A few July 4th thoughts on the founding of this country and the danger in deifying the individuals behind it and recasting the revolution as a religious crusade.
Read another comment this morning alluding to the “divine” origins of this nation. There’s always been a politician or theologian or two or twenty trying to raise the people who founded this country up as divinely-inspired saints. They twist the revolution into a kind of moral crusade rather than the gritty, long war of survival, self-determination and anti-colonialism that it was.
Lately, there’s been a much more organized effort to bestow a kind of divinity to the Founders. It’s being pounded into the national psyche to rack up cheap political points as it pleases both the Tea Partiers and those in religious right. No doubt, we’ll see a further canonization of the Founders as we press on into the presidential campaign.
Unfortunately, like a lot of the historical inaccuracies that get spouted these days, the idea that this is a divinely inspired nation — and thus holy or chosen — is not being questioned nearly enough. There’s a tendency for interviewers to not drill into the way viewing this country as a Christian nation and believing that domestic public policy and foreign policy ought to hew to “god’s will” shapes a candidate’s thinking. This is a mistake and it’s dangerous. The history of the planet is full of lessons on what happens when the rhetoric of religious nationalism is allowed to flourish unchecked.
We’re willing to look at all kinds of things that have influenced a politician’s world view — what books they read, movies they watch, what they studied and so on — but those professing godly guidance in their public life as well as their private one too often get a pass. Rather than a question about boxers or briefs or Coke or Pepsi, it would be refreshing to hear a moderator ask “Do you believe god sends a nation a message through natural disasters?” and the follow-up “How would that affect your relief and recovery efforts.” And, yes, it is perfectly responsible to ask someone who states a belief in the literal translation of the Bible, whether they believe the Earth was created in six actual days and what they think about the eventual world-destroying battle between Good and Evil know in the literature as Armageddon.
In what respect, Charlie?
So it’s worrisome to see the Founders portrayed more and more as mythological caricatures and less and less as people. Revolutions do that naturally, especially if the new country prospers.
The Founders now are portrayed as icons of piety; steady, resolute men sure of their mission. At the time, it wasn’t such a safe bet. When independence was declared in this country driving it was the weight of the crown’s oppression and the opportunity that being free of it presented. There’s plenty of historical evidence that many of the people involved in the rebellion drew strength from their faith and many were indeed motivated by their ideals, but the revolution was about a much more immediate destiny.
The quest for religious freedom did mark the early history of European settlement of North America, but that doesn’t mean every small and big p pilgrim was making the trip to join a crusade; nor is there much evidence that many of them envisioned a new country. Your standard fourth grade history text may have the landing at Plymouth Rock (December, 1620) a page or two away from the Shot Heard Round the World (April, 1775), but a lot happened between the two events, including a century of rapid migration mainly driven by commerce, especially Europe’s growing addiction to tobacco and fondness for New World cotton.
The war itself was hardly a religious exercise — a dirty, bloody conflict of attrition rife with political meddling, shifting loyalties and desperate moments. Contrary to the resurgent contention that it was the godly-inspired work of state militias, it dragged on for years thanks to a small, dedicated army led by pioneers of guerrilla warfare. Events in Europe helped the cause tremendously and the end game would not have been possible without the participation of a large contingent of French soldiers and the arrival of a formidable French fleet in Chesapeake Bay. Yet somehow, to mention these facts today seems unpatriotic or at the very least uncharitable to the saints of the revolution.
Even more annoying to those touting the divinity of the revolt must be the record afterward. The Declaration of Independence, now thought of as a sacred text in some circles, included the oft-quoted reference to the creator, but the document produced and ratified at the war’s end included explicit language preventing the establishment of a state religion.
In case there’s any doubt about the Founders’ concept of the country’s origins, you only have to look a few years ahead to the Treaty of Tripoli (1797), proposed by the administration of John Adams and ratified by a Senate full of founder types.
The first line of Article 11 of the treaty begins:
As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion . . .
Following events today in Tripoli and the revolutionaries who now seem poised to take that far away capital, you often see references to the long ago revolutionaries of this country. “America also was started by a ragtag group of Freedom Fighters,” read a recent comment from the front lines.
There’s a similarity to the two wars — an uprising that crossed the line into open revolt after a brutal, violent suppression; an army that would have been destroyed in its infancy were it not for popular support and the aid of foreign powers; an opposition made up of individuals of various loyalties united in revolt, but maybe not much else; and a people just beginning to come to terms with what victory might mean and where to go from there.
May this country and the one that emerges in Libya proceed in their respective journeys with the wisdom to remain humble about their origins, to honor the sacrifice of those who fought for freedoms not by making them larger than life, but by remembering their true nature. For it is the fact that those we now honor were ordinary human beings who made extraordinary sacrifices on behalf of their fellow citizens that is so worthy of our reflection and respect.
Give all the thanks and glory to the almighty you want. But the country is of, by and for its people.
If we can keep it.