contract, the Constitution, without realizing that they rest on something easily taken for granted, a set of shared values implied more often than stated explicitly.

The Declaration of Independence is explicit when it names some of these core values such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Constitution, on the other hand, implies several others such as honesty, fairness, justice, the common good, common decency, and, most of all, telling the truth.

Our founders anticipated Americans in subsequent generations would at least acknowledge all of these core values even if they didn’t live up to them. That is, they assumed the values that undergird the social contract of the nation would never be abandoned.

I don’t think that assumption can any longer be made. I don’t see much in the words and behavior of Trump Republicans to suggest they are committed to these values at all.

If they were they would not be choosing some imagined infringement on their individual liberty over being a good neighbor by doing their small part in wearing masks and practicing social distancing to limit the spread of the coronavirus. 

If they were they would not be raising a fist of defiance in support of the insurrectionists who attacked our Capitol.

If they were they would not continue to make false claims of election fraud that amount to propaganda whose intention is to destroy confidence in our democratic process of voting. 

These things are problems in themselves, but they also point to a deeper problem, a spiritual crisis.

That may be something you expect a minster to say, but you don’t have to have a theology degree to recognize these assaults on and rejection of the values that have sustained our nation for 240 years. 

When Mitt Romney said in his Senate speech that the best way to help those who were upset about the election was to tell them the truth, he was making an indirect reference to the spiritual crisis we are in. For him to have to urge his Senate colleagues to tell the truth instead of fomenting lies about the election says all we need to know about the spiritual crisis we are in. 

Yet, spiritual depravity is subtle and its impact can go undetected until it is virtually too late collectively to do anything about it. 

Complicating this spiritual crisis is the unsettling truth that responsibility for it lies in part at the doorstep of organized religions.

Churches, synagogues, and temples in our country have done well in teaching people how to be religious, but have done poorly in teaching, challenging, and holding their members accountable for living by the values their faith tradition holds.

One reason this has happened and continues to happen is that being religious is easier than being spiritual. In my book, Unbinding Christianity, I describe this condition as the difference between being a Christian and being Christian. Being a Christian is mostly about believing things about Jesus. Being Christian is about living by the values he taught and lived in his own life.  

The signs that we are having serious trouble living by the values that form the basis for the American social contract are at the same time signs that indicate we need a spiritual revival.

I don’t mean we need to go to church or synagogue or temple (although that is a good thing to do). What I’m talking about is living in ways that contribute to the common good. That is a spiritual issue. 

In the aftermath of the damage the Trump presidency has wrought, I have my doubts that the kind of spiritual revival we need is close at hand, but we can at least begin to talk about it in meaningful ways.

It will be easier to do that when Trump is not in the White House abusing his power by exploiting our differences and driving us apart as a people, but getting rid of Trump will not restore our social contract as a nation.

That will take serious self-reflection on the part of all of us if there is any real chance we will once again embrace the kinds of sustaining values that once held us together. 

Perhaps what happened this past Wednesday woke us up from the spiritual malaise we have been in that has diminished our commitment to national unity around common goals.  

At the very least what happened on Wednesday should leave no doubt of what we should have known already, that as a people we no longer share the same values in a way that can prevent further deterioration of our constitutional democracy. 

The days ahead will be difficult and trying, but with the help of national leaders who are truly committed to upholding the Constitution and who also recognize that having a right spirit within us is necessary for the preservation of that social contract, there is hope for our nation. 

But they cannot do it alone. It will take all of us working together because it always has.