James Monroe, the fifth President of the United States, governed during what is now known as “the era of good feelings.” As an anti-Federalist, nationalist, and “pre-partisanship” president, following the negotiation of the Missouri Compromise, President Monroe outlined his ambiguous and long lasting Monroe Doctrine. This long lasting executive action disallowing foreign entities to further colonize Latin America promulgated imperialistic policies mirroring those of our parent culture—the UK, whose empire rivaled that of Alexander the Great and Caesar. Lasting through numerous presidential administrations, like that of Teddy Roosevelt’s, the United States became a prime player in global politics. However, in 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry officially declared “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.” A year later President Obama officially ended the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while, ironically, launching a full scale attack against the Islamic State. So, what makes this era different than ours? And what made this time feel good?
The answer to the first question is simple: It isn’t. “History repeats itself.” If we aren’t directly committing the same actions of our predecessors we are most likely participating in the same actions engendering those actions.
The second question is a little complicated. We are emotional creatures. We make day-to-day decisions based on how we feel.
“Many people would suggest…Listen to your gut, or your heart, or some other part of your body…For the advice-giver, ‘Just do what feels right!’ is safe guidance to offer, since if you nudged the decision-maker toward a huge mistake, at least they’d feel good making it.”
However, according to “professor of public policy” Jennifer Lerner, it would more conducive to our daily lives to abstain from extensive emotional reasoning by measuring the pros and cons. Nevertheless, regardless of checks and balances or political pumping of the brakes, an emotional response sometimes supersedes the most logical of choices. This does not negate the importance of our visceral reactions. “[A]nger…provides the motivation to respond to injustice…and anticipation of regret provides a reason to avoid excessive risk-taking.” However a purely cerebral reaction can be regressive.
“A few years ago, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio made a groundbreaking discovery. He studied people with damage in the part of the brain where emotions are generated. He found that they seemed normal, except that they were not able to feel emotions. But they all had something peculiar in common: they couldn’t make decisions.”
From 1970 to 2013 the number of papers relative to “emotions/affect/mood and decision making” has increased from zero to roughly four-hundred fifty. Rather than shunning emotion, society has sought to investigate the mysteries of “the gut.” “David Hume…argued…’Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.’ ”
Furthermore emotion goes beyond the daily habits and rituals of external life. Faith is, for many cultures and peoples, the apogee of emotion. However many confuse emotion with spirituality. As a Christian, Scripture warns believers to “test the spirits” (1 Jn. 4:1) and refrain from false prophets who will pander “to suit their own passions” (2 Tim. 4:3). Many times these false prophets arise from within. Concerning the heart: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). The Great Awakening, which—according to some scholars—cultivated the revolutionary spirit in the thirteen American colonies, exhorted individuals to “examine” their faith (2 Cor. 13:5).
The Enlightenment spurned intellectuals to resist the tyrannical, over-reaching government (e.g. religion). These seemingly idolatrous intellectual pursuits affected the founding fathers deeply. Their emotional desire for a secular, reasonable society seeped onto a document—the Constitution—that would inspire future revolutions. This beautiful tango between logic and emotion formed one of the greatest, longest lasting democratic-republican experiments in human history.
Nevertheless, whether it is emotion versus reason or Enlightenment versus Awakening, the doctrine (i.e. teaching) of control is an innate human characteristic. We wish to control others yet are unwilling to control ourselves. And whenever we control ourselves, many times we find ourselves unhappy. We are slaves to our passions (Titus 3:3). Neville Chamberlain declared “Peace for our time” after a peaceful negotiation with German Chancellor Adolf Hitler. Hitler then proceeded to invade the Rhineland and cleanse Europe of Jews and various ethnic groups to create a pure Aryan race. The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14, 8:11).
“The era of good feelings” preceded the “Second Great Awakening.” Some would say those feelings of mutual amicability birthed the “Second Great Awakening”; however, on the contrary, the era of good feelings was unable to produce genuine spiritual, radical transformation regardless of national cohesion and “pre-partisanship.” After all, this era was succeeded by Andrew Jackson.
Overall “the era of good feelings” was a vapor. The Monroe Doctrine instituted American imperialism, which continues today, causing only war and no peace. Pre-partisanship and nationalist agendas inspired people across the country but faded soon thereafter. Emotion without reason is dangerous. However reason without emotion is inhuman. Let us be wary of declaring peace. For the proud will be humbled (Lk. 18:14).