Benjamin Franklin famously warned that “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!” Later, when the Constitutional Convention had concluded, in 1787, someone asked Franklin: “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin warned, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
This sentiment was shared by many of the founding fathers:
“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.” – Thomas Jefferson
“Pure democracy, like pure rum, easily produces intoxication, and with it a thousand mad pranks and fooleries.” – John Jay
“It is one of the evils of democratical governments, that the people, not always seeing and frequently misled, must often feel before they can act.” – George Washington
Notice the concerns: democracy is mob rule, stealing rights, and tends to function like intoxication, drunkenness, mad pranks and fooleries, feelings driving actions.
Decisions Based on Feelings
I’m writing at a moment in which much is still unknown about Covid-19. It could turn out to be a significant health crisis or not so much. But that’s actually my point. We have been convinced, as a nation, to take some enormous, cataclysmic actions, without clear data or evidence. What is driving these actions? Feelings. Why do I say that? Because we simply do not have good data, and the data we have is extremely varied. Yes, the virus is contagious. Yes, it is a novel strain for which it would seem human beings do not have natural or built up immunities. And yes, many people have died from it. Yes, all that is true. But welcome to planet earth. Welcome to a world where death is part of the curse of sin. Does this make us complacent or apathetic? Not at all. Christ has come to reverse the curse, and those of us who call ourselves Christians should be at the forefront of protecting and promoting life as much as we possibly can.
But Christians also believe in truth. We believe that the truth sets us free – free to live, free to work, free to study, free to invent, free to explore, free to serve, free to love. But partial truths bring doubts, uncertainty, and guessing games. Thus, we are faced with the partial truths of widely diverging data. What are we to make of the Chinese propaganda machine? They call their concentration camps “vocational rehabilitation centers,” and they are currently holding a Christian minister, sentenced to 10 years in prison for “conspiring against the government,” when his highly publicized writings and sermons were simply the traditional Christian message. We have questionable statistics from the most powerful communist regime in the world, fairly terrifying statistics coming out of Italy (an aging socialist nation), other appalling statistics from Taliban Iran, and comparatively encouraging statistics coming out of South Korea. What do we know exactly about this virus? It’s highly contagious, spreads fast, is particularly dangerous for the elderly, immune compromised, or others with lung issues. But that’s all we know.
We don’t really know the mortality rate. The mortality rate of confirmed cases is not a real mortality rate if many cases go unreported. We do not have a statistical base, a large random sample of the population, to project reasonable numbers from. Are most cases mild or severe? Are many cases mild enough to be mistaken for a bad cold or influenza? Do we know? The simple fact is that we do not know. In all likelihood we will know in the coming weeks and months and years, but until then, it cannot be said that we are acting upon facts. At best, we are acting based upon partial truths, but without the entire picture or a great deal more of the picture, we simply cannot know what it is we are dealing with. We are making decisions without reliable data. And in the absence of facts and truth, what we are left with is guesses and feelings. And both are notoriously biased.
Of course the comeback is: better safe than sorry. But as my good friend Douglas Wilson likes to say: there is no situation so bad that you cannot make it worse. So, yes, absolutely agreed: better safe than sorry. But how shall we define “safe?” Are we merely talking about safe from the novel coronavirus? What about safe from the repercussions of panic, economic depression, scientific and medical stagnation, or making radical governmental concessions? Did the Patriot Act truly make us a safer people when the government was granted greater surveillance powers in the aftermath of 9-11? Did those FISA courts really come through for liberty-loving Americans over the last few years?
I’m all for taking precautions. Wash your hands. Stay home if you’re sick or immune compromised, but shutting down entire cities? Banning businesses from operating? Will we actually be safer or just sorry?
And Now For Something Completely Different… But Not Really
When Harvey Weinstein was charged with sex crimes, America barely blinked. An old Hollywood creep was most likely getting what he deserved. He has produced smutty films for decades, and no one was really shocked at the thought of him acting out the culture of his films in real life. And I agreed. Throw the book at him.
However, I have to admit that I was fascinated by his lawyer, Donna Rotunno and her line of defense. First of all, she repeatedly wanted to distinguish between sins and crimes – admitting that her client Weinstein had certainly sinned but insisting he had not committed crimes – a distinction you hardly ever hear out loud in public, unless you accidentally stumbled into a Christian reconstructionist conference somewhere in the back hills of California. But secondly, she repeatedly claimed her client was the victim of a mob, the #metoo movement, and was stripped of due process and therefore unable to get a fair trial. Ultimately, the New York Supreme Court jury disagreed, and Judge James Burke sentenced Weinstein to 23 years in prison on two counts of sexual assault. And one is tempted to assume they got it right, except for the fact that at the sentencing, Judge Burke explained his more severe sentence: “This is a first conviction, but it is not a first offense.”
The judge said, out loud, that Weinstein was getting a harsher sentence because he was actually guilty of more than was actually proven in court. And then you start to wonder if Donna Rotunno’s comments have some validity: “That (23-year) number spoke to the pressure of movements in the public. That number did not speak to the evidence that came out of trial.” And well, that’s kind of what Judge Burke actually said.
Don’t get me wrong. I think Harvey Weinstein should be convicted of every crime that can be proven he committed. And if he sought my counsel, it would include confessing every crime he ever committed. And I’m one of those old-fashioned Christians that thinks some of those Old Testament civil penalties still make good sense for violent and sexual crimes. But I also believe in old-fashioned justice, and justice is based on evidence, facts, testimony, witnesses, you know, the truth and nothing but the truth.
This is why the Bible says, “You shall not follow a crowd to do evil; nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after many to pervert justice” (Exod. 23:2).
And here we return to the dangers of democracy, the dangers of following a crowd to do evil, of mob justice: feelings driving actions. It seems likely that Weinstein is getting something in the neighborhood of what he deserves, but the precedent is not at all helpful. Mobs are like blind squirrels: they can occasionally find a nut. But mostly they do lynching. Does anyone remember the Brett Kavanaugh hearings?
Plato noted this millennia before the founding fathers: “And is it not true that in like manner a leader of the people who, getting control of a docile mob, does not withhold his hand from the shedding of tribal blood, but by the customary unjust accusations brings a citizen into court and assassinates him, blotting out a human life, and with unhallowed tongue and lips that have tasted kindred blood, banishes and slays and hints at the abolition of debts and the partition of lands.”
This has been my objection to the #metoo movement from the beginning. I have no doubt that many women have been mistreated and many men have committed crimes against them. I only want to insist on justice, due process, fair trials, and decisions based on truth – for the protection of everyone involved. Because mobs have a bad habit of turning on themselves. As our second president, John Adams, once wrote: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.” As Robespierre, the French Revolutionary, found out the hard way.
I do not know what tomorrow will bring, whether the news of a cure or highly effective treatment or more terrifying statistics and increased economic declension. But I do know that Covid-19 is not the only contagious virus being spread. Panic-2020 is another novel virus hard to contain. In the last letter Alexander Hamilton ever wrote, he actually warned that “our real disease…is democracy” – the rule of the mob, the liberties of the minority sacrificed on the altar of the opinions and feelings of a majority. As Lord Acton once said: “The one prevailing evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud…”