In Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different (Penguin 2006), Pulitzer winning American historian Gordon Wood makes the bold assertion that we are not going to get leaders like the founders again, and for this he gives a provocative and, at least to me, convincing reason: that the forces unleashed at the founding have in effect prevented that we’ll again get leaders of the quality of the founders. These forces democratized politics, extending them to the “common man,” and in so doing they deteriorated the discourse – and with this the ideas – with which men like Jefferson, Hamilton, and Adams engaged.
On the book itself, I heartily recommend it. It is a learned and highly readable collection of brief biographical treatments of the founders, including the black sheep Aaron Burr and that genius pamphleteer of a Brit, Thomas Paine.
“If we want to know why we can never again replicate the extraordinary generation of the founders, there is a simple answer: the growth of what we today presumably value most about American society and culture, egalitarian democracy. In the early nineteenth century the voices of ordinary people, at least ordinary white people, began to be heard as never before in history, and they soon overwhelmed the high-minded desires and aims of the revolutionary leaders who had brought them into being. The founders had succeeded only too well in promoting democracy and equality among ordinary people; indeed, they succeeded in preventing any duplication of themselves” (28).
Today many see Christianity as a detrimental social force that is opposed to progress, at least as defined by issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Others point to the historical sins of the church – the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Salem witch trials are favorite examples – to paint Christianity as a regressive, intolerant, and dangerous religion from which little good has come. In response, many Christian (and non-Christian) observers rightly note how the worst atrocities of the last century were committed not by religious forces but in the name of ideologies that explicitly rejected the Christian notion of God: Think Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Pol Pot. Then if we look at at history more fairly, we see that hospitals and universities were developed by the church (universities came about in the Middle Ages; they weren’t as dark as they’re made out to be!), we see Bible-believing, God-fearing Christians at the forefront of efforts to abolish the slave trade and slavery itself, as well as leading the American Civil Rights movement. And around the world today, we see some of the most effective, and riskiest, work helping the poor and the sick being done by Christians (many of them evangelical, as Nick Kristof of the New York Times wrote about recently).
Beyond these examples, however, we find more evidence of Christianity as a truly morally progressive religion in Francis Fukyama’s (of End of History fame) highly readable and ambitious The Origins of Political Order (FSG, 2011):
“If one wanted an example of a religion that, a la Marx, justified the dominance of a single, small elite over the rest of society, one would choose not Christianity or Islam, with their underlying messages of universal equality, but rather the Brahmanic religion that appeared in India in the last two millennia B.C.” (163)
“As Friedrich Nietzsche was to later observe, the introduction of Christianity was to have profound implications for morality after it was introduced among the Germanic tribes. Christian heroes were peaceful saints and martyrs, not warriors or vengeful conquerors, and the religion preached a doctrine of universal equality that ran counter to the hierarchy of an honor-based tribal society. Not only did new Christian rules on marriage and inheritance disrupt tribal solidarity, they also created the notion of universal community based on common faith rather than kin loyalties.” (255-256)
The above should not surprise those who know the Bible, because in it we find an equality that was radical for those of Jesus’s day. As the apostle Paul wrote,
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)