Having read in past “Politics and the Church” issues about the values, morals, and political behaviors of our nation, you may be wondering how we got here? How did we decide to distance ourselves from a political process that has delivered such freedom and opportunity to us? The answer lies in America’s primary institutions. Some institutions are formal (military, government, church, schools, charitable organizations, rule of law) while others are informal (family, traditions, social norms). They provide stability to our rel! ationships, our worldview, and our daily practices. Institutions have patiently and diligently molded the foundations of the nation and have capably guided us through good times and bad for more than two centuries. Without the unique contributions of a broad array of integrated world-class institutions in place, the United States would be more like a struggling third-world nation than the trendsetting world power it has been for so long.
Institutions provide numerous irreplaceable benefits for our nation. Their cumulative effect is to shape our sense of life’s meaning and purpose by integrating and processing information, resources, relationships, and goods and services. The ultimate product attributable to our institutions is more than likely a widely accepted worldview. That worldview is displayed and applied by what we commonly know as culture: traditions, norms, customs, and dreams of a society. Each institution provides a modicum of leadership in the society it seeks to influence. The genius of the American system lies more in the contributions of its institutions than its reliance upon an elective republican form of government [Robert D. Kaplan, “Elections Don’t Matter, Institutions Do”, Forbes.com, January 15,2014].
Alexis de Tocqueville traveled here from France in 1831 to explore the genesis of the greatness of the United States. France seemed to just go from one revolution to the next. In his classic analyses, Democracy in America [this is the title now given to de Tocqueville’s work where as in previous generations the titl! e was The Republic of the United States of America and Its Political Institutions, Reviewed and Examined; an indicator of America’s creep from a constitutionally mandated republican form of government] and American Institutions and Their Influence, he concluded that while democracy was critical to the nation’s success, institutions played an indispensable intermediary role between individuals and the government. Institutions, he argued, facilitate levels of liberty, justice, balance, and equality that would otherwise not emerge [Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, New York, 2003].
Few Americans these days give a second thought to the institutions that give our nation its heartbeat. Could it be that we take them for granted? Imperfect as the American system is, yet it works much better than any other system around. Our institutions insist on doing what they do to best of their ability for the common good. Adherence to the rule of law has been facilitated by the consensus among our institutions in the goodness and necessity of the adherence. We sometimes, though, ignore the role that our institutions play in nurturing creativity, encouraging and funding the entrepreneurial spirit, and protecting the free-market system from the constant threat of regulation and limitation. Here are a few examples of what we have come to expect within our system:
+ You flip a switch and you expect the lights to instantly glow – that outcome is not guaranteed in many nations
+ You turn on the faucet, and you expect to enjoy an endless supply of clean, safe water…except maybe in Flint, MI – dozens of the world’s nations cannot match this service
+ You frantically plow your way through traffic to get to the airport because you know that your airplane is likely to leave on time and get you safely to your destination – on-time departures are an infrequent luxury in many countries of the world
+ Lose your passport in the United States, there is a standard process to follow that produces a replacement within a reasonable time for a known fee – same blunder in a developing nation, you are likely to enter the ‘Bribery Zone’
+ Drop your child off at school, you are confident that a qualified teacher will be in a designated classroom to teach your child information and skills deemed valuable for success in our culture…who knows how much longer this will be so? – drop your child off at a public school in many developing! nations, you wonder if you will ever see him again, much less whether a teacher will be waiting to teach him knowledge he needs to know or some off-the-wall political agenda.
+ More than a dozen nations of the world are under control of military leaders who staged a coup – the United States has never had a military uprising…except during the Civil War…and is not likely to experience such a perilous demonstration of power.
Without our core institutions, American life would not be what we know it to be today. Whether economic growth, social growth, intellectual growth, spiritual growth, or any other form of growth, this nation’s development has been made possible by the work of institutions. How? By insisting upon transparent and accountable leadership, adhering to the rule of law, and maintaining standards that implement penalties for corruption and disruption. Institutions play a kind of cultural parenting role in our society. The consistency with which they dispense such rewards and punishments enables them to establish and maintain order, trust, and hope…which it turn facilitates growth. It takes an extensive and complicated web of laws, covenants, rules, codes, and relationships, along with commonly held beliefs, social norms, traditions, and codes of conduct for it all to work smoothly.
With all of this working for our nation, what has happened? Have we so focused on personal pleasure and self aggrandizement that no one or nothing else matters? When did the influence of these institutions s! tart losing their effectiveness and influence on our society? Next week we will look at ‘why the decline?’ It’s no wonder citizens are starting to question everything. The ‘church’ can play a big part in establishing a corrected ‘course’ but it will not be easy. Congregations must not only pray, but must offer up their time and efforts to follow God’s guidance. Direct involvement will be required just as it was in the Bible.
– Bob Munsey
P.S. – ‘Many folks want to serve God, but only as advisers’