Van Ens: Sacrificing veterans salute our Republic
Ask citizens what the constitutional form of U.S. government is named. Many respond, “A democracy.”
The Constitution describes our national governance as a “Republic,” which differs from citizen-run democracies. This difference is rooted in who is boss and who has the final say in governing. The ancient Greeks established democracies in some of their city-states. Citizens gathered at town meetings and voted on office holders and taxes. They were in charge. They acted as bosses of their destiny.
In contrast, the second U.S. president John Adams abhorred this form of government in which citizens held exclusive power to boss themselves. Along with other Founding Fathers, he defined “democracy” in negative terms. Adams warned about vigilantes who executed justice, denying defendants trial by jury, or presumption of a defendant’s innocence. Adams berated this free-wheeling citizen-run governing, calling it a “mobocracy.” The word “democracy” didn’t gain credibility until the 1830s in Americans’ speech when its tainted connotation turned positive.
Though Adams and Thomas Jefferson were political enemies before renewing friendship in retirement, they agreed representatives in the House and Senate elected by citizens possessed the responsibility to govern. These public servants functioned as “bosses” in our nation’s Republic.
Adams and Jefferson trusted in a highly educated pool of elected representatives to govern. The Founders rejected being bossed by an elite group defined by ancestral bloodlines and property ownership, which had dominated for centuries European nations.
Our Forefathers feared impulsive voters would cast winning ballots for a strong-willed, megalomaniacal populist. The 18th century English essayist and novelist Horace Walpole (1717-1797), whose sarcastic wit cut tyrants down-to-size, confided in his diary that he was no fan of John Burgoyne, the British general who fought against patriots at Breed’s Hill, which folklore names “The Battle at Bunker Hill.” Burgoyne was “a vain, very ambitious man, with a half understanding that was worse than none,” hissed Walpole (“The British Are Coming; The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777,” Rick Atkinson, Henry Holt and Company, 2019, p.96). Burgoyne acted as if he alone had a mandate to govern.
Since our nation’s birth, the U.S. military have fought to protect our Republic from tyrants bossing citizens and usurping powers the Constitution grants their elected representatives.
My father-in-law and dad were GIs who fought in Europe during World War II. Their voices choked up and eyes moistened when they spoke about buddies who gave their lives to keep America free. Such heroism reflects Jesus’ teaching about sacrifice. “Greater love has no person than this, that this hero lays down his or her life for friends” (John 15:13).
President-elect Joe Biden speaks reverently of such devotion when he remembers the military service of his deceased son Beau, who succumbed to brain cancer in 2015, during the prime of his life. He won a Bronze star for his Army service in Iraq. Joe Biden respects our soldiers and sailors who have sacrificed their lives, never calling them “suckers” or “losers” who were not smart enough to evade our nation’s call to serve in the military.
During past years around Veterans Day, my wife and I salute military valor, visiting the smallest federal Natural Wildlife Refuge in the U.S. next to our home.
A city council member has led patriots on a sacred trek, stopping at memorial benches, some dedicated to soldiers and sailors of the World War II generation. Scouts raised Old Glory. American Legion veterans read short histories about our nation’s wars, listing grim casualty counts. We recited lyrics of The Star-Spangled Banner and America, the Beautiful. Hikers on the trail reminisced about relatives and friends in “the Greatest Generation” who fought in World War II. “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands,” we affirmed in unison.
When I grew up in the 1950s, war veterans inspired citizens to express an overwhelming confidence in the federal government. Polls reported 70% of voters shared this conviction until such confidence began to erode in the early 1960s.
Who did these World War II vets regard as bosses of this noble experiment in liberty? Their elected public servants in the House of Representatives and Senate.
At his inauguration on Jan. 20, 1981, when the federal government did not check soaring inflation and interest rates, Ronald Reagan denigrated government’s growth. “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” he declared.
Reagan possessed a charming way with words. His quotable aphorism tersely expresses a half-truth, at best, however. Yes, government doesn’t always deliver on what is promised. It sometimes runs over-budget. Some government personnel get promotions they have not earned. But President Reagan ignored the often-sterling record of government functioning as a force for good, with civil servants as shining exemplars in their quest of “liberty and justice for all.”
Our Republic falters when we do not honor our veterans’ sacrifices because citizens denounce our government. Without support of our public servants, roads crumble, public education weakens and paranoia sets in, eroding confidence in legislators. Our Republic’s stature and significance are diminished.
Veterans fought to preserve freedoms that help restore, renew and renovate our Republic. May citizens honor their sacrifices by respecting representative government.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.
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