We Americans are quick to take our disagreements to the streets. In 2020, we have claimed many causes to do so. Millions came out to protest police violence and “resist” fascism. Others “rallied” against COVID-19 lockdowns and voter fraud. We may amass crowds to evoke sympathy or provoke debate. But demonstrations aggravate and intimidate, often drawing counter protesters if not ending in violence. And even when gatherings generate debate, we are tempted to settle them by who had the larger crowd size rather than the merits of the case.
So, what’s the value of taking to the streets? Many take the question as defending the status quo rather than challenging it. British-born philosopher Os Guinness helps us see it as a challenge in his 2018 book, Last Call for Liberty. For him, “the streets” are synonymous with the ever-present danger of supposing we can force our vision of freedom onto others. He contends that this is what soured the notoriously bloody French Revolution of 1789 and its spiritual successors. And he fears that America is at risk as we are forgetting the different vision that our country was founded upon and improved by.
To show the flaw of the vision of 1789, Guinness taps French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau’s important work The Social Contract. Asserting that “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains,” Rousseau implies that what’s needed is for the right people with the right ideas to come along and remove those chains. Guinness is chilled by how the Enlightenment thinker pays off the premise: “Whoever refuses to pay obedience to the general will shall be liable to be compelled to it by the force of the whole body. And this is in effect nothing more than that he may be compelled to be free.” The license to coerce the unwilling underwrites a liberation worse than the tyranny it overthrows.
To draw a contrast with America’s enduring revolution, Guinness drafts John Adams. Writing to a friend decades after the War for Independence, Adams describes a “revolution before the Revolution.” This was a transformation “in the hearts and minds of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.” As Guinness sees it, this prerequisite to liberation is what kept the struggle on the streets from “overwhelming” the people as it did in France.
The change Adams identifies isn’t fluffy sentimentalism but moral substance inherited from the Protestant Reformation. It’s the American notion of covenant, shaped by reading the book of Exodus as a divine example for human government. It’s not a prescription for hierarchy or a contract for loosely affiliated individuals, but a “pattern for liberation” applying to a whole people. That pattern is discerned in the Sinai wilderness, after God leads Israel out of Egypt. In the course of taking up their covenant with God, the Jewish people utter three separate times and unanimously, “All that the LORD has spoken, we will do.” Guinness sees this sequence as marking covenants with three features: they are freely chosen, they constitute a “morally binding pledge,” and they entail a “reciprocal responsibility of all for all.”
With these qualities in mind, we see that covenant is thicker than contract. Whereas contracts have escape clauses, the parties of covenant are stuck with each other. One party can’t just banish or subjugate another if stubborn differences arise. Rather, each is bound to exercise with the other the patience and self-restraint appropriate to equal partners. If Guinness correctly distinguishes between the visions of 1776 and 1789, then keeping our liberty depends on retrieving, developing, and exercising the covenant virtues of 1776.
This isn’t to say that taking to the streets has no place in our politics. After all, the civil rights marches of the 1960s effected an end to the evil of racial segregation. But they were a carefully crafted challenge whose very form was apt to overturning a specific regime of unequal dignity. And they were linked to a movement appealing to, as Martin Luther King, Jr. called it, the “promissory note” of the American Declaration of Independence.
Understandably, we who feel righteous indignation today want to see ourselves in continuity with a morally glorious legacy of taking to the streets. But glorious moments tend to be exceptions, not the rule. Contra the utopian expectations of the Enlightenment, pitched moral battles are few and far between. Rather, it’s little acts upholding the distinctly biblical and American bonds of love that will preserve and extend liberty and justice for all.
- Martin Luther King, Jr. and America’s ‘Promissory Note’ - January 13, 2021
- Why Do We Take to the Streets? - November 24, 2020
- Who’s Afraid of Religious Reasoning? - September 13, 2019
- Betsy Ross Recall is a Cheap Moral Stand - July 16, 2019
- Speech, Art, and the Masterpiece Cakeshop - May 10, 2018
- Constitutional Democracy Doesn’t Debase, It Dignifies - February 27, 2018