Democracies, Republics, and Human Dignity

One of the most concerning failures of our generation is that our children, and even many of our politicians, do not know the difference between a democracy and a republic. As a college-level ethics instructor, I always ask, “What form of government do we have in America?” I am lucky if three out of a hundred high school graduates can correctly answer with “republic” or “constitutional republic.” The overwhelming majority will say America is a democracy. How do they not know? And what is the difference between a republic and a democracy, anyway?

After searching for the definitions of democracy and republic, students inevitably reply that America seems to be both a democracy and a republic. After all, according to the readily-available definitions on social media, a democracy is a representative government elected by the people. Likewise, a republic is also a representative government elected by the people. To add to their confusion, I play clips of both Democratic and Republican presidents and presidential candidates repeatedly claiming America is a democracy.

But they become dumbfounded when I show them the following quotes from our founding fathers:

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John Adams, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, warns, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy that did not commit suicide.”

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Alexander Hamilton, a member of the Continental Congress, the first secretary of the Treasury, and co-author of the Federalist Papers, says, “The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.” Hamilton also plainly clarifies: “We are a Republican Government. Real liberty is never found in despotism or in the extremes of Democracy.”

I continue with our fourth President and the “Father of our Constitution,” James Madison, who writes: “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they are violent in their deaths.”

Why would our founding fathers speak so damningly about a democratic form of government?

Perhaps it is because a republic and a democracy are identical in every way except one: the source of human dignity.

In a republic, the sovereignty of the people is in each individual person; in a democracy, the sovereignty is in the group. In a republic, each person’s dignity is derived from an absolute, unchanging source. In a democracy, dignity is derived from the will of the majority. Every person in a republic is guaranteed dignity. This is not so in a democracy.

The morals of a democracy are easily changed. They are based upon shifting opinions which are often driven by propaganda. This is why what is “right” today may be “evil” tomorrow and vice versa. The morals of a democracy are relative to whoever is in charge. Case in point, just look at the recent propaganda and subsequent policy shifts surrounding the First and Second Amendments. In a democracy, your dignity depends upon someone else.

In stark contrast, the morals of our Constitutional republic are absolute and unchanging. They are “self-evident truths” which are based on the Natural Laws written on the heart of all mankind. In our Constitutional republic, each individual has dignity because we are created in the image of God. Our founders clearly articulated this in the Declaration of Independence: “. . . that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

We must heed the warnings of our founding fathers before we are forced to surrender our dignity to the unstable will of mankind. We must teach our children who we are.

To quote John Adams again, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Even in this dark hour of America, there is still hope, for the very Creator that gives us our unalienable rights says, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (2 Chr. 7:14 New International Version)

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