Oliver Wendell Holmes

Will the majority always win?

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Life in a democracy provides great freedom, but also carries great responsibility.  The idea that any whim or experiment can be turned into law by a majority vote is chilling on the one hand, but the prospect of a majority vote protecting the population from eccentric autocrats brings comfort.  As long as there is a shared worldview, democracy works very well.  But when the values and beliefs of the nation become divided along ideological lines, life becomes difficult as competing voices strive for dominance.

Since most law is based on what is right and what is wrong, any people who lose their ability to agree on those basic issues are in trouble and the peace and well-being of that nation is threatened.  This is not a new phenomenon.  The Founding Fathers anticipating the potential disintegration of the nation if the foundations eroded tried to establish safeguards to protect freedom while also maintaining the integrity of accepted values and codes of what is true, what is right and what is prudent.  But there were inherent flaws in the system as has been apparent throughout the history of our republic.

In 1881, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.  He noted then that most statutes were obsolete by the time they made their way into print and became official laws of the land.  The reason for this he said was that, “The life of the law has not been logic:  it has been experience….At any given time [it] pretty nearly corresponds…with what is then understood to be convenient.”   The frightening reality of that observation has been experienced in full measure in the past several decades of our nation’s history.  Edmund Morris, in quoting Holmes in the second volume of his biography of Theodore Roosevelt, went on to explain further the implications of an experiential instead of a logical base for governing the land when he wrote, “In his world there was neither absolute good nor absolute evil—only shifting standards of positive and negative behavior, determined by the majority and subject to constant change.  Morality was not defined by God; it was the code a given generation of men wanted to live by.  Truth was ‘what I can’t help believing.’  Yesterday’s absolutes must give way to ‘the felt necessities of the time.’”

Two striking examples of what happens when democracies attempt to govern themselves without any sure foundation are presently dividing the nation—the nature of marriage (can the state dictate and legislate that it be restricted?) and the legality of abortion (can the state dictate and legislate what a woman is allowed to do concerning her own body?).  Elected leaders, chosen by the people, have reflected in practice what Holmes observed in theory.  By testing to see which way the winds of public opinion are blowing, many governmental leaders operate by political expediency more often than by principled convictions.  In other words, they are influenced more by current trends of thought rather than grounded in sound, consistent reasoning and foundational values.

So the battle is on.  Advocates for each side of the debate typically avoid the merits of their points of view in the discussion.  Rather than weigh the respective points of view from a reasonable reliance on wise thinking and established principles, the conversations degenerate into ad hominem abusive arguments designed to demean their opponents and in the process negate their perspective.

For example, any discussion on the merits of opening the door for homosexual couples to marry legally seldom addresses the real issue—can the state legislate who gets to marry?  Those who insist that the state can and must do that face a smear campaign in which they are accused of “hate language” and painted as narrow-minded bigots.  Why?  Because the question cannot fail to see that the state has always defined and legislated who gets to marry, and advocates for opening the door to homosexual marriages already affirm the right of the state to prevent marital unions for a wide range of people—those under age, those too closely related, those already married to another and so on.  So the question cannot be argued logically and reasonably on the basis of whose values will be respected and whose will be trampled.  So the abuse goes back and forth as people attack other people instead of people presenting a sound case for their positions.

If that can be recognized, then decisions in a democracy can begin to be made on the basis of what the majority of the people believe to be right and wrong.  The values and beliefs can then be discussed and reasons given to support one position or another.  In the current climate that has proved to be impossible due to the vitriol poured out on both sides of the question.

But does it bother you that Holmes and Morris describe democracy as a somewhat arbitrary enterprise, dependent upon the whims and preferences of “the code any given generation of men want to live by…only shifting standards of positive and negative behavior?”  That means that those who have the most influence on the thinking of the people will eventually succeed in imposing their will on all the people.  Therefore, the question behind the questions is this—who has the authority to shape the thinking of the people and who gets to call the shots about what is acceptable and tolerated by all?

The answer to that covers a lot of ground but in broad strokes, let me suggest five influences, or authorities, that usually compete for the minds and hearts of the people.

 The State – Governing laws reflect the values and beliefs of those seated as our representatives in places of civic authority.  So elected officials put laws in place that address what is legal and acceptable to do and conversely what is and is not.  They exercise control over our behavior which often shapes our perspectives on what is right and wrong.  The general opinion then is that if it is legal it must not be wrong.

The Academy – Educators have been granted enormous powers of influence as they shape the thinking of one generation after another by what they present in the classrooms of the land—from pre-school through the university ideologies are presented as factually unimpeachable and the younger generation has to have a backbone of steel to stand up against the authority of those they are told to respect and obey.  Teachers and professors log in more hours with our children than anyone else in their world and make it difficult to present contrasting points of view with the same degree of saturation.

 The Media – Rather than reflecting the culture, media does a thorough job of shaping the culture with what and how it presents worldviews and lifestyles.  Even in the political realm, the news media regularly try to advocate limits on how much candidates can receive in funding from those outside the campaign, but not once have I ever heard them calculate the vast expenses provided for candidates free of charge by keeping their favorites on the front pages at no cost to the candidate.  The entertainment wing of the media presents spiritual and moral and ethical subjects in a pejorative manner in nearly every instance when offering their opinion of historic values and beliefs, and Christian values and beliefs.  Again, if there were a challenger to the amount of influence educators have over their children, it would be the media who shape not only the kids but perhaps even more so their parents.

 The Church – The institutional church has lost its voice over the past fifty years, largely because many main-line denominations have surrendered their authority to the academy.  A new realm of priests has emerged, not with ecclesiastical robes but with academic robes.  Biblical faith has been stripped of its veracity in their minds and in its place has emerged the same “finger-to-the-wind” approach to beliefs and values found among politicians.  Even among churches of an evangelical persuasion there has been little progress in altering the tidal wave of ideological and practical relativism overwhelming their members.  We give up too quickly when told that our perspectives are faith-based and not welcome in the public forum.  In fact, we have every right and responsibility to point out that every value judgment has a faith basis, a belief system, behind it.  Ours in grounded in what we believe and find affirmed in the Scriptures and we own that mantle and wear it boldly.  However, those contending with us seldom admit that they even have values that have not been put to the vote of the majority for validation.  There is no need to surrender our place at the table when we advocate for biblical truth in the public arena.  Our authority to speak is equally as strong as the other side.

 The Home – The authority of the home in shaping values has begun to deteriorate as homes have become less instrumental in what persuades the hearts and minds of the children growing up there.  The reasons are numerous, far too numerous to go into here, but the exponential rise of single parent homes, the disintegration of family conversations and sharing of convictions in the home, the addiction to electronic media of all sorts, the hectic pace of life that leaves little if any time for instilling the values of the parents and many other factors have had a devastating impact on the kind of influence and authority present in the homes of our nation.

      Of these five authority sources, perhaps you can see how the majority opinion of the nation can be turned so quickly toward the prevailing point of view of those who carry the most weight and have the most influence.  So the very idea of allowing the majority to rule is wonderful in a democracy when there is shared view of the world and shared foundation of values.  But once the foundations are gone, any given election day can see an irrational swing from one extreme to the other as people respond to what they think on any given day.   Gone are the days of common ground with a consistent understanding of what is right and what is wrong.  The psalmist sums it up well when he writes, “If the foundations are destroyed,  what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3).

Where can we as followers of Christ step up to speak a word for righteousness?  Well, frankly, Christian voices have been largely absent in all five categories and it is clear that until we are willing to take our stand on what is right (and yes, there is indeed something called ‘absolute right and absolute wrong’), other voices will control the day, win the elections and manipulate the majority to reflect their point of view.

Over the next several weeks, you will read and hear much discussion here in North Carolina about an amendment to our state constitution that will state that marriage is for a man and a woman.  Opponents to the amendment will pull out all the stops to put their stamp of approval on homosexual unions and use whatever means at their disposal to denigrate anyone holding a different perspective.  Don’t get pushed out of the debate thinking that you are not allowed to let your point of view be shaped by your biblical convictions.  Their point of view has been shaped just as certainly by their beliefs as your values and beliefs have by yours.  If the majority rules the day, then let’s do our part to inform the majority, influence the majority to stand up for what they believe and not be duped into submission to an agenda formulated to silence our voices and keep the majority from having access to a reasonable perspective based on long-held values (indeed from eternal values).

If you like democracy, make sure that you take your stand so that it will be clear that the majority of our nation still hold on to such things as absolute truth and deep convictions about what is right and what is wrong.  If we do nothing and remain silent, the minority who do something will overcome the majority who do nothing.