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What the Next Generation Needs to Know about American Government

You do not have to do much reading in the opinion sections to find someone arguing that American democracy is in a crisis. Some point to the expansion of Presidential authority, while others complain about the outsized role that smaller states play in the Electoral College. Either way, many believe that American democracy as we know it is slipping away.

No one can put their finger on what is causing this shift, and most explanations make their ideological opponents the culprit. Diagnoses are difficult, so our best bet is to focus on a solution. If our commitment to democracy and democratic institutions is slipping, then our best bet for its long-term maintenance is to teach and model these principles to the next generation.

Government matters to Christians in the United States. We recognize that God has ordained governments both to reign in evil and to protect citizens. In the United States, we the people established a government to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Our government exists to safeguard our liberties, promote American prosperity, and provide for the nation’s defense.

Each generation will face unique challenges to the American system of government. When we look at the challenges we face, there are several aspects of the American system that we need to teach and model to the next generation.

First, the next generation needs to understand the limits of the Presidency. Tom Nichols tells a remarkable story in his book Our Own Worst Enemy. He sat watching the 2012 Presidential debate between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney with his father, who was in his waning months. As they listened to the candidates, his father commented, “We’ll be okay no matter who wins.”

This type of thought about the Presidency was standard fare as little as a generation ago. We recognized that the President was our nation’s recognized leader, but he had relatively little power to change much on his own. As the President’s power has grown over the last generation, so has the apocalyptic feel of our Presidential contests.

The American system of government, enshrined in the Constitution, established a series of checks and balances to keep one branch of government from becoming too powerful. Congress passes laws, but the President can veto them, and the Judicial branch can rule they are unconstitutional. The President appoints judges, and Congress must approve them. Congress possesses the power to impeach the President, and the courts can strike down executive orders. When the system works correctly, no one branch has enough power to turn the course of life in the United States.

We should also teach the next generation the nobility of the American experiment. American History has become a political football in recent years. Histories such as the 1619 Project emphasize the sins of America’s founding while ignoring the high ideals embedded in our nation’s governing documents. Conservatives countered by highlighting our noble ideas but whitewashing the problematic aspects of our history–like slavery, Jim Crow and our treatment of Native Americans.

Just as people can walk and chew gum at the same time, we can teach America’s founding ideals while also being honest about all the ways we have failed to live up to them. The next generation needs to know the Founders’ understanding of natural rights and the role the government plays in protecting those rights. They should also understand the ideal that this protection extends to every American, regardless of race, class, religion or social standing.

We have often failed to live up to these ideals, but we have also worked to right our wrongs. The United States responded to the horrors of slavery with the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, which banned slavery, extended citizenship rights to all races and gave all races the right to vote. It took too long, but the United States extended the right to vote to women with the 19th amendment. With the Voting Rights Act, we protected the right of all people to vote.

There will be more threats to the American experiment. There will always be new ways that some Americans want to trample on the God-given rights of other Americans. Yet, when we understand our founding ideals and the Constitutional process for writing those wrongs, we can eliminate them and protect the rights of groups who are under attack.

The American experiment has endured for almost two and a half centuries because it recognized that government doesn’t give us rights–God does. We tapped into the universal need for people to worship, speak and live as they choose. We understood the need for government to protect these rights so that every person could have the freedom and dignity they should. This next generation is more than capable of furthering this project if we teach them its foundations and help them understand why they should cherish it.

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.

Photo courtesy: Andy Feliciotti/Unsplash


Scott Slayton writes at “One Degree to Another.”

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