Here’s my interview with Wheaton College Professor Robert Tracy McKenzie on his new book We the Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy. It traces how America’s Founders believed in republican democracy because of their negative view of human nature but several decades later American politics was celebrating the goodness of the American people. I enjoyed this timely interview and I hope you will too.
Mark Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy here in Washington, DC, with the pleasure today of interviewing historian and Wheaton College professor Robert Tracy McKenzie about his brand-new book. And let me say this accurately: We the Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy. So, a very timely topic, and Tracy, we thank you for joining this conversation.
Tracy McKenzie: Mark, it’s my pleasure to be with you.
Tooley: So, what is this book about and why did you write it?
McKenzie: So, what is the book about? The book really looks at the first half century after the creation of the United States Constitution and what it focuses on above all else is the underlying assumptions about human nature that inform the way American leaders are conceiving of political life and structuring political institutions. And if there is an overarching observation that I want to make, I want readers to pick up on, is that that understanding of human nature changed dramatically over the course of really the first half century of life in the United States as a nation. My motivation for writing the book is really twofold. I think, like a lot of Americans, I’m really concerned about the present state of American democracy and have some deep concern for the flourishing of our democracy going forward. But even more than that, I am a Christian historian, and I am very concerned for the public testimony of the church in this polarized context. And so, that’s really where my heart is and where my greatest motivation stems from.
Tooley: Now, I confess I have not yet read but I’m looking forward to reading your book, but I’m guessing that you trace how American religious opinion went from perhaps a conventional traditional, Calvinist understanding of fallen human nature to a more generically evangelical sentimental view of human nature?
McKenzie: Yeah, I think that’s a good surmise, Mark. I start with the framers of the Constitution and zero when in some depth on the conversations that they were having both at the Philadelphia Convention; then, also, in the ratification debates that followed. And you’re right, the assumptions about human nature were certainly very compatible with an orthodox understanding of original sin. I don’t argue that the framers of the Constitution were using the language of original sin because they weren’t by and large. Nor did I argue about whether their understanding of human nature was primarily from insights from scripture and church teaching. I really sort of set that question aside, and I just asked what was their understanding of human nature and is it compatible with an orthodox Christian understanding? And I think the answer is it absolutely was. They assumed that individuals were complex; that they had both the capacity for very virtuous behavior and also very selfish behavior. But their broad generalization was that self-interest was in the driver’s seat, that we are human beings who are, first and foremost, motivated by self-interest. So, they would talk about the ambitions that individuals had, and ambition was never a compliment in the 18th century. The desire for power, the desire for wealth, the desire for social stature of some kind, and because of that they understood that while a free society must be one where the majority rules, they never took for granted that the majority would arrive at a morally just or sound decision. So, they hold these two ideas really in tension that the majorities rule but the majority is far from infallible. Then I leap frog basically from the 1780s to the 1820s and 30s, the presidency of Andrew Jackson, and I just listened to Americans talking about politics. And what they’re now saying is that men and women are, by nature, good. They’re automatically virtuous; and that majority decisions always come with a kind of moral authority. And I think Jackson in particular was a path breaker as a president, at least in this regard in claiming mandates from the people and justifying various policies that he would follow as having been determined by the people, and because of that sort of unassailable morally and questionable.
Tooley: So, is there a move from a broadly generic Christian realism to more of a political perfectionism that is still with us today?
McKenzie: I think you could say that that. The reasons, or the nature of this transition that takes place, I think is multifaceted. Some of it is ways in which the Christians, at least in the United States, are conforming to the culture. Some of it is the ways in which the dominant strand of evangelical theology is changing to a more optimistic understanding of human nature as well, but either way, what ultimately is the outcome of all this is what the conservative writer in the middle of the 20th century, Irving Kristol, called a democratic faith. Which was simply the idea that democracy is intrinsically just and there are no problems with democracy that can’t be solved by making the society more democratic. That sort of circular thinking. And so, I’m hoping and just reminding Americans of this that enables us to think somewhat with greater discernment about democracy, acknowledging as the framers would have that democratic outcomes can be just and they can be very unjust.
Tooley: What was happening in Christian sectarian revivalism in the early 19th century that it adopted this more favorable view of human nature? Because theoretically, it was orthodox theologically and did believe in a fallen human nature.
McKenzie: Yes. And it’s not something that I get into a great deal in the book, but when we look at the theology, for example, that was often espoused by prominent evangelists say by the 1820s-1830s, Charles Grandison Finney would be a classic example, Finney was pretty explicit at denying the idea of original sin. He would argue that instead, human beings come into the world essentially with the freedom to act righteously in all things, but that we make decisions regularly that lead us astray. But of course, Finney not only denied there’s no sin, but eventually before his public career was over had embraced a kind of Christian perfectionism. He said that the goal of every Christian should be literal perfection in all things and believed that when the scripture says to be perfect, even as your father in heaven is perfect, that we have to take that as our standard to aspire to. So, there’s a much more positive understanding of human nature that’s emerging. And some of this is Arminian theology; some of it has to do with other influences I’m sure. But if you look at the United States today, survey data suggests that somewhere between two thirds and three quarters of Americans would say that they believe that human beings are good by nature. And when those surveys are done that allow respondents to identify themselves as Christian or not, the numbers really don’t change very much between those who identify as Christian and those who don’t. In fact, mainline churches, respondents from mainline churches, are often more inclined to say that human beings are good by nature than the general population as a whole.
Tooley: And you mentioned Charles Finney… I was wondering if the Methodists were to blame for this shift in human nature, given their own focus on perfectionism which often leads to a perfectionist attitude towards society? But it sounds like no, it was much broader than just that.
McKenzie: I think it is broader. I mean, Methodism, of course, is by far the most rapidly growing denomination during the same time that the United States is becoming more democratic. So, there’s a lot of overlap there, but I wouldn’t say that the Methodists are alone responsible.
Tooley: And was there commentary at the time observing this shift in attitudes about human nature and what the political and social implications were?
McKenzie: You know, that’s a good question. I mean, the comments on human nature that I’ve earthed, which are primarily from public political figures or journalists, they’re simply asserting as an article of faith that men and women are basically good in that their insights are discerning. And I think they’re adopting the strategy that the best defense is good offense. They are attacking any argument to the contrary as a slur against the nobility of the people as insult to them. And already by the 1830s, the point has been reached where any public figure who aspires to office cannot question the basic wisdom and upright behavior of the electorate.
Tooley: There must have been a few Presbyterian theologians who were questioning all of this at the time?
McKenzie: Oh, absolutely. I’m not suggesting that there were no exceptions, but I’m really thinking about the way that political arguments are framed. What it is very difficult to find is public figures who aspire to office who are doing anything other than paying tribute to the people. There are some exceptions. One of the parties that’s coming into being is the Whig Party, which exists, as you know, Mark, for a couple of decades in the first half of the 19th century. And occasionally Whig politicians are a little bit more candid than perhaps was the norm in questioning whether the judgment of the majority is always reliable. But they actually I think learn their lessons fairly quickly and move away from those sorts of comments pretty rapidly.
Tooley: Does this explain perhaps in part the demise of the Federalist Party leaders of whom still come to this old attitude?
McKenzie: The Federalist Party is certainly going to be out of step with this shift. There’s no data about that; I actually would argue that, in the late 18th century, both of the two major parties at the time, the Federalists and the Democratic Republican Party, largely, there’s some differences of degree, but largely still except this idea that individuals are prone to self-interest. They would have used the term passion. In other words, their motivations are sometimes simply irrational or self-interested in that virtue was rare and that required really almost superhuman sort of efforts to develop. So, the Federalists were just a little bit more honest or blunt about that than the Republicans. And then, of course, the Whigs are really sort of the heirs of the Federalist Party. They still have a little bit more openness to skepticism of human nature, but certainly by the 1830s, they’re vying with the Democrats to be as laudatory in their description of human nature as anyone is.
Tooley: This is outside the time period of your book, but where does Lincoln come down on this perspective?
McKenzie: Oh man, that’s a great question, and I’d like to someday write about Lincoln. Lincoln’s views are very complicated. I think he has a healthy appreciation for human fallenness, whether he uses those terms or not, but he couples them with an understanding of the possibilities of democracy that he nevertheless will describe in very optimistic terms. The whole view of the United States as the last best hope of Earth is sort of, I think he tributes to the potential realities of self-government. But he is always aware of, one of the things I appreciate about Lincoln is he’s aware of the internal temptations that we always face, which is why he famously will say, “If democracy ever fails the United States it will be because basically a suicide.” It will be self-inflicted more than the result of some external enemy.
Tooley: And perhaps Madison would be the last president to express the classical perspective?
McKenzie: Madison certainly does. I actually think John Quincy Adams still would more or less be an heir to this view. One of the reasons I zero in on Jackson is I think he’s the first president really very aggressively and overtly to describe human nature in a different way. So, Jackson will simply say, “I have so much faith in the virtue of the people, that as long as the majority prevails, I have no concerns about the state of government in the United States.”
Tooley: And so, how do your findings apply to today in terms of where American Christianity is and where public statecraft is?
McKenzie: So, that’s a great question. I have thought about that a lot, and I do speak about that directly in the book. I’ll start with just bringing one other detail in that we haven’t discussed yet. I actually spent a fair amount of time, in the book, devoted to Alexis de Tocqueville because I spent so much time on the period of the Jackson presidency. It just seemed very obvious to bring Tocqueville in, the French philosopher who visits the United States during Andrew Jackson’s first term as president of the United States. And in his classic book Democracy in America, what Tocqueville says that I think bears our serious contemplation perhaps above anything else is he argues that democracy is morally indeterminate. He would define democracy as simply a form of government in which the will of the majority reliably is reflected in public policy, and he believes that that sort of government will prevail in the United States. He doesn’t doubt that, but he believes that democracy can go down very different paths. It can be authoritarian; it can be a system that promotes human liberty. So, in fact, the very last sentence in his book is that democracy can lead to tyranny or liberty, civilization or barbarism, prosperity or misery. He is sort of holding up these very divergent paths that we might follow. So, I think that’s good for Americans first of all to acknowledge that when we’re thinking about implementing the will of the majority, we have to think with moral discernment about what that will is. That simply to say that the latest survey says that this percentage of Americans favor this policy says nothing morally about the intrinsic merits or demerit of any given policy. I also think that the insight that I would apply to today is one that I take from a 20th century figure, so a century after Tocqueville, that’s C.S. Lewis. Lewis, right after the Second World War, in an essay that we often don’t recall, he writes, and I’ll paraphrase here, but there’s basically two reasons to believe in democracy. You want this because you have great confidence in human nature; the others, because you don’t have confidence in human nature. In other words, if you have a lot of confidence in human nature, you might believe that each of us is so good and so wise that the public welfare suffers if our voices are not all heard. Or, on the other hand, we might think that each of us is so selfish, Lewis actually uses the word wicked, that none of us either single or in small groups can be trusted to exercise power over our fellow citizens responsibly. And so, we want to decentralize power as much as possible. And I think, using Lewis’s terminology, I would say that Americans have long ago embraced democracy for the wrong reasons. We embrace democracy on the grounds that it’s consistent with our fundamental good natures. I think that shows in the way that we speak about public issues. I think if you follow American political rhetoric closely, one of the underlying themes is that it relentlessly externalizes evil. So, where Alexander Solzhenitsyn would tell us that the line between good and evil runs within each human heart, our political rhetoric says that it is a line that separates us from them, that separates our party from the other party. And this allows us to fall into language that often suggests that the other party really is at its core illegitimate. Not that it’s a healthy part of a society where multiple perspectives are needed, but rather that the other side represents a perspective that is antithetical to the flourishing of our society and really needs to be eliminated. And I just think that that is fundamentally incompatible with the long-term flourishing of a democratic society, and I would just challenge those who doubt that to point to any democratic society that is simultaneously a one-party society and truly free. I don’t think history would tell us that such an example exists.
Tooley: I suppose in the modern period, Ronald Reagan sort of embodies this shift that you described in terms of an Emersonian optimism about the people in America?
McKenzie: Yeah, absolutely. And of course, there’s something really winsome about that sort of language. There’s a sense in which it can be very inspiring, and I understand why individuals can be drawn to it and why someone like Reagan would espouse it. I just would suggest that there is a thin line between describing the people as intrinsically good and moving to the other side of the coin. And that is to say that our opponents, our political opponents, lack that same merit. In Christian theological terms, what I challenge readers to do in the book is simply to make sure that they apply the idea of original sin to every leader to every party that they would ever espouse or endorse, and that they make sure that they’re applying the theological concept of imago dei of the preciousness of others created in the image of God. That they apply that concept to everyone within the district. And I think if we realize that our political rhetoric, apart from any policies that it is espousing, is actually making a statement about the human condition, I think we would recognize that much of what we are espousing is framed in such a way to contradict really foundational theological principles of the faith. Namely, the idea that we’re all fallen and simultaneously all created in God’s image. And as Lewis put it, we’ll never meet a merely ordinary human being in any context, including some of our most contentious political battles.
Tooley: So, maybe Reinhold Niebuhr was the last great public figure to articulate the more classical perspective on human nature?
McKenzie: Well, I think I show that I have been influenced some by Niebuhr, who determined that in American public life we avoid the paralysis of believing that different views are simply moral equivalence, but at the same time avoid the sort of self-righteousness that assumes that our view is unassailable and that we can learn nothing from those who share different perspectives.
Tooley: And Tracy, if you could hold up your book for us to see?
McKenzie: I will do that. So, here it is. We the Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy. It just came out about a week ago from University Press.
Tooley: Robert Tracy McKenzie of Wheaton College, thank you so much for an insightful conversation.
McKenzie: My pleasure, Mark. Thank you very much.