Sunday, September 05, 2004

Habits of the Heart Can Make Democracy in America (or Anywhere Else) Work [Part Two, de Tocqueville Columns]

[I write a column for the Community Press newspapers in the Cincinnati area. Below is the second of a series of columns I'm writing inspired by Alexis de Tocqueville's classic work, Democracy in America. I hope that you enjoy it.]

In the 1830s, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States in order to understand what made democracy in America work. Free people can believe they have license to be completely selfish, destroying the unity needed for communities and nations to keep functioning. But de Tocqueville concluded that Americans didn’t misuse their freedom because they had developed what he called “habits of the heart,” ways of approaching life that included concern for others. These habits were rooted in Americans’ strong religious faith.

What habits of the heart are taught in the Bible, the book that Christians believe is God’s message for the human race, that can make democracy in America---or anywhere else---work? I’ll identify several of them in this and future columns.

First: Followers of Christ are freed to live in what I call “confident humility.” No follower of Jesus Christ would ever claim to be better than his or her neighbor. “There is no one who is righteous, not even one,” the Bible asserts in several places. (Romans 3:10; Psalm 14:1-3; Psalm 53:1-4) Christians are called to be humble.

But they also live in the confidence that comes from knowing that their deficiencies have been forgiven and voided by the God revealed in Jesus. The Bible says: “...the righteousness of God has been disclosed...the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe...all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they [those who believe in Christ] are now justified by His grace [His loving charity] as a gift...through Christ Jesus.”

Christians are freed to be humble; they know they don’t have all the answers and that others have their say about life in our world and in our communities. They also are freed to be confident because they know they have God’s eternal love and approval. That approval isn't something they've earned; it's a free gift. They have no reason to be arrogant and every reason to be grateful.

Second: Followers of Jesus Christ are called to be loving people. Just as God has loved us, the Bible teaches we’re to love others. Back in the Old Testament’s second book, Genesis, a jealous man named Cain killed his brother, Abel. God confronted Cain for his sin and Cain asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9) The answer, of course, is “Yes.”

In fact, God teaches us on the pages of the Bible that every other human being on this planet is our brother, our sister, our neighbor. Jesus once told a story to drive this point home. A man was attacked by thieves and left for dead. Several travelers, consumed with their own agendas and possibly afraid of being assaulted themselves, passed by without helping the wounded man. But a man from Samaria---tradition calls him the “good Samaritan”---stopped, bandaged the man, took him to a nearby inn, and paid for his care. Concluding the story, Jesus told His listeners, including us, to “go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)

Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at the sense of community, the willingness to voluntarily give one’s time and effort to help strangers, that he observed in America. We shouldn’t idealize the America of that era; it clearly had its faults. Nonetheless, there is a straight line between the Christian’s call to love our neighbor as we love ourselves and the volunteerism de Tocqueville saw repeatedly during his visit. It’s part of what made democracy in America work.

Confident humility and a commitment to love neighbor: two “habits of the heart” I hope are always part of America.

I’ll look at more Christian habits that can make America work in my next column.

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