In the United States, we love our sports. There’s something both weird and fascinating about it. I’ve never been what you would call a diehard fan (although the 10 years I lived in the Midwest was enough to turn my loyalties to the Kansas City Royals).
Think about how it works: Come game time, we don shirts, hats, necklaces, makeup and whatever else we can find with the colors and logos of the team. We cheer wildly for the team’s successes. We clap and shout encouraging words when the team is losing. We come to the team’s defense when there’s a bad call or misconduct by their opponent. We get to know the players and chant their nicknames. In a sense, we think and act almost as if we’re a part of the team, an extension of what’s going on on the field or court. We do everything we can to be a part of the team from where we are.
Unfortunately, this too often happens only in sports. In most other areas of life, including our civic life, we seem not to fancy the idea of playing together, and seem increasingly willing to break up the whole team for the sake of our own anger or desire to be independent.
All institutions begin as some sort of movement or local effort. People believe in something or see a need and organize to make it happen. There is a common goal and mutual understanding. Often, in the terminology of 20th-century sociologist Herbert Blumer, there is then formalization and institutionalization. Movements become institutions in order to improve efficiency, secure funding, centralize leadership, etc.
However, over time, if people do not remain as active participants, or if later generations are not educated about the essence and purpose, they eventually disassociate themselves from the institution of which they were once a collaborative part. That which was once the work of the people becomes seen as a separate entity apart from the people, and sometimes even the bane of the people.
It’s also how a pledge of “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” and a Constitution for a new government, eventually became the wave of “don’t tread on me” hyper-individualism that we see today.
There is a lot of fear and anger, as well as dissatisfaction with the status quo. A lot about it is justified or understandable. But I fear it’s causing us to shoot ourselves in the foot.
There is no dismissing the unrest. There are real concerns. Costs continue to rise while wages stagnate. Jobs are shipped overseas. Terrorism seems to be extending its reach. Money has corrupted politics and left the working class with little power. Political philosopher Michael Sandel put it this way: “A large constituency of working-class voters feel that not only has the economy left them behind, but so has the culture, that the sources of their dignity, the dignity of labor, have been eroded and mocked.”
As if all of that were not enough to destabilize things, we’re also seeing new levels of racial tension and xenophobia. We are also more ideologically polarized than at any time within the last century, as quantified by Pew Research.
The problems are real. The concerns are legitimate. But unfortunately, for years now, we’ve been subjected to incessant rhetoric telling us that government itself is the problem, and that if we could only marginalize the institution, or free ourselves from it, we would attain what we’re looking for. But I fear that would be not much different from the farmer in Aesop’s fable who killed the goose to get to the rest of the eggs.
Journalist Fareed Zakaria once bemoaned that “instead of a serious plan to create jobs and industries for the future, we’re having a sterile ideological debate about government itself. It doesn’t have to be this way.”
The very structures under which we live were formed to “establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” That, from the preamble of the Constitution, was our original vision. That’s the essence of our democracy. Some of it has become broken or corrupt, yes, but we will not be able to return to the essence or accomplish reform by disengaging or breaking it up with no vision for who we want to be.
I fear that as we focus almost exclusively on the presidential race, we will do so to the neglect of many other local, state and federal races. In recent years, dozens of candidates without a vision for serving all people have ridden the wave of anti-government sentiment. They were elected to positions of governance but came in with only a determination to wage ideological warfare.
It’s time to become diehard fans again, and insist that our elected officials do the same. Even when our team is not doing well, it’s still our team.
A sports match lasts a few hours in an artificial environment. If we can participate in that as if we’re actually on the team, together with people of all races and religions, how much more must we find a way to cooperate and work with our fellow citizens in a real life effort that can sometimes mean life or death?
It’s time for us to get in the game. Now more than ever, we must be civically engaged and tenaciously knowledgeable citizens. We must also reaffirm that the more diversity there is among the players, the better the result. It is a game for everyone, backed by a promise of certain inalienable rights and equal protection of the law that (theoretically) can’t be taken away by majority vote. It is a team on which we have pledged to defend each others’ life and liberty, religion and speech. We’ve never been able to fully work it out in practice, but the grand idea remains.
Baptists have a long history of affirming these principles. Once victims of religious persecution ourselves, it was precisely our faith in a non-coercive, freedom-giving God that made us demand a team on which anyone could play. Early Baptists knew that a system that allowed for special favors or religious prerequisites could backfire and dishonor the image of God present in every person. We are also cut from the cloth of a prophetic tradition that holds the powers that be accountable to their duty to serve and protect all people. Ours is a church tradition that believes, as Martin Luther King Jr. put it, that we are neither “the master [nor] the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.”
It’s going to require all of us. General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt said he believes that “ultimately there’s a sense of teamwork that’s very much a part of the American culture. There’s a sense of partnership that I think will ultimately play out.” I pray he’s right.
“Establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” all while “mutually [pledging] to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
Come on, people. We can do this.