While other scholars debate whether America was founded as a Christian nation, Robert Tracy McKenzie neatly sidesteps that question in his thought-provoking book, We the Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy.
Instead, the Wheaton history professor asserts, the Framers of the Constitution devised a government based on a Christian principle—the fallen nature of man. So they created a system of checks and balances in an effort to prevent any abuse of power.
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” James Madison, the principal author of the Constitution, wrote.
And instead of believing in the intrinsic wisdom of the American people, McKenzie points out, the Framers believed, “A dedicated public servant would be characterized by a zeal for the public welfare, not by a slavish obedience to the public’s preference.”
Yet forty years later, the American people elected a president with an entirely different philosophy.
In a part of the book called “The Great Reversal,” McKenzie describes how Andrew Jackson rose to power with a populist message: “The American people were so good that they deserved a voice in government and so wise that the government needed their counsel. And the people loved him for it.”
Those ideas remain powerful today. In fact, McKenzie notes that politicians of both parties frequently say some variation of “America is great because America is good,” a mischaracterization of the conclusions of French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic Democracy in America.
In the process of setting the record straight, McKenzie deconstructs some of the beliefs that Americans hold most dear, including what he calls “democratic faith, the dogma that there is nothing wrong with democracy that more democracy won’t correct,” and “democratic gospel, the welcome news that we are individually good and collectively wise.”
Why Christians should read this book
We the Fallen People will make readers question some of their basic assumptions about the American people and their system of government.
The big takeaway
Although representative democracy may be the best form of government in existence, it can’t prevent a tyranny of the majority because of the flaws inherent in human nature. McKenzie offers as an example Jackson’s systematic removal of Native Americans from their lands.
In their own words
“The Founders were realists. They exhorted Americans to revere and practice virtue. They didn’t expect it. When it comes to gauging their reading of human nature, we must see that they thought of virtue as, quite literally, artificial. It doesn’t occur naturally in our species.”
“To federalists, the primary lesson of the Articles of Confederation was that the country had expected too much of human nature, not that an elevation of morals could cure the country’s woes. Although we may not like to hear it, proponents of the Constitution repeatedly insisted that, when it comes to our character, Americans aren’t exceptional.”
“Reckoning ambition as a character flaw, the Founders had believed that those who desired power couldn’t be trusted with it. From this it followed that a virtuous statesman never sought the responsibility of public office; he accepted it out of a sense of duty when his country called.”