Next week President Bush will raise his hand and receive the oath of office. He will promise to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Afterwards, as is the tradition, Mr. Bush will deliver an inaugural address.
Anticipating this event I have been reading some of the inaugural speeches of past presidents. One speech that caught my attention was Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural.
The election that brought Mr. Jefferson to office was hotly contested. In a race with Aaron Burr, the rhetoric had been brutal as both candidates tried to cast the other as unfit for office. At the end both Jefferson and Burr were tied with 73 electoral votes. The race was thrown into the House of Representatives and after 30 hours of debate, Jefferson emerged as president with Burr as vice president.
Mr. Jefferson understood that the presidency was his only by the narrowest of margins. He therefore used his inaugural speech to appeal for unity in the country. He called for citizens of the United States to “arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good.”
The idea of a “common good” is important and Mr. Jefferson understood it pretty well. He went on to say, “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”
Unlike the 2000 election, Mr. Bush now presides over a clear victory. However, he does not lead a united nation, not yet. We remain fiercely divided over a range of domestic and international issues—many of those divisions deepened by the campaign.
And while there may be majority and minority viewpoints on these issues, the majority cannot conduct themselves as if the minority was irrelevant. The old saying that “the majority rules,” does not apply in our political system.
In America, the majority may prevail, as Mr. Jefferson said, but the minority viewpoint remains a legitimate and necessary voice in our national life. Otherwise, as Jefferson pointed out, the minority is oppressed by the majority.
I am particularly concerned with how this will play in terms of interfaith relations in our country.
For instance, the Media and Society Research Group at Cornell University reports that according to a recent survey forty-four percent of Americans say that they believe the U.S. government should curtail civil liberties for Muslim Americans. Some suggestions include requiring Muslims to register with the federal government and allowing government agencies to closely monitor mosques.
Conservative Christians now occupy the White House, a majority in the House and Senate, and several governorships as well. Muslims remain a distinct minority both in public life and in public service. If we choose as a majority to suppress their rights, it will not take much effort to do so.
But in doing we will unleash the tyranny of the majority. And while we may be happy about whose in charge today, tomorrow may bring new majorities and new minorities. The only way to ensure the freedoms of anyone is to ensure the freedoms of everyone.
To do less will betray our heritage, but more than that, the tyranny of the majority will betray the goal of a common good. Without a commitment to ensure that our society benefits all citizens equally it will not be the majority that rules, but chaos instead.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.