Was the American Revolution Beautiful?
Several months ago, when I planned to write about the rebirth at our founding for this journal entry, I thought I would simply write about how out of the ashes of revolution, a great nation was formed. To prepare for it, I started reading Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham. When I read Chapter 6: Like A Shock of Electricity, I was stunned by what I found. To answer the question of whether or not the American Revolution was beautiful, I’ve narrowed my observations down to three, each with supporting ideas. The significance of each of them for our work today is powerful.
The setting is of course familiar: mid-1770s, the colonies and Britain clashing with each other over taxes, human rights, and how best to govern two lands separated by the Atlantic Ocean. Independence and revolution were not yet certain. But revolution did come. Was it beautiful? It’s a complicated question, but making three observations that connect to current times will help us answer it.
Debt Produced Strife
Regardless of one’s position on debts and deficits, we simply cannot deny the favorable climate it created for revolution and war. Note what Meacham writes on page 69:
For the elite, revolution was the shrewdest economic choice. London had already stymied landownership in the West, restricting those with capital (or those capable of borrowing capital) from acquiring coveted acres. Virginia’s public finances were a mess; there was no way for the colony to honor the paper money issued during the Seven Years’ War, which alienated most of the holders of the paper. And there was the inescapably personal issue of the money that planters owed creditors in Britain. In Jefferson’s words, such debts were now “hereditary from father to son for many generations, so that the planters were a species of property annexed to certain mercantile houses in London.” Virginians owed at least £2.3 million to British merchants, nearly half the total owed by all the American colonies.
To be blunt and to the point, who could argue that massive deficit spending is beautiful? We don’t need to parse every specific detail of the 1700s to recognize the unrest swirling in the American grassroots today is at least partly driven by the inability of Congress to debate and solve pressing issues, including the national debt. From here, hang with me for a few paragraphs; there is a picture of reality we have to see before we get to the second observation.
I think we don’t actually value solving pressing issues, if we’re honest about it. Instead, we focus on ideology, not because we’re making a compelling case for how our good ideas can solve problems, but to obstruct debate (somehow thinking obstruction proves how committed we are to our Conservative or Liberal causes), so that we won’t have to work hard to make convincing arguments. We can either make convincing arguments to real people, or we can obstruct debate to prove points (that oddly themselves prove nothing), and we usually choose the latter.
Of course, as Meacham notes on page 70, the Revolution was driven by more than just economics too. Ideological forces were at play. As we move towards the second observation, note what Meacham writes about ideology:
The intersection of economic and ideological forces created a climate in which well-off, educated Virginians saw a clearer, more compelling, and more attractive future if they could successfully separate themselves from London.
In Jefferson’s political imagination, any move that could be interpreted as an encroachment on liberty was interpreted in just that way. Taxes, the presence of British troops, trade regulations, the disposition of western lands, and relations with Indian tribes, among other matters, were all seen as grasps for power by London, power that Jefferson and others believed rightly belonged to them (or at least to them within a constitution in which they played a much larger role). Absolutism was always just a step away; subjugation an imminent possibility. The Americans were not wrong to think this way, for the history they knew—and the politics they were experiencing—tended to favor the Crown and its adherents rather than the people as more broadly defined.
For two hundred years, I think we’ve intentionally viewed any possible encroachment on liberty in the same way. And it’s true that much of the world has lived in turmoil and without political and economic freedom, but America, like many other Western nations, has been different. But ultimately, we need a deeper knowledge of freedom, because we say we fight for freedom but we often just anxiously fight each other, and we all know intuitively (if we are honest) that anxiously fighting each other isn’t freedom.
To continue building to our second observation, it’s important for followers of Jesus to recognize that we don’t actually have rights: in light of the Kingdom, they are archaic. Where love and especially grace exist, rights are an odd concept. In a broken world, they are a construct that enables a free society, and the Bill of Rights, for example, is an excellent example of bringing order into chaos. But we desperately need to see further into the Kingdom because when we do, we won’t be so anxiously fearful about our rights; we’ll realize that we are set free, both as Americans through the Constitution, and as God’s children. And when we’re not afraid of losing our rights, we will have the gracious strength to debate people who disagree with us, our interactions in politics will fundamentally reflect Truth and Beauty, and we will finally begin solving big problems.
To continue, even though the Bill of Rights is a construct that enables followers of Jesus to live on this earth peaceably with everyone, it is not the Kingdom itself, and so the way we go about defending rights or debating them will demonstrate whether our hope is placed in the Kingdom, or whether it is placed in “making America great again”, whatever that means. The two are contradictory: placing our hope in America will likely alienate people from the Kingdom because we will continually have to war against any American we view as keeping America from becoming great. But if our hope is placed in the Kingdom, it will free us to engage with anyone, because every interaction in politics will become an opportunity for restoration.
Instead of speaking of the good news of the Kingdom, too often we Conservatives look at America’s founding and claim with moral superiority to anyone who disagrees with us that we were founded as a “Christian” nation. We point to fasting and prayer and mentions of our Creator as proof. That may be all fine and good, in the sense that the natural result of wanting to live in peace with all men is to put in place human rights that are inalienable to protect the freedom of everyone.
If you’re not a follower of Jesus, this line of reasoning matters because we do have the Constitution today; we have a way to live peaceably as one nation, so we don’t have to be afraid of debating the other side. If you are a follower of Jesus, these ideas matter even more because at their core we’re considering how the gospel of the Kingdom (that Jesus will heal everything that’s broken and reign on a physical, restored earth) can, in the meantime, radically reshape an entire section of our culture that has become divisive and lifeless. Instead it can become life-giving, true, and beautiful.
But now, as we observe Thomas Jefferson’s story, we are ready for the second observation.
Religiosity Produced Anxiety
I’ve always been a fan of Thomas Jefferson, and still am for many reasons. But the truth is, even at our founding, religion was used to manipulate.
After the British closed the Boston Port, Jefferson and his allies met together in Williamsburg.
“We were under [the] conviction of the necessity of arousing our people from the lethargy into which they had fallen as to passing events,” Jefferson recalled, “and thought that the appointment of a day of general fasting and prayer would be most likely to call up and alarm their attention.” (p. 71).
Could it be possible that prayer and fasting were employed not because we were in a great fight against evil and needed deliverance, but because it was the most expedient way to agitate the populace towards revolution?
It is of course complicated, and one can’t look at the actions of King George as outlined in the Declaration of Independence and conclude that he was a life-giving monarch who was filled with love for his subjects. But it appears religiosity was used not to understand the gospel, find deep joy, peace, and freedom, or to set hope in a Kingdom ruled by Jesus, but rather to make people afraid, angry, and anxious.
Meacham continues on pages 71-72:
For Jefferson, the decision to base a revolutionary appeal on religious grounds was expedient, reflecting more an understanding of politics than a belief that the Lord God of Hosts was about to intervene in British America. Though not a conventional Christian, Jefferson appreciated the power of spiritual appeals. To frame an anti-British argument in the language of faith took the rhetorical fight to the enemy in a way that was difficult to combat. Jefferson and his colleagues could argue that they were only humbling themselves before the Lord, calling on a largely religious populace to fast and pray, not to resist authority.
And so Jefferson and his allies “cooked up a resolution,” as he put it. The people were to “pray for deliverance from ‘the evils of civil war.’” A church was chosen to “make the greatest impression”, and on July 23, 1774, “Jefferson was struck by the human element of the experience, writing; ‘The people met generally, with anxiety and alarm in their countenances, and the effect of the day[s] through the whole colony was like a shock of electricity, arousing every man and placing him erect and solidly on his center.” (pp. 72-73).
To be blunt again, isn’t the point of fasting and prayer to lead us to peace, rest, joy, patience and other non-militaristic traits? If we truly understand the gospel, letting it sink in continually, it changes our perspective. In my work in politics, this has been my story. A very good friend of mine recently noted that the more you read the New Testament, the more you study the words of Jesus and Paul, the more it seems like the message is “duck and cover:” that we shouldn’t be so fearfully trying to control culture, that we can let go of what we think our culture should look like (which incredibly actually frees us to have the greatest impact on our culture, because we can demonstrate restoration instead of enforcing morality through force and power). Perhaps ”duck and cover” isn’t the whole of it if we are focused on restoration too—but it certainly is closer to the mark than anxiety. (Of course, we should bring our anxieties into prayer, but I don’t think the end result of prayer can ever be anxiety, although it is often, if not always, a deeper knowledge of human brokenness and what we can do to bring restoration to the world).
I was talking with another good friend recently about ways to share the message of LIBERATUS. He noted that I probably wanted to avoid emotional appeals, that maybe I wanted people to give to LIBERATUS based on reason. But he rightfully noted that people pretty much always give or buy through an emotional appeal. I responded by saying that I want the call to action for LIBERATUS to be very emotional. I also want it to be honest. Our call to action is that we can reflect the Kingdom, even in our work in politics. It’s an adventure that will never end!
We have a new anthem.
We Are Set Free!
Let that wake us up. You can join the adventure by applying to write with us, subscribing to the journal for a restorative experience every Wednesday, or by making a purchase in our store to fund this work. Every political engagement we have can be restorative and point to the Kingdom!
Therefore, we need to be honest about how we’re using religion in politics. Is it turning people towards hope? Or is it condemning, lifeless, legalistic, self-vindicating, obstructive, and perpetuating anger, anxiety, and fear in others? We need to take great care to see the gospel more deeply. If we do, we will see countless opportunities to rethink work culture and leadership, communication and political debate, and personal well-being in all areas of American politics.
If we give these questions and these ideas an honest look, it will shake us with a vision of how different our work could be. The third observation is the most compelling of them all.
Ashes Produced Beauty
History is sometimes too complicated to narrow it down to good or bad arguments. Not because there isn’t good and bad, there is. We just do a poor job of deciphering it.
I mentioned earlier that I’ve always been a fan of Thomas Jefferson. Despite his flaws, he penned the words that set in motion great advancements in human history. The Constitution, regardless of what you believe about what may or may not need to be amended, has been in effect since 1789—by far the oldest governing document in the world. It was crafted so wisely, that even in the dysfunction of revolution, beauty was created.
I’ll conclude though, by looking at Jefferson as a man, as an image-bearer, as a creator. All through chapter 6, Meacham makes notes of life at Monticello, including the wheat and corn, cucumbers, lettuce, cherries and other produce growing in Jefferson’s garden at different times of the year.
I visited Monticello a few years ago. I loved it. I know the darkness of slavery is part of its history, yet every inch of the property seemed carefully designed in a way that would produce happiness for anyone who walked there, under the tall trees, along the centuries-old walkways with views far off into the mountains, through the specifically planned gardens and uniquely designed house. Our tour guide noted Jefferson’s daily routines, and mentioned that he would walk through the house around 4:30 pm, that we would see him, but he probably wouldn’t speak to us as he went about his day. In the moment, it wasn’t odd at all that she spoke of him as if he were still walking among us. His inventions still hung on the walls and filled the spaces in his house. His boots were still next to his bed. His gardens were still producing fruits and vegetables.
It was as if we were walking through a world carefully planned by a creator.
Does our work reflect the creative order of the one whose image we bear?
We can give up the small, shallow stories we are living, and from their ashes, beauty will rise.
Before I started writing this journal, I read part of I John again.
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. (1:5)
On a day-to-day basis, is this really a description of how we engage in politics? Really? Let’s be honest. We can give up merging our politics with religiosity and instead find the wild adventure of true freedom.
Jefferson was only 31 when he called for a day of prayer and fasting, and marshalled the American mind towards revolution. Today, our calling is to see freedom at a level even deeper than he did, and through it find healing. To all the twenty and thirty-somethings who are dissatisfied with our politics, we can change the story. Truth and Beauty can define everything we do. To those who are younger, watch what we do. Your time will come to double down on the movement to bring restoration. To those who are older, we need your experience and expertise. We can re-imagine the way we do politics. Beauty will rise from the ashes of how we once operated. Join the pursuit that never ends, in which every day we know that LIBERATUS—we are set free.
WEEKLY ACTION ITEM:
Is your perception of religion in politics leading you towards anger, fear, hate, and anxiety, or is it leading you towards love, joy, and peace? Are you demonstrating that love in the way you engage in politics? How can you push others to love and good works? How might respecting other people as human beings open doors to finding policy solutions we have so far resisted?
Spend some time journaling in light of the questions above. You can also send us a note, or comment below. We’d love to hear from you!
LIBERATUS is a weekly journal creatively pursuing Truth and Beauty by empowering writers in American politics to tell the story of healing through freedom. You can join the pursuit by applying to write, subscribing to the journal, or funding our vision by donating monthly or making a purchase in our store.
Desert Photo Credits: Heather Gibbons
ISSUE 010: BEAUTY FROM ASHES, PART 3