This week’s focus on the Congress in the United States—and particularly on the Senate—sent me back to Robert Caro’s book Master of the Senate (Knopf, 2002). This is the third volume in a planned five-volume biography on Lyndon B. Johnson but it is also—as the subtitle of each book indicates—a history of “The Years of Lyndon Johnson.” In the third volume the focus is on LBJ’s years as a Senator ahead of his becoming Vice-President and then President (roughly 1949-1960). In order to set the stage, Caro begins the book with a history of the Senate.
In these hyper-partisan days—and on the eve of some Senators getting ready to challenge some electoral votes tomorrow based on opinion polls that indicate some believe fraud is afoot—it is instructive to review James Madison’s comments that unlike the House of Representatives—that was to reflect the popular will of the moment—the Senate was to be known for proceeding “with more coolness, with more system, with more wisdom than the popular branch, an anchor against popular fluctuations.” The Senate, Madison claimed, was “a necessary fence” against allowing the country to get caught up in “transient impressions” that might threaten to carry the populace away in dangerous manners.
One can read those words and draw one’s own conclusions as to how well the Senate’s “fence” is holding against the fluctuations and transient impressions of the moment. But I was also drawn to one of the most famous speeches ever delivered in the well of the Senate by Senator Daniel Webster in 1830. At the time as battle lines were being drawn over issues like slave states versus free states, some in the Senate began to suggest that individual states could decide for themselves whether or not to follow the laws as established by the Federal government. Some began to promulgate the idea that individual and state Liberty (freedom) was of paramount importance. But Webster understood it otherwise in the firm belief that Liberty could never become the enemy of Union, of unity, of America’s being one nation guided by a single Constitution.
“I hope I will not [one day] see written, as its motto, first Liberty and then Union. I hope I shall see no such delusion and deluded motto on the flag of that Country. I hope to see spread all over it, blazoned in letters of light and proudly floating over Land and Sea that other sentiment, dear to my heart, ‘Union and Liberty, now and forever, one and inseparable!”
Webster’s words moved even his opponents to tears. As Caro observes, “Those words would be memorized by generations of schoolchildren, they would be chiseled in marble on walls and monuments—those words, spoken among those desks, in the Senate.”
All of that by way of a long introduction to what I regard as perhaps the most bitter truth we learned about ourselves as Americans and also as Christians in 2020: we have allowed personal Liberty/Freedom to become a kind of idol at the expense of Union, of solidarity, and yes, of even Christian fellowship in the church. Whether it was following mandates on mask-wearing, on restrictions on congregant settings, or other ways by which officials tried to keep people safe and healthy, over and over again people chose Liberty over Union, personal freedom over corporate wellbeing.
The bitterness over mask-wearing has been particularly astonishing and—all things being equal—particularly unnecessary. My son works in a large retail store and has come home with some egregious examples of people who value their own freedom above the safety or even the personal feelings of others. A kind young woman working in the store recently asked two women to please put their masks on as this was store policy. The result was one woman flipping her middle finger at the young woman. “Don’t worry: that’s not for you” the woman snarled, “THAT’S for Whitmer!” Another man annoyed to have been reminded to wear his mask completed his transaction at the cash register with my son only to then at the last moment pull his mask down so as to spew “Merry Christmas!” at my son through the man’s sneering, unmasked lips.
One could wish things were otherwise inside congregations but there are far too many reports from far too many fried, frazzled, and burned-out pastors that indicate things were hardly better inside the walls of the church. Seldom has it been clearer that for some Christians, love of neighbor takes a backseat to personal preference and liberty. It took someone from outside the traditional church—New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof—to come up with a near-perfect analogy as to what this defiance of public health guidelines like wearing masks is really like. Choosing not to wear a mask because you claim to have the freedom to do so is, Kristof wrote, the same thing as saying you have the right to drive drunk. Because in the end it will be the lives of other people that you endanger, not your own life first and foremost. And you do not have that right. That is not an exercise in Liberty.
I could go on to note other things, including those high-profile pastors who had the temerity to claim the church was being “persecuted” by orders not to gather and not to sing. As someone who teaches at a seminary with a 30% international student population—people who can tell you what real persecution looks like in many lands—and as someone who remembers the brutal beheading of 20 Egyptian Christians by ISIS some years ago on account of their Christian faith, I can do nothing less than fall back in horror at the ease with which some Christians claim to be “persecuted.” That is quite simply a sinful claim. But it is founded, once more, on a valuing of Liberty above all else.
Daniel Webster and perhaps all the founders of a nation like the U.S. knew that it would require an ongoing balancing act to keep Union and Liberty properly yoked, to ensure that Liberty was never exercised at the expense of Union. Jesus likely knew something similar applied to the church. The Apostle Paul surely talked often about how the freedom we have in Christ must never be a license to hurt or endanger others in the fellowship, fellow believers with whom we are supposed to comprise a single Body.
The grim year of 2020 revealed much about life, about the character of us and of our neighbors, about the church and where its highest loyalty might actually lie (and it might not be with Christ it turns out). But perhaps this wanton abandonment of neighbor-love, of a desire to protect, cherish, and nurture our fellow citizens and to prize their wellbeing higher than our own—perhaps this is the most bitter lesson of them all.