Great books tell stories. Here’s our pick of vivid and insightful new releases for better understanding America, world events, history, science, and theology
The Center for the American Experiment is my favorite think-tank name. I like it because America really has been an experiment: Could we become a melting pot, with many becoming one? Could we emphasize both liberty and virtue, or would we fall into lascivious license? Could we extend rights to different religions, groups of immigrants, ethnicities, and races, without forgetting the principles that formed our base?
The American Experiment has had a great run. For two centuries we proclaimed liberty throughout the land to more and more of the inhabitants thereof. But now that our leaders have decided that the American Experiment has no limits, its continued success seems unlikely. Liberty for all religious faiths, yes. Hospitality for immigrants, yes. Racial equality, yes. But virtually absolute freedom for baby killers, adulterers, thieves, and liars goes too far.
Now, it’s hard for Christians to have confidence in either political party. Republicans cannot be trusted to do the right thing. Democrats can be trusted almost always to do the wrong thing. We learn about the character of our leaders largely through television reportage, which means we don’t learn about it—or we see only what propagandists want us to see. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby nearly a century ago told us about the danger of trying to create our own reality, but the Supreme Court’s swing vote, Anthony Kennedy, has in essence declared our right to do just that.
Crazy though that is, it makes sense for a country that’s gone to the extreme in democracy by fantasy. America’s founders created a system where we would vote for people we knew. We’d vote for state representatives we knew who would select a senator they knew. We’d vote for members of an Electoral College we knew who would select a president they knew. We’d vote directly for members of the House of Representatives, but the districts would be small enough so we’d have some personal interaction with our reps, who would live among us most of the year and often serve only one term.
Now that our leaders have decided that the American Experiment has no limits, its continued success seems unlikely.
America’s founders hoped the president would function like a temporary monarch on a short leash, so he could not become a dictator. Senators would function as a meritocracy, short-leashed so they would not become feudal lords. The House would provide democratic representation, and other branches would keep it from becoming a mobocracy. If all governmental organs failed, a free press would tell the truth.
Sadly, the power of the presidency has grown decade by decade since the 1930s. Now a president who cares little for the rule of law can have outsized influence—if he is unscrupulous enough to press his advantage, and if influential press organs ignore their function. That’s the situation we’ve been in since 2009: Barack Obama may be no more willing to lie than Richard Nixon or other predecessors, but he’s generally been able to get away with it.
So the best name for a think tank now could be the Center for the Babylonian Experiment. In the last issue I wrote about Chapters 1-3 of Daniel, a book written by the Israelite taken from his homeland and educated in Babylonian culture, alongside other outstanding teenagers from all over the Middle East. Babylonia was an e pluribus unum experiment where dozens of ethnic groups could live as they saw fit and worship their own gods as long as their leaders bowed to a 90-foot-high golden idol representing kingly power.
Chapters 4-5 of Daniel show why the Babylonian Experiment failed. Kings with great power start thinking of themselves as gods, and Nebuchadnezzar was no exception: When he bragged about “the glory of my majesty,” the True King condemned him to seven years of insanity. When a later king, Belshazzar, mocked God and with his lords, wives, and concubines praised “gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone,” he died that very night. The conquering Persian army ended the Babylonian Experiment.
Once, American leaders were modest: Now, ours brag about dreams and drones. In response, some Christians are giving up, but Abraham Kuyper’s declaration is still true: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”