Signs of a setting sun
Despair over U.S. party politics and national disunity go all the way back to the Founders
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Dennis Rasmussen’s Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders (Princeton University Press, 2021) is on my history book of the year short list. Rasmussen, whose good writing makes him a rarity among academics, shows how George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson all thought the American experiment was a failure and the United States would soon be disunited.
That’s an important message for us to absorb at a time when “misrepresentation and party feuds have arisen to such a height” that they may not end “at any point short of confusion and anarchy.” Surprise: That’s a quotation from Washington in 1798. As Rasmussen writes, “We might take a certain comfort, amid our worries about the state of American democracy, in the fact that the founders themselves voiced similar worries.”
The most obvious problem then was sectional division over slavery, which Jefferson thought would kill the deal. But Adams from the Revolution onward was concerned about character, or lack thereof. I’ll leave in his capitalization: “There is So much Rascallity, so much Venality and Corruption, so much Avarice and Ambition, such a Rage for Profit and Commerce among all Ranks and Degrees of Men.”
By the beginning of the 19th century, others among the Founders shared Adams’ concern. Benjamin Rush, a strong supporter of the Constitution in 1787-1788, wrote that the United States “will certainly fail. It has already disappointed the expectations of its most sanguine and ardent friends.” Rush told his children that he felt “shame for my zeal in the cause of our Country”: Regarding the Constitution, he wrote, “I cannot meet with a man who loves it.”
Rasmussen concludes, “The looming demise of American democracy has been announced countless times in the course of the nation’s history. … We are bombarded with similar pronouncements today.” But James Madison, longest-surviving of the leading Founders, said the American constitutional order in 1834 was “successful beyond any of the forms of government, ancient or modern, with which it may be compared.” That’s still true.
The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship by Daniel Williams (Eerdmans, 2021) doesn’t fulfill its attractive title. Williams proposes “adopting some of the biblically informed values of Republican-voting conservatives (such as the value of all human beings, including the unborn) while simultaneously supporting the policies of progressive Democrats as the best way to put those values into action.” But what if those policies hurt the very people they purportedly help? What if “progressive” policies keep people in poverty instead of helping them climb out of it?
A WORLD special issue this summer will profile winners of our Hope Awards for Effective Compassion. Effective: good results, not just good intentions. Williams offers some helpful specifics but he writes, “Anytime we seek to bring justice to those who are oppressed, we are doing the work of God’s kingdom.” No, we’re not, if we rely on illusions and push what does not work.
James Eglinton’s Bavinck (Baker, 2020) examines the Dutch theologian who died 100 years ago—but whose life still offers timely wisdom.
Theologian Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), the journalist and educator who became prime minister of the Netherlands in 1901, is more famous than Bavinck (1854-1921), but Eglinton brings him out of Kuyper’s shadow. As a theology teacher and church leader, Bavinck was Kuyper’s most valuable teammate in the Dutch reformation. They pioneered in advancing a Christian worldview against the growing relativism of European culture.
Their reformational movement, along with their Anti-Revolutionary Party, influenced Dutch society for more than a generation. While Kuyper led, Bavinck served in the upper house of the legislature and was party chairman. Later, Bavinck taught students at Kuyper’s Free University how to remain faithful to Christ while paddling through the swirling waters of modernity.
Eglinton provides much insight into a man who had much wisdom about the Lordship of Christ over all of life. —Russ Pulliam
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