America is not a democracy. America is a republic. In fact, the early founders of our country were extremely leery of democracy. The democracies of ancient Greece served as cautionary tales to the founding fathers. The democracies of Greece lurched from chaos to tyranny to civil war and back again frequently through the decades. And the founding fathers understood that. Democracies are inherently unstable.
We are a constitutional republic. A democracy is rule by the majority of individuals, plain and simple, but the founding fathers thought that the idea of rule by majority was abhorrent. Thomas Jefferson said, “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.” Ben Franklin famously quipped that “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.”
When the Constitutional Convention concluded in 1787, someone asked Franklin: “Well, Doctor, what have we got – a Republic or a Monarchy?” To which Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Alexander Hamilton said, “We are now forming a Republican form of government. Real liberty is not found in the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments. If we incline too much to democracy we shall soon shoot into a monarchy, or some other form of dictatorship.” In his last letter, Hamilton likewise warned that “our real disease is democracy.”
What is a Republic?
What is a republic? It is the rule of the people through their elected representatives in different branches of government separating powers in system of checks and balances. In fact, historically, there were three main forms of government: aristocracy, monarchy, and democracy. A constitutional republic aims to combine and moderate those three tendencies in history, through representation and through a separation of powers, spreading authority out and limiting it so that it does not concentrate in one place. An aristocracy recognizes that there is some wisdom that comes with experience and expertise, and so the American republic invested Supreme Court justices with lifetime appointments and senators serve longer terms and represent all of the states equally – two senators per state. A monarchy has the strength of executive decisions that are sometimes needed, but our president serves for only four years and is bound by the constitution (or at least he used to be). A democracy gives voice to the people, and so the House of Representatives is based on population, and representatives serve only two years.
But the Founding Fathers understood that these three forms of government all had their weaknesses. When aristocracy goes to seed, it turns into an oligarchy of elites, who are often corrupt and domineering (but enough about Dr. Fauci). When monarchy goes to seed, we have a dictatorship and tyranny. When democracy goes to seed, we have already noted that we get mob rule and anarchy.
And so it was that our Founding Fathers had the audacity to posit a new form of government that would attempt a great balancing act. It would be a balancing act between these forms of government, separating powers while seeking to limit all of it. It would be a balancing act between the branches of government. It would be a balancing act between state and federal governments. It would be a balancing act between the people and the states, between counties and cities and states. And it would be a balancing act between the people and their representatives. While our exact form is not the only way a republic might be established, a republic is by design this grand balancing act. It is like a solar system with many planets spinning around a central sun. But the question is what holds them in their orbits? How do they not collide or go hurtling away into space?
The Gravity of a Republic
Now it’s true that some of these ideas of the balance and moderation of a republic came from the ancient Greeks and Romans, but what is frequently overlooked is the fact that the Greeks and Romans rarely actually did any of this. Their philosophers speculated that if there was something like this it would probably be the best sort of political system, but meanwhile there was rarely anything like it on the ground and it usually it was careening from one extreme to the next. But America began this solar system, and almost 250 years later it is still recognizably the same republic.
But the question is: what has held America together? Is it random luck? The answer is actually in the word “federal.” Any more, if someone says “federal government,” you might wince. And I don’t blame you. But the word federal comes from the Latin word foedus which means treaty or covenant. When King George heard that the colonists had revolted, he called it the “Presbyterian Rebellion.” In part this was a pejorative term aimed at the many Calvinists and Puritans in the colonies. But part of it was also an historical fact: Presbyterianism was basically born in Scotland, and the Scots were also known as “covenantors.” Over the course of several centuries, the Scots resolutely refused to be ruled by the English because they understood that God made different covenants with different authorities. It was not right for the English King to be the head of the Church of England, much less the head of the Church of Scotland. They understood that civil government had been given one kind of covenantal or federal authority by God. And the Church was given another covenantal or federal authority by God. And the family had yet another covenantal or federal authority from God. These different governments were given different jurisdictions and they were to keep one another in check, balance one another out, so that power did not concentrate in one single entity.
When the colonists resisted and declared independence, they did so on constitutional or what we might called “covenantal” grounds. They appealed to their charters with the king, which granted them the authority under the king to establish their own colonial governments, assemblies and courts. When the Parliament started taxing the colonists, their objection had nothing to do with amounts and had everything to do with breaking contract or breaking covenant. The colonies had their own assemblies that from time to time already taxed themselves. The problem was not with taxes per se, it was with a foreign assembly sending them a tax bill. No Taxation without Representation was a covenantal objection. The colonists had representatives and a particular agreement, promises, stipulations, and obligations in their colonial charters, But King George refused to honor those covenants. So it really was a “Presbyterian Revolt.” Presbyter means “elder” which is an elected representative in presbyterian churches, and presbyterians have always taught the centrality of the covenant. So the point is that the early Americans were living and thinking in covenantal terms, both when they resisted England and when they established the new Constitution. Our Republic is a thoroughly Christian concept.
A Republic, If You Can Keep It
So here we are facing some really dark days in our republic, and Benjamin Franklin’s quip stands: “it’s a republic, if you can keep it,” but it’s really a rather phenomenal thing that we’re still here. There are a lot of tatters in the flag. Fires have raged and scorched it, and some sections have been torn off completely, just as sections of our constitution have been completely ignored or effectively cut out. There is a great war raging all around us between those who believe in the old vision of a constitutional or federal republic under God, and those who want a pure democracy, but which always needs elites and aristocrats and tyrants to steer it. And the foundational difference between these two visions comes down to what you think it means to be human. In the old covenantal view, people are who they are on the basis of the many relationships God has created them to have. You are related to your family, to your neighbors, to your co-workers, to your church, to your city, to your state, to your nation, and to your God. You have multiple loyalties to these various communities, multiple covenants. God gives those covenants with specific assignments and roles, and when people are faithful to fulfill these various covenantal assignments, He blesses them and that in turn spreads out the responsibilities and powers. These various covenants create checks and balances for all authorities and powers. And it’s harder for power to concentrate in one entity, when many are functioning so well. For example, when children take care of and provide for their elderly parents and grandparents, there is no need for government retirement programs and social security.
We still have some semblance of separation and balance of powers in the federal government and with the states and counties and cities, but we are quickly losing it. More and more power is accumulating in civil government in general and the federal government in particular. But this is the point we must underline: The reason we have had a balance of powers in the past is because the older view of the founding fathers was thoroughly covenantal. And it worked so well for so long because everyone was expected to have a multiplicity of covenantal loyalties, and all of those covenant entities created balance. Again, the chief covenants being the church, the family, and the state/civil government. But the opposite of this covenantal view is individualism and democracy, the idea that people are basically, fundamentally just individuals, with no obligations to anyone else if they don’t want to. In individualism, people are like BBs rolling around in a drawer. In the covenantal or federal view people are like atoms connected to many other atoms through various bonds: marriage bonds, family bonds, church bonds, neighborhood/friend bonds, business bonds, political bonds, and so on. And the thing to notice here is that BB’s are a lot easier to herd. And so individualism lends itself nicely to pure democracy and ultimately statism. If people are just isolated individuals with no fundamental connections to anyone else, you just need one centralized, totalizing organizing power. Power tends to centralize and concentrate in individualistic cultures because remember: all you need is 51% of the vote.
Individualists Who Want Covenantal Government
So this is the great struggle, the great war that is going on as we speak. It is between those who believe in and still live out the old federal republic and those who live as individualists and democratic statists. But there are many in America who love the old federal republic, but they are still functional individualists. They want the benefits of a covenanted republic, a limited government that is not totalitarian or tyrannical, but then they live their lives as though the state is the highest power in their lives, the only government, the only binding authority. What do I mean? Well, if you want state and federal government to be small and limited, then this means that you want it to be covenantal, but that means you must live covenantally. This is true in principle, and this is true practically. In principle, if you break your covenants with your wife or children or business partners or church, why can’t the federal government ignore the constitution? In order to hold the government to a standard, there must be a standard and it must apply to you as well. Otherwise, you are what is known as a hypocrite.
But it’s true practically as well: You must have many other functioning covenants and powers in your life in order to keep the state in check. Authority is for the purpose of providing some service to meet some need. So for example, if you want a small, limited civil government, you must honor the covenant of marriage. You must honor your father and mother. You must plan to leave an inheritance to your grandchildren. And the point is: strong families provide for the needs of their members. But weak families need welfare and food stamps and social security. If you want a limited government, you have to limit what you need from it. The Nanny State exists because there are so many children without fathers and mothers. God says that it is parents’ job to teach their children and provide a Christian education for them, but if you send your kids to government schools, why are you surprised when the government thinks your kids belong to them? So notice here that a covenantal view of the family means that parents and the father in particular is the representative leader of the family, and that there is a balance of powers, as father, mother, parents, children serve one another provide those things that God has assigned to them in that particular covenant.
But strong family is not enough. God has also established the Church. For too long, we thought that going to Church was just a nice thing you do some times to have some religious thoughts or feelings. But Jesus said that He was establishing the Church so that the gates of Hell wouldn’t prevail against it. The whole point of the First Amendment, that “congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” – the whole point was to insist that Churches are independent governments that oversee the worship of God and teaching everybody the whole Bible for all of life. The Bible has instructions for families, for marriage, for childrearing. The Bible has instructions for nations, for economics, for criminal codes, and so on. But the whole point of the separation between church and state was to insist that the church was an independent government that has an independent authority apart from the state, an authority directly from God. If you want a limited civil government, you need to be a member of a Christian church. Where did the idea of limited government come from? If came from the Bible. It came from Christians. The Bible teaches that God has established different governments, and that these governments have limited roles. If you want your government limited to punishing criminals and defending us from invaders and pretty much nothing else, then you should want to be a member of the government whose job it is to teach and command politicians to stay in their lane.
Does that Banner Yet Wave?
It’s interesting that our national anthem is actually entirely a question. “O say can you see by the dawn’s early light, what so proudly we hailed in the twilight’s last gleaming? Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight, O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?” And it ends with that question: “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
I believe that it still does. Not because many of us still hang these flags on our homes with real honor. Not because we sing the anthem at baseball games or say the pledge. The fact that our republic has lasted this long is really remarkable, and it has lasted this long and we have been able to actually walk this tightrope, this balancing act with some degree of success because we have been a people who, to some extent, understood and kept covenant. We have had strong, faithful marriages and families. We have been a land of strong and faithful churches. But we have to see these things as connected. You cannot live as an individualist everywhere else and then be loyal to the civil government and then wonder why it’s getting more and more bloated. Civil government is like what they say about bears: don’t feed them. Why? Because that only makes them more hungry. And before long they eat you. If you want a limited government, then you want a covenantal republic. A republic that is organized and ruled by representatives and a balance of powers. But that kind of government does not grow in the soil of individualism and democracy. It grows in the soil of covenantalism; it grows in the ground of covenant families and churches. It thrives in a culture where people are bound to one another and loyal to one another in their assignments by God.
The word “patriot” comes from the Greek word patria, which comes from the word pater, which means father. A patriot is one who loves and honors his fathers: his fathers in the faith – church fathers, his fathers in the family – grandfathers and forefathers, and fathers of the nation – founding fathers. But you really have to honor them all. You cannot say you are patriot and then only honor one set of fathers, that is inconsistent, and over time the other governments will be spoiled. So one practical application is this: don’t just say the pledge of allegiance, say the Apostles Creed as well. Don’t just make and keep vows to your country, make and keep your vows to your husband and your wife. Don’t just Sing the Star-Spangled Banner with your hand over your heart, sing the Psalms in Church and around your dinner table. Ultimately, if you would be a patriot, you must come to God the Father, through Jesus Christ His only Son. Jesus is our federal representative, the One who stood in our place on the cross to take the punishment for our failures and sins. And only in Him can you be under the blessing of God in every area of life. The land of the free and the home of the brave is a covenantal republic, not a democracy, so live like it.