The morning after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd, Jon Meacham weighed its significance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program. The network’s blurb on YouTube is as good a summary as any: “Historian Jon Meacham discusses the new movement for racial justice, and he discusses the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial and where it is likely to be placed in history. Aired on 04/21/2021.”
It was a remarkable bit of commentary for cable TV news, tying together the news of the day, the civil rights movement, the aspirations expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and the redemptive power of the Black church.
Author of a biography of civil rights icon John Lewis, Meacham made the point — which was startling to me, at least — that the U.S. Constitution is essentially a “Calvinist document.” Startling because I’ve always thought of the Founders as deists who wanted to keep religion a safe distance from the federal government. But Meacham makes a good case.
(Full disclosure: I started Meacham’s American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation several weeks ago, but I’m reading several other books at the same time and I haven’t gotten as far as the Constitution yet. It will probably turn out that if I’d read further, I wouldn’t be surprised.)
Meachman was on a Morning Joe panel with the Rev. Al Sharpton and other talking heads. His commentary was introduced by co-host Mika Brzezinski, who asked him what Rep. Lewis would have made of the verdict. He said (beginning about 1:30) that Lewis would have been encouraged by it:
We are closer to what he, Dr. King, James Lawson and others thought of as the beloved community, which is basically the kingdom of heaven coming to fruition and reality on earth, where we actually love our neighbors as ourselves, where, as hard as it is, we love our enemies, where as the prophet Amos says, justice comes down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. John Lewis believed that if enough of us had the correct and loving dispositions of heart and mind, that we could bring about that ideal in the temporal world.
Meacham, who is an Episcopalian and a product of the University of the South in Sewanee whose theological underpinnings are far from Calvinist, added he thinks the Constitution is Calvinist in its general orientation, even though the idea is “difficult to contemplate.” He didn’t call it by name, but he clearly had Calvin’s doctrine of the innate depravity of humankind in mind:
The Constitution of the United States, for all its failings, was a Calvinist document, essentially, that assumed that we would do the wrong thing most of the time. It’s a Calvinistically informed document. […] If we had total power, if any element of the republic had total power, we were most likely to abuse it. And as Winston Churchill said, you can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after we had exhausted every other possibility. We’ve always proven that insight right. What John Lewis believed, and Rev. Sharpton knows this better than I do, was that patient, brave, nonviolent witness was the best means to redemption.
Naming Rosa Parks, Hosea Williams and “an innumerable host of others whose names we don’t know” in the civil rights movement, Meacham suggested that today’s racial justice advocates:
[…] nonviolently and peacefully as sentinels and lanterns for the country for other people, to actually do what we said we wanted to do, and be what we say we want to be. And that’s closing the gap between the profession, the principles of what we say in the Declaration of Independence, that we’re all created equal, and the practice of American life for 400 years, which has been to not necessarily close that gap but to widen it at times.
“Derek Chauvin Trial: Chauvin Found Guilty of Murdering George Floyd,” New York Times, April 21, 2021 https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/04/20/us/derek-chauvin-verdict-george-floyd.
Jon Meacham, “The Test Ahead Of Us Now Is When Real Legislative Reform Happens,” interview by Mika Brzezinski, Morning Joe, MSNBC, April 21, 2021 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHnaxA1YZko. [Transcription is mine.]