The headline for Leo Coulson’s recent letter says it all: “Utah’s lawmakers should be required to take civics classes and religious studies courses.”
Mr. Coulson argues that five members of Utah’s congressional delegation — Sen. Mitt Romney being the exception — by their election and/or endorsements of House Speaker Mike Johnson evidence their need for refresher courses in both disciplines.
I agree. The history of religious intolerance indicates that politicization of religion undermines spirituality and issues in abuses of state power. The U.S. Constitution safeguards religious liberty by promoting the separation of church and state. Those schooled in our constitutional order would never support the election of Mike Johnson — a self-proclaimed Christian nationalist — to so powerful an office. The rushed elevation of the inexperienced Johnson to Speaker of the House was especially ill-advised during this time of religious division, political polarization and grave domestic and geopolitical challenges.
The following six lessons are also worth reviewing.
Our representative democracy is grounded in a bedrock principle: We the people are sovereign. The people are the ultimate repository of political power and authority. This sovereignty provided the fundamental justification for the American colonists’ rebellion against British rule. Our elected representatives are the peoples’ agents, not their rulers. They hold their offices in the public trust and are charged with ensuring power is equitably exercised to advance the well-being of all citizens.
Commitment to the rule of law characterizes a free people — a people worthy of self governance. The U.S. Constitution safeguards citizens’ fundamental rights. It limits and controls the effects of any decisions made by government officials. The rule of law requires courts to uphold constitutional order. The principles of equal protection under the law and equal accountability before the law apply to all citizens, whatever their race, religion, class, ethnicity or status. Not even a president or former president is above the law.
Our democratic institutions are designed to protect citizens against two tyrannies: the tyranny of autocrats and the tyranny of the mobs that autocrats enflame. Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 68 expressed his concern that someone unfit for office, but who possessed a talent for “low intrigue and the little arts of popularity,” might one day be elected president and subvert the rule of law.In Federalist No. 10, James Madison warned against the “mischiefs of faction” within our electoral system. He defined a faction as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the interests of the community.” Clearly such a faction could devolve into a mob in service to a would-be autocrat — even into a mob that might dare to assault our nation’s Capitol and attempt to nullify the results of a free and fair presidential election.
The U.S. Constitution is calibrated to manage the relationship between citizens and their empowered representatives, and to ensure that the empowered do not betray the public trust. The legislative, executive and judicial branches of government are independent and coequal. Our system of constitutional checks and balances is designed to ensure no individual or faction is above the rule of law.
Character counts. A free and responsible people will remain so only if our elected representatives exhibit civic virtues. These include a commitment to truth; respect for both the letter and the spirit of the law; fidelity to oaths of office; faithful performance of the duties that attend their stations; respect for rational and ethically responsible policy debates; respect for the three co-equal and independent branches of the government; respect for political opponents and a willingness to give their arguments a fair hearing; and the disposition to forge responsible compromises that promote the general welfare.
John Adams warned: “Avarice, Ambition and Revenge would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Clearly those dominated by avarice, partisan ambition and a vengeful spirit are unworthy of offices held in the public trust. The avaricious, ambitious and vengeful refuse to acknowledge that the only freedom worth defending is tethered to both legal and moral responsibility. Those who support such unfit individuals or who refuse to oppose them are complicit in the dissolution of our constitutional order.
America is above all else an idea — an idea ever inviting its fuller realization.
Andrew Bjelland, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Philosophy Department, Seattle University, taught political philosophy, jurisprudence, medical ethics and logic. He held the Pigott-McCone Chair in Humanities. He resides in Salt Lake City.
The Salt Lake Tribune is committed to creating a space where Utahns can share ideas, perspectives and solutions that move our state forward. We rely on your contributions to do this. Find out how to share your opinion here, and email us at email@example.com.