Over the past two years, this country has witnessed two of its major constitutional contingency plans, governmental "what-ifs," put into action. First, the impeachment of President Clinton required a national refresher course in civics, and now, the historic presidential election spectacle continues.

Instead of an occasion to bemoan the ongoing litigious bickering that is going on in Florida, this is a moment to overcome our devotion to the gods of instant gratification, to re-articulate our national moral consciousness, and take pride in our system and what it demands of us.

Americans, after all, commonly use the term "faith in government" to talk about their belief that government does the job it says it will do. Democracy is a "civil religion," in Robert Bellah's famous parlance. To conclude that it is possible for Americans to revere government in this way, one only has to look at how we practice and think about religion in general.

People often bemoan the fact that God only spoke to people in the Bible, and never addresses us today. Why were Abraham, Jacob, and Moses so lucky as to hear the voice of God directly, and we have to live vicariously through them to understand how divine truth figures into our own lives? The same could be said of our system of government. Why are we expected to get inside the minds of the Founders of our country to get direction for today? Why not, in the current debate, scrap outdated institutions like the Electoral College in favor of a system that is logical in the current political climate?

But we cannot know what the biblical heroes experienced in their encounters with God. What did the burning bush smell like? Did Jacob awaken screaming from his dream? More often than not, encounters with God took a toll on a person--recall that Moses' hair turned white from the mere sight of the face of God. Similarly, the Founders of our Constitution paid a price for their struggle to establish a fair system of government--friendships torn apart, social isolation for the losers. Is there any other way to operate in a democratic revolution?

Today, dramatic demonstrations of God's power are less apparent than they were in biblical times. And, similarly, the national conversation about our government is less inspired than in America's nascent years. But in the case of religion, people of faith find renewed insight in the old texts, God's voice speaking to them across the centuries, cultures, and miles. In virtually every religion in the world, believers bring ancient words, stories, and events to life and make them relevant to the modern age, sometimes by reinterpreting commandments and discarding old traditions, and sometimes by holding fast to the founding principles of a given belief or practice. In the balance is the classic American religious struggle.

A similar balancing act takes place in governmental debates. To be sure, there are ideas to be gleaned from the founding days of this country in today's moral and legal crisis. The Electoral College, for example, was designed at a time when the country was debating between having a president chosen by the Congress and elected directly by the people. Electors from each state were seen as a compromise, and today, the system ensures that small or sparsely populated states like Rhode Island or Montana get their voices heard and get attention from presidential candidates. But there are also examples of political structures, such as ballot design, that might be updated to make sense in the current technical age.

In biblical days, God spoke to people and intervened in human history in order to move humanity forward--sometimes literally, as in when God told Abraham to take his family and leave his native land, and sometimes figuratively, as in when God communicated to Moses the rules for living a righteous life.

As Vice President Gore and Governor Bush choose their courses of action over the coming days and weeks--a course that has already begun, replete with lawsuits, injunctions, and accusations--they would be well-served to consider how their behavior might move society forward. This will likely not be achieved if in an impatient race for finality one man concedes before the true results of the election are known. It will also fail if the process is allowed to become so mired in legal technicality that it loses all relevance for the average citizen.

But society will be served and advanced if both Gore and Bush urge Americans to remain patient as our government's processes are followed to both the letter and spirit of the law. At the same time, they must speak out for a universal balloting system in this country so that states' rights can be preserved but modern technology can be employed in the service of America's founding ideals. And, equally if not more importantly, they must be vocal in rectifying the racial and age discrimination that, sadly, did not rear its ugly head for the first time in this year's election.

For one day, they too will be characters in the history books, inanimate models for future generations of citizens to look to for direction and, perhaps, inspiration.
more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad