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Religion and Peaceful Transitions

Traditionally Americans have been proud of our emphasis on peaceful transition bequeathed to us by George Washington, the Father of Our Country. The pomp and stability of the United Kingdom after the death of Queen Elizabeth II reminds us that Washington and the British nation learned the importance of orderly transition from British history during the Reformation period.

The transfer of power has always been the most vulnerable time for every form of government. For democracies, elections bring opportunities for meddling and violence when factions try to seize power from majorities. For dynastic governments, legitimacy of succession becomes the source of violence when family members seek to undermine each other. Enemies of any regime find their greatest opportunities for overthrowing established systems during the inevitable transitions that no government can postpone forever.

George Washington and the Founding Fathers were especially aware of the importance of peaceful transition because of British history during the Reformation with its linkage of religion and civil war. A determination not to repeat British mistakes was part of the motivation of Washington to step down after two terms. The acrimonious but peaceful transfer of power from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, often called a ballot box revolution, was also guided by British history and respect for Washington. Fortunately, religion was not a factor promoting violence in early American history.

British History of Conflict

The British experience of violence over transitions in power came about in two waves—first as the Tudor dynasty ended and later as the Stuart dynasty threatened Protestantism. Henry VIII made a political deal in his first marriage that had gigantic consequences because no sons were born to ensure smooth succession. Henry’s effort to annul marriage to the daughter of the Spanish monarchs brought conflict with Spain and resistance from the pope, leading to the formation of the Church of England and wars with Spain. At the end of the short reign of Henry’s only son, Mary, Henry’s Catholic elder daughter, tried to undo the English Reformation. Internal peace returned with the accession of Elizabeth I, who fought a war with Spain that grew from antagonism over Henry’s rejection of his Spanish wife and breaking from the Catholic church.

Elizabeth I never married or had children. Fortunately, the transition to the Stuart dynasty of Scotland went smoothly and James I supported the English Reformation. However, when Stuart successors converted to Catholicism and began opposing British Protestantism, conflict with Parliament led to forty years of civil war, the dictator Oliver Cromwell, and the reign of Puritanism in British Christianity.

Parliament learned the lessons of this long period of instability, generating a tradition of peaceful succession that has been dramatically displayed to the world upon the death of Elizabeth II. The Stuart line was peacefully restored upon the death of Cromwell. When Parliament could no longer take the Catholicism of the Stuarts, a peaceful Glorious Revolution brought a German dynasty to power and banished the Stuarts. From that transition in 1688 developed the traditions that guide Parliamentary dominance over the crown today and the rituals of dynastic change that have charmed the world after the passing of Elizabeth II.

This remarkable display by the United Kingdom comes at a time when the United States is mired in the consequences of a second failure of peaceful transition in our history. Like the British period of civil conflict, American civil upheaval has been made worse by the involvement of Christian evangelicals.

The First American Conflict

The election of 1860 was the spark that ignited the American Civil War. Moral outrage against slavery—not its racism, but its basic injustice and cruelty—had grown in non-slave states as an aggressive South insisted that expanding slavery was necessary to the Southern way of life. The Dred Scott ruling of 1857 by a Supreme Court dominated by Southern justices was the last straw as every non-slave state voted for Abraham Lincoln, giving him a landslide victory in the electoral college against three other candidates. Southern states had dominated the presidency but now it was clear the electoral college was stacked against them. Their response was to refuse to accept a legitimate and fair presidential election because they lost and would likely lose their dominant role as industrialization kept spreading.

The American system has always been most vulnerable in the months between election of a president in November and the inauguration in the following year. Until the election of 1936, inaugurations were held in March, allowing a four-month period before a new president assumed power. Therefore, Lincoln was powerless as Southern states organized a rival government while President James Buchanan took no action to preserve the Union. When Lincoln became president, his agenda was dramatically reshaped by having to fight a rebellion against the consequences of an election.

Religion played an important role in promoting violence leading to a civil war. “Fire Eaters” in the South reacted to moral and religious outrage over the cruelty of slavery by defending it as biblically sanctioned. Evangelical denominations split into regional organizations as Southerners defended slavery and the Southern way of life as especially sanctioned by God. Northern victory and the legal elimination of slavery did not phase Southern denominations, for they continued to support resistance during Reconstruction as they blessed Jim Crow laws and rigid segregation. The alliance of Southern white evangelicals with defacto continuation of slavery lasted through the 1960s as they continued the regional separation of denominations and excluded African Americans from their Sunday morning worship services.

A Second American Conflict

The United States is now involved in a second internal conflict brought on by presidential elections in which evangelical Christians are actively involved in promoting forces leading to civic violence. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 and his loss in 2020 have been the central events thus far in stirring up possible civil war. In both elections, leaders of evangelical Christian movements and their followers have been openly dedicated to Donald Trump’s cause without regard to moral or legal concerns he provokes.

In 2016, the Trump campaign was notable for breaking political and moral norms. Most disturbing was his refusal to say he would concede if he lost, his welcoming of Russian interference on his behalf, and the fact that he openly invited more Russian assistance. As polls showed him losing, he complained more and more that the system was rigged against him. Equally astonishing was the unreserved support Trump received from religious groups for his intemperate public attacks on immigrants, dismissal of civil liberties, and open rejection of human rights. As he bullied anyone who disagreed with him and lied about demonstrable facts, he gained support among Christians who proclaimed their conservatism.

When Trump won a narrow victory in the electoral college, Democrats complained about Russian interference and unprecedented comments from the head of the FBI, but the legitimacy of the election itself was never challenged. Even though the campaigning was tainted, the election itself was uncorrupted. However, when Trump learned of an FBI investigation into his campaign, he went to war with law enforcement and intelligence agencies whose job it is to protect national security from foreign attacks. Conservative evangelicals lined up with other self-styled conservatives to support presidential attacks on law enforcement and national security officials.

As the election of 2020 approached, Trump’s determination to win reelection guided his actions. An attempt to bribe the president of Ukraine to force an illegitimate investigation of Joe Biden, the opponent Trump most feared, brought about impeachment. Acquittal by the Senate effectively gave the president a blank check, leading to revenge against witnesses who testified against him and a broad strategy to seize power if he lost the election.

The four-month transition before inauguration was a problem for Lincoln in 1861 and Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. After the problems caused by Herbert Hoover, the inauguration was moved to January, narrowing the transition to only two months. Trump openly undermined traditional and legal requirements of this transition period while stoking attacks on the legitimacy of the election itself. This culminated in a violent attack on the Capitol on January 6, a second impeachment, and an investigation by the House of Representatives that will likely result in criminal charges against those around the president.

Unfortunately, the failed coup on January 6 has continued as state legislatures have been changing election laws to put in place officials and procedures to undermine political neutrality. As the indictment and trial of a former president becomes increasingly likely as the result of multiple investigations, forces of violence on the far right are becoming increasingly threatening.

Thank You Great Britain

As the Biden administration is grappling with a rising tide of violent threats to democracy and fair elections, Great Britain has demonstrated once again the lesson that George Washington learned and made an essential part of the American heritage. A new prime minister took office in an orderly transition. Within 48 hours Elizabeth II died and set off a second level of transition remarkable for celebrating the life of a queen and launching her successor in rituals that bind the nation together.

The principles and example of stable elections and transitions were exemplified in the Glorious Revolution after a long period of religiously motivated upheaval. The United States followed that example except for the period following the election of 1860 and the two elections involving Donald Trump.

How can the United States return to the example of Great Britain? Abraham Lincoln’s example has often been appealed to during the Trumpian crises, especially as Republicans try to revive the principles and example of the founder of their party. In my view, Washington is the more significant example for Americans. He has not been claimed as the founder of any of our parties because he was a man above parties, drawing on advice from all factions in national leadership. American presidents have considered Washington to be the model of everything an American president should be, until the counter example of Donald Trump.

All Americans can be united in admiring the principles and example of George Washington. We can all be Washingtonians—united in demanding  all our leaders make Washington the model for their performance in office. Respect for elections and transitions free of political or religious interference is an essential requirement for Washingtonians.

 

 Edward G. Simmons is a Vanderbilt Ph.D. who teaches history at Georgia Gwinnett College. He is a Bible scholar, Unitarian Christian, and veteran Sunday School teacher in Presbyterian Churches. He is the author of Talking Back to the Bible and two chapters in The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Christian Evangelicals on Justice, Truth, and Moral Integrity edited by Ronald J. Sider. His latest book is Values, Truth, and Spiritual Danger: Progressive Christianity in the Age of Trump. Dr. Simmons is an energetic speaker for education, religious, and civic groups of all ages. He may be contacted at the following email address: egsimmons6@gmail.com.

 

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