Van Ens: A bust in trust weakens our republic
Picture our federal government as if it were smoothly operating like two people of similar weight on a teeter-totter. Seated on either end, these folks trust their similar weight will keep them from being tossed off the teeter-totter. Their almost equal weight balances the teeter-totter. Working in tandem, they go up and down.
The similar weight of participants riding a teeter-totter functions like trust does in our republic. Do we trust voters to elect public officials who are just, wise, and see themselves serving the needs of their constituencies? Do most voters respect our constitutional republic as trust-worthy? Do they depend on the federal government to protect personal liberties and work for the common good of all citizens, rather than give special privileges to socially prominent citizens?
Centuries before Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, European countries placed their trust in monarchs to govern. Royalty assumed common folk lacked intellectual skills to govern themselves. Elite leaders from noble families governed poor peasants who rarely had a chance for schooling.
Jefferson shattered this centuries-old European norm of traditional governance. He trusted common folk to fairly exercise power over their leaders by casting ballots. “Governments are instituted among Men [voters], deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed,” Jefferson declared in The Declaration of Independence.
Writing from Paris on July 2, 1787, where he served as the U.S. ambassador to France, Jefferson stated his trust in most citizens’ common sense. “I have no fear that the result of our experiment [of forming a Republic] will be that men [voters] may be trusted to govern themselves without a master.” Jefferson expressed this confidence at the same time his colleague James Madison, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, shaped our nation’s founding document, its cornerstone being the mutual trust between voters and Uncle Sam.
18th century critics scoffed at this “naïve, outlandish” declaration as too “radical.” They assumed the privileged class possessed God’s authority to govern.
“The U.S. Constitution exists as a kind of standing claim that populations [the People] are more trustworthy than individual office holders [elected from the privileged class], a claim woven into the way our system makes the latter [office holders] ultimately accountable to the former [the People] rather than the other way around,” writes secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, exuding Jefferson’s confidence in voters.
Buttigieg is quick to emphasize how voters and the governing leaders they elect travel a two-way street, balancing their steps like two people of similar weight on a teeter-totter. “The elegance of democratic legitimacy,” Buttigieg emphasizes, “is that the people, in turn, should be able to trust their institutions — just like two people in a relationship can grow to trust one another more and more deeply — reciprocating on the trust placed in them by the Constitution. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.”
Today, our nation is drifting from Jeffersonian moorings of trusting voters representing minority constituencies. By repeating the presidential election was stolen from him and calling the Biden presidency a fraud, Donald Trump erodes confidence in our government. He undermines trust that presidential elections are fair, open to all citizens, and not rife with fraud.
Republicans’ efforts restricting voting put limits on who can vote. In 19 GOP-dominated states, they have erected legislation barriers on ways to vote, skewing elections in their favor. In partisan ways, the GOP controls who counts election results in Texas and Florida, where Republicans’ success in gerrymandering districts guarantees they remain solidly red.
On Wednesday October 20, for the third time this year, Senate Republicans blocked a voting rights bill, called the “Freedom to Vote Bill.” Voters of color and others marginalized in American society use public transportation to vote in person. They have jobs that demand working evenings and on weekends. These Americans do not have the luxury of taking paid time off to vote.
Eliminating such limits, the “Freedom to Vote Bill” opens doors so that Jefferson’s common citizens are not denied their right to vote. “This bill would make Election Day a national holiday, require states to allow voters to register on the day of an election starting in November 2022, mandate 15 days of early voting, restore voting rights to felons who have completed their prison sentences, and force all states to allow mail-in voting ….” reports The Wall Street Journal.
How did Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell react to this Jeffersonian bill of making voting easier for common people? He rejected its intent to protect and widen voting rights as a federal “election take-over scheme.”
The Apostle Paul wrote of his toils in which he strived to show how Jesus bestowed dignity on all people, when Roman emperors persecuted Christians whose loyalty was with Christ. Paul instructed his young protégé Timothy to set his trust on “the living God” (I Timothy 4:10).
Paul relied on this God who befriended him, even as we trust in friends who are in our corner.
Americans are challenged to fight for strong trust in a government “of, by, and for the people.” Our Republic does not exist to exclusively benefit older white citizens who flaunt political muscle with voter restrictions benefiting themselves.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (TheLivingHistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.