Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Tuesday, February 27, 2018


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith and Life for the Years of Winter…

As our granddaughter prepares to graduate from The James Madison College at Michigan State University, it is appropriate to give Madison his props. In popular history, when we think about the formation of American democracy and its Constitution, the prominent names are Washington and Jefferson and Franklin. They, however, were relatively unimportant. Washington was an aloof chair of the Continental Congress as it wrote the Constitution. Jefferson was in France. Franklin was old and irrelevant. It was James Madison who pushed the vision of equality—equality before the law and equality of opportunity.

People who are opposed to equality of opportunity, who want certain opportunities for themselves and not for others, say that opportunity equality is an illusion. Only the tall and fast can play in the NBA. Only the highly intelligent can be quantum physicians. Only the brave can be astronauts. Only the skinny can be supermodels. [1]

That, of course, is a red herring, a false comparison. The point of Madison’s American constitutional democracy is not sameness equality but opportunity equality—you cannot be barred from the NBA because you are white, from being a quantum physicist because you are a woman, from being an astronaut because your ancestors came to America from Ireland. If you have the quicks, the smarts, the guts, that’s all that matters, not your gender or race or religion or national origin.

Now, though, we have a de-facto inequality of opportunity because of the huge wealth gap.

The second equality Madison wrote into the Constitution is before the law. There are not separate laws for Christians and Jews, men and women, whites and blacks. That, of course, was not true for a long time. We had laws about who could marry whom according to race and gender, who could vote according to race and gender, who could live in particular communities or go to particular schools according to race and gender.

They were like the old-time sumptuary laws, in which only people of a certain class could wear a certain color or a particular style of clothing, so that everyone would know who was rich and who was poor, who was “nobility” and who was “common.”

We still have de-facto sumptuary laws because of wealth. You can’t buy a Tesla or a Mercedes if you are a school teacher. You can’t even play golf if you don’t have a hundred bucks [or a thousand] for the “greens fees.” But you can’t be barred from buying a BMW because you’re of Chinese descent, or because you’re a woman.

Equality before the law means the legal system is the same for everybody. There can’t be a law that forbids you to walk on the beach because you’re an accountant. Or makes you sit in the back of the bus because you’re black. There are not different laws--a different justice--for rich and poor, black and white, Christian and atheist. If it’s a crime, it’s a crime, regardless of who commits it.

At least that was the vision of James Madison.

Madison was smart enough to know that his Constitution was exactly that—a vision. It was not a reality, and would not be until people began to realize that equality was a good thing, for the powerful and the powerless alike.


1] What separates supermodels from regular models? Supermodels don’t fall off the runway.

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