America is wallowing in political silly season. Putin's war in Ukraine should sober us up.
Now that the liberal order around the world is being tested, perhaps it will sober up our politics in the United States.
Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine came as a shock to Americans, most of whom have never lived in a world where one European nation invades another.
But for students of history, it is actually the fragile peace, secured by NATO and the liberal world order, that is the historical anomaly. Democracy in so many nations, peace among neighbors and the free flow of goods and supplies across borders stand in stark contrast to human history, one marked by empire and conquest and war.
Faithful Christians should understand the reality and gravity of the moment. We get the reality because our theology teaches the human heart is not always bent toward peace, but that left to our own devices, given the resources to enact our will, we often strive toward violence.
Opinions in your inbox: Get a digest of our takes on current events every day
A clear-eyed recognition of human depravity was a motiving factor guiding the American Founders, who sought to separate humans from total power, creating our flawed but genius system of government.
James Madison, in Federalist 55, said, “depravity in mankind ... requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust” and in Federalist 51, “But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
Ukraine war diary:'If we lose Kyiv, we lose everything. We will lose the nation.'
Thomas Jefferson, in the Kentucky Resolution of 1798, declared, “In questions of power, then, let no more be said of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”
The experiment in human government created by the Founders and the democracies that have largely become the norm in the West are privileges we’ve taken for granted. Which is why our politics are often so juvenile, our debates so petty.
This is writer Jonah Goldberg’s thesis: “Capitalism is unnatural. Democracy is unnatural. Humans rights are unnatural . . . If you have a little gratitude for the good we have and the opportunity we have, then it opens your heart to empathy for people who disagree.”
World order is under stress
But now that the liberal order around the world is being tested, perhaps it will sober up our politics. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, evil and capricious as it is, offers us a hard slap in the face, a wake up call to the reality of evil in the world and our responsibility to work to sustain freedom, strengthen it and defend it where it is challenged.
This means America needs to turn away from the silly politics of the last few years, where identity politics, tribalism and self-actualization have rewarded us with leaders who seem unprepared for the moment.
More:Texas' transgender order isn't a political 'winner.' It’s cruelty writ large.
With Vladimir Putin stealing the wrong page from history and nourishing dreams of conquest, with China enslaving entire populations and spreading its influence around the world, with a nuclear Iran threatening its neighbors, this is not a time for sophomoric politicians, but for leaders who see the world as it is and are able to both unify and appeal to people’s highest ideals rather than pander to their basest instincts.
This is much more difficult in our time, in a social media age where algorithms reward the ridiculous. But it’s not impossible.
Zelenskyy demonstrates courage and calm
We only have to look across the ocean to see a leader worth emulating. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a former actor and comedian who nevertheless understands the importance of projecting courage, calm and bravery in rallying his people.
His famous rebuff to the U.S., when rejecting the opportunity to escape Ukraine, has become a rallying cry for his people: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
Vaccinated, boosted, tested, spied on:At Yale, I'm done with endless COVID restrictions
It’s a stark contrast to the brutal strongman ethic of Vladmir Putin, whose warped sense of history laments the collapse of the Soviet Union. Zelensky is a champion for freedom; Putin fears it.
Let’s hope Zelenskyy-style courage — a throwback to men like Winston Churchill who rallied Britain during the German Blitz in 1940 — becomes the template for statesmanship in this era.
Let’s hope this moment represents the end of our silly season of unserious politics. These times demand more from us and more from our leaders.
Daniel Darling is director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a frequent contributor to USA TODAY and is the author of several books, including his latest, "A Way With Words."