When President Obama stands beneath the North Portico of the White House, he looks across the street at a political adversary the tea party regards as their hero. In Lafayette Square — a football field’s length from the Executive Mansion — stands an imposing bronze statue of President Andrew Jackson. Riding a galloping horse, he’s ready to unsheathe a sword to defend an individualistic version of liberty. The tea party lionizes Jackson.
Presidents Obama and Jackson epitomize different dimensions of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy. Obama’s demeanor reflects Jefferson’s fidelity to cool reflection, intellectual rigor and government providing for the common good. In a letter to John Adams, Jefferson praised government leaders as intellectual aristocrats, “the natural aristoi” — educated law-makers confident that government endorsed by the people produces a more just society.
Jackson embodies another Jeffersonian dimension, which the tea party prefers. He replaced centralized government with confidence in the common person, the ordinary American voter who works hard, shows a moral spine and takes responsibility for his or her welfare. Westerner Jackson believed our republic wouldn’t long endure if the people didn’t endorse it — the little guys triumphing above the East Coast elites.
Sounding like Sarah Palin, Jackson campaigned by rallying frontier loners against Washington’s establishment. He pitted small business owners and farmers against high-brow insiders. Jackson ran for president in 1824 and won the popular vote. He wasn’t seated as the nation’s chief executive after this election, however, because of a backroom deal President John Quincy Adams brokered with Henry Clay in the House of Representatives.
Jefferson didn’t vote for Jackson. He suspected this Western military hero who advocated an individualistic liberty lacking social responsibility was a loose cannon, a “dangerous man.”
What is dangerous about Jacksonian democracy that the tea party endorses?
It overthrows a Puritan conviction of liberty that animated colonial patriot Samuel Adams. He provoked uprisings in Boston against the British. Adams revered the Puritan insistence that every freedom-loving American responds to two callings: pursue work that honors God and fulfill God’s plan to make society more just.
Puritan preacher Cotton Mather agreed. He taught that getting to heaven means leading a virtuous life and building a just society. It’s like rowing a boat with two oars. Both work in tandem to move forward. Pull on one oar alone, and a boat spins in circles.
Samuel Adams used this religious metaphor of rowing with two oars to picture how well-rounded liberty functions. He often spoke of the need for practicing “publick liberty.” Sometimes he referred to this freedom as the “liberty of America” or the “liberty of Boston.”
This revolutionary liberty called colonial New Englanders to live good lives and create a good society remembered Mather’s analogy of two oars. They strove to protect individual rights and pressed for collective responsibility to create the common good.
Honoring Andrew Jackson, tea party activists pull only the oar of individual freedom. Their limited ethic is individualistic, not communal. It’s personal, not social. The tea party promotes common good for those who already possess it, not for those need it. When the Bible instructs to “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2), it’s not recommending citizens mainly tend to personal needs.
Nor does the Bible endorse the highly individualistic tea party credo of small government, individual responsibility and unregulated markets. This “one-oar look” at liberty spins out of our founders’ orbit.
“One-oar liberty” leads to overheated tea party rhetoric that repeats Andrew Jackson’s political strategy. Tea party activists believe the Affordable Care Act overreaches with government’s dominance. They warn such intrusive power plunges the United States off a cliff toward European social democracy. They wrongly lump such governance with socialism.
Political trends analyst Stan Greenberg monitors the tea party’s distaste for government. He exposes how today’s advocates of Jacksonian democracy desire “my good” rather than the common good. Greenberg writes about tea party supporters demonizing President Obama as “anti-Christian.” The president’s use of executive authority evokes charges of “tyranny.” Mr. Obama, they believe, is pursuing a conscious strategy of building political support by increasing Americans’ dependence on government. A vast expansion of food stamps and disability programs and the push for immigration reform are key steps down that road.
“But ObamaCare is the tipping point, the tea party believes. Unless the law is defunded, the land of limited government, individual liberty and personal responsibility will be gone forever, and the new America, dominated by dependent minorities who assert ‘their’ rights without accepting their responsibilities, will have no place for people like them (tea party members)” (“The Tea Party and the GOP Crack-up,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 16, 2013, p. A15).
Like Andrew Jackson, the tea party dips only one oar in liberty’s water. They practice a truncated liberty based on conviction that God helps those who help themselves. Those using two oars realize God uses government to help those who need a helping hand. Such “two-oared liberty” forged our nation’s freedom at its birth.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.