At the National Prayer Breakfast this week, President Obama called for America to become more humble. He said:
“In a democracy as big and as diverse as ours, we will encounter every opinion. And our task as citizens—whether we are leaders in government or business or spreading the word—is to spend our days with open hearts and open minds; to seek out the truth that exists in an opposing view and to find the common ground that allows for us as a nation, as a people, to take real and meaningful action.”
He goes on to say that we need humility to do these things. He’s probably right, we need humility, but his admonition comes across as a little naive to this ancient historian.
First, I must point out that America is not actually a democracy. Perhaps we’re more democratic than we were a hundred years ago, but we’re still not actually a democracy. I know Obama wishes it were true; I mean, he is a democrat after all. But I don’t go around claiming that America is a monarchy just because, as a monarchist, I wish it were true (even though our presidency has become a little more monarchical over the last hundred years). Let’s try to be precise with our terms instead of loading our speeches with pious sounding words like “democracy.”
Second, I don’t understand why the president thinks that humility would even be compatible with democracy. The whole point of a democracy is that everyone feels entitled to a say in the affairs of the state. A sense of entitlement is antithetical to a spirit of humility. Democracy isn’t democracy if everyone is humble.
Everyone recognizes Athens as the world’s premier democracy. Most people forget, however, that the Athenians were also one of the most arrogant people to live on God’s green earth. The Athenians meddled in the affairs of their neighbors. They extorted money from their allies. They killed Socrates because he asked them uncomfortable questions. Thucydides, the Athenian who recorded the Peloponnesian War, shows throughout his history that the Athenian democracy was continually led astray by arrogance and greed.
Humility is a good thing. I know I could use a bit more. But we shouldn’t pretend that it’s possible to perfect our state through godly virtues. The Lord is in the business of perfecting his church. And it should go without saying, Christ’s church isn’t a democracy either.