America’s National Origin Myth

September 10, 2019 Category: American Culture

Footnotes:

{1 This requires distinguishing between a second-order belief (BELIEVING IN believing X) and a first-order belief (actually believing X).  Second-order beliefs (esp. with respect to deities) are often misconstrued as first-order beliefs.  To wit: Most people who profess to be theists are, in reality, pseudo-theists; even though they (generally) do not intend to be disingenuous.  It’s not that they LITERALLY believe that the Abrahamic deity exists as delineated in scripture; they BELIEVE IN the belief that the Abrahamic deity exists as such; and so proceed accordingly.  We know this is the case because the reasons they give for their (second-order) belief are based almost entirely on pragmatism (e.g. “Believing it gives my life meaning, etc.”)  Likewise, believing in the Judeo-Christian origins of the U.S. serves a certain (ideological) purpose.  The key is that second-order belief is a PROFESSION OF belief.  In that vain, it is used to signal fealty to a certain ideology (and/or loyalty to a tribe).  First-order belief is revealed more in actions than in words.  In terms of profession, there are no atheists in foxholes.  In terms of taking action, there are no theists in foxholes.}

{2 We might even take this further: What founding principle was only ground-ABLE on the Abrahamic creed?  That is: Which tenet (integral to the Framers’ vision) depended for its very cogency on there having been such a creed?  The answer is, of course, none.  This fact belies any claim that democratic principles are somehow predicated on a Judeo-Christian legacy; or that such principles would be inaccessible BUT FOR proponents having espoused certain religious dogmas.  It is no thanks to either Judaism or Christianity that we have an objective basis for deeming that deception, betrayal, theft, and murder are iniquitous. {3}  We might inquire further: What ELSE are we to suppose we would have no solid grounds for (had Judaism / Christianity never existed)?  Civil rights?  Freedom of conscience?  Freedom of speech?  No such things are upheld in Abrahamic lore.  (Meanwhile, patriarchy, the stoning of insolent children, genocide, and slavery ARE upheld.  Gadzooks!)  Even when Abrahamic doctrine gets some elementary points correct, it is superfluous; and thus un-necessary.  The suggestion that our moral intuitions would be unable to inform us that lying, cheating, stealing, and killing are wrong but for the existence of Mosaic law is nothing short of preposterous.}

{3 The best explication of an objective basis for morality (which does not depend on institutionalized dogmatism) is Immanuel Kant’s “Groundwork For The Metaphysic of Morals”.  Also see Kai Nielsen’s “Ethics Without God”.}

{4 The use of “Creator” as a rhetorical flourish was quite commonplace thereafter.  In the first five editions of his “On The Origin Of Species”, Charles Darwin offered a peroration to natural selection in his closing remarks: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been–and are being–evolved.”  Then, 23 years after the famous work was first published (i.e. the year the author died), Darwin’s estate opted to insert “by the Creator” after “breathed” (in the 6th edition; 1882).  Why was this done?  It was a gesture to placate religionists who had been vexed by the publication.  So now we might inquire: By inserting the loaded term “Creator” into the passage at the end of the book, did the editors change Darwin’s theory?  Of course not.  Clearly, the locution was used idiomatically.  The amended phrasing was a transparent effort to mitigate the acrimony the theory of evolution had stirred amongst Reactionaries.  In other words: It was a sop to those who assailed Darwin for sacrilege.  Saying “breathed by the Creator” was no more tantamount to putting the Abrahamic deity at the center of the theory than was Einstein’s quip, “God doesn’t play dice” was tantamount to putting the deity at the center of the theory of relativity.  To insist that the use of the phrase “endowed by our Creator” in Jefferson’s letter to King George III (the “Declaration of Independence”) rendered the exalted document god-centric is analogous to contending Darwin endorsed “intelligent design” because he used the words “breathed by the Creator” in his magnum opus.}

{5 Note that the Enlightenment sense of “happiness” (used by the likes of Jefferson, and later by John Stuart Mill) involved what the Greeks dubbed “eudaemonia”.  This conception of “happiness” did not pertain to cheap satisfaction or to idle pleasure; it pertained to the fulfillment derived from a cultivation of virtue.  This does NOT correspond to what was dubbed “simcha” in the Hebrew Bible: the gratification one derives from living in accordance with god’s will.  Hence “simcha” is more consonant with Calvinism than with Mill’s Utilitarianism; as it is a function of piety more than of probity.  This disparity (viz. happiness) illustrates how ideations in Abrahamic lore do not always correspond to those with which we are now familiar…EVEN WHEN TRANSLATED INTO THE SAME WORD.}

{6 This was in a letter to the United Baptist Chamber of Virginia; May, 1789.}

{7 In the 19th century, American icon, Sarah Josepha Hale averred that “the spirit which seeks to do good to all and evil to none is the only true Christian philanthropy.”  She was clearly not invoking institutionalized dogmatism to convey this message.  The key to understanding idiomatic expression of a bygone era is recognizing how they were used in everyday speech by the communities that ACTUALLY USED them…AT THAT TIME.  Today, it is plain to see that proclaiming one “swears to god” is merely a rhetorical flourish, not the invocation of a higher power.  Asking “What in heaven’s name is going on here?” is the same as simply asking: “What is going on here?”  And if I ask you, “What in god’s name are you doing?”, I have not made an inquiry into your doctrinal fidelity…let alone proclaimed my own.  This is made clear by the fact that I could just as well ask you: “What the hell are you doing?”  When it comes to demotic language, we must always be careful not to read too much into the locutions that have been employed.}

{8 Hamilton considered himself an informal member of the Anglican (i.e. Episcopal) church–hardly the archetype for contemporary American Christianity.  Are we to suppose that it is a predominantly Anglican heritage to which Christian ideologues now refer?  This would seem odd considering the absence of references to the Archbishop of Canterbury in the ramblings of American Dominionists (and other millenarian re-constructionists).  There is no indication AT ALL that Hamilton grounded any part of his political philosophy on religious dogmas.  Not once did he invoke church doctrine in making the case for his ideas.}

{9 Jefferson–an alumnus of William & Mary–founded what was the modern world’s first categorically secular university: the University of Virginia.  He wanted to ensure that there existed public education that was unhindered by clerical oversight, and unburdened by religious dogmatism.}

{10 As with Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson championed individual (Kantian) autonomy, exalting our capacity for critical thinking above all else.  (See footnote 3 above.)  This entailed constantly questioning “received wisdom” (esp. religious dogmas, sanctified or not).  Jefferson saw this charge as critical to responsible citizenship.  While in Paris (the summer of 1787), in a letter to his friend, Peter Carr, Jefferson counseled: “Fix Reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion.  Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”  He even employed the idiom of the time, exhorting: “your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven.”  This was the Enlightenment spirit endemic to Deism.}

{11 Which creed one opts to follow is a personal affair, and does not fall within the purview of the State.  This view remained throughout the 19th century.  (See footnote 4 above.)  In his “On Liberty”, John Stuart Mill noted: “The great writers to whom the world owes what religious liberty it possesses have mostly asserted freedom of conscience as an indefeasible right, and denied absolutely that a human being is accountable to others for his religious belief.”  If one would have gone to London in 1859 and asked John Stuart Mill how much he had based the insights articulated in his landmark work, “On Liberty” on Judeo-Christian doctrine, he would have surely responded, without hesitation: “Not at all.”  Two years later, when he published “Considerations On Representative Government”, had he been asked the question, he surely would have given the same response.}

{12 In the “Northwest Ordinance” of 1789 (which served as a template for the charter of some of the new states), the author opines that “religion, morality, and knowledge” are key elements of good governance and human happiness; and so are things that should be encouraged.  George Washington signed this ordinance.  This is unsurprising, as Washington himself sometimes used the locution “religion and morality”–holding that it was something germane to good citizenship.  John Adams once said that “the principles upon which freedom can securely stand” are established by “religion and morality”.  This locution was en vogue at the time.  It was simply a reference to good character; which is to say that it had nothing to do with lore that was explicitly Christian.  Nor was it a veiled attempt at proselytization.  And it was certainly not a prescription for theocratic governance.  Touting “religion and morality” was not a clarion call for dogmatism; it was simply a way of lauding those who upheld traditional virtues (like, say, honesty and charity) and eschewed vice (like, say, deception and avarice).  By using such phrasing, these men were not calling for fealty to a specific doctrine.  Adams was especially fond of the “religion and morality” locution–a coupling that surely seemed as natural as peanut-butter and jelly.   He once averred: “We have no government armed with the power which is capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion.  Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”  In other words, the democracy would only work well assuming a morally upright citizenry.  Clearly, this was not implying that the only way to be moral was to be religious; or that religiosity qua doctrinal fealty was the key factor.  (As we well know, being doctrinaire is hardly a prerequisite for civic-mindedness.)  What Adams may have added was that those who most flaunt their piety are often the most reprobate members of society.  Over the ages, civic virtue has been conceptualized in various ways.  Adams’ observation–articulated in the idiom of a bygone era–is a far cry from the Christian Dominionists of today, who use religion as a carious surrogate for morality; or–at best–as a putrescent moral prosthetic.  Adams clearly had in mind the “traditional” values that are associated–to the present day–with probity.}

{13 A popular gambit is to embark on a cherry-picking expedition–in which one harvests every parcel of text that happens to make use of these religiously-tinged buzz-terms.  Christian Revisionists then present such extracts as evidence that the Founders were pushing a Christianized vision for the new Republic; thereby justifying a quasi-theocratic agenda in the present.  This would be like extracting every instance in which “Marx” was mentioned in the ramblings of Kim Il-Sung to show that Juche is somehow based on Karl Marx’s ACTUAL ideals.  I discuss Marx in Appendix 4 of my essay on “The Universality Of Morality.}

{14  What happened in that pivotal confrontation?  Pursuant to the siege of Yorktown, British General Charles O’Hara surrendered to French Naval Marshal Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur (the Count of Rochambeau) on behalf of British Major General Charles Cornwallis (possibly with American General Benjamin Lincoln present).  Technically, fighting continued for a 2-3 more weeks, but the outcome of the war was–by then–a foregone conclusion.  Ultimately, Cornwallis personally surrendered (on October 19, 1781) jointly to French Admiral Jacques-Melchior Saint-Laurent (the Count of Barras), French General Gilbert du Motier (the Marquis of Lafayette), and American Major General George Washington (American Commander in Chief on who’s behalf the French Generals conducted themselves) at Yorktown.  Washington had to be there, above all, for symbolic reasons.  This episode made the conclusion official.  King George III of England eventually signed the “Definitive Treaty of Peace” in Paris, France, with a delegation of French and U.S. leaders, almost two years later–on September 3, 1783.  That marked the official day of U.S. independence.  If not for the French navy (lead by Louis-Marie of Noailles, in the aforesaid engagement) neutralizing the British army at Yorktown (effectively blockading the Chesapeake Bay), there is no way the American colonies could have triumphed over the (far superior) British land forces.  Thanks, France.}

{15  Note that by the time the American colonies achieved independence, Spain (1542), Russia (1723), China (1725), and Portugal (1761) had already abolished slavery.  Scandinavia (1790-92), Canada (1793), and France (1794) would follow soon thereafter.  I explore how little religion had to do with the mitigation of slavery in my essay, “The Universality Of Morality”.}

 

POSTSCRIPT:

It is self-contradictory to posit a religiously-oriented democratic government.  There can no more be a Christian democracy than there could be a Judaic or Islamic democracy.  Alas.  In America, Christian Dominionists will persist with their specious asseverations until they realize that theocratic democracy is an oxymoron.  Such epiphany might begin with a better understanding of the founding documents of the United States.

When it comes to fetishized documents, flagrant mis-readings are de rigueur amongst ideologues.  Such disingenuousness is especially egregious for those who are married to the inerrancy of the document…yet find themselves committed to agendas that do not comport with what the text ACTUALLY SAYS.

Sometimes this is a matter of eliding objectionable statements–as Judeo-Christian apologists are obliged to do when instructed to take an eye for an eye in the Hebrew Bible.  They insist that this must REALLY mean: ensure the punishment is proportional to the crime (rather than what it obviously means: two wrongs make a right).

Other times, this is done to evade statements that they ardently wish did not exist–as when some Christians read the exhortation in the New Testament to “render unto Caesar what it Caesar’s, and render unto god what is god’s.”  Instead of recognizing the implicit endorsement for the separation of church and State, those with a theocratic bent opt to interpret this to mean, well, NOTHING.

Practitioners of eisegesis prefer that everyone read “between the lines” instead of simply read the ACTUAL LINES.  Sometimes this involves positing chimerical subtext…which, lo and behold, just so happens to stipulate precisely what one wishes.  Upon importing the desired meaning into a text, one can then pretend that it was there all along.  Sometimes this involves insisting that words mean something other than what they obviously mean.  Hermeneutic chicanery is routine for those who are forced to square their own ideals with a sacred text that is diametrically opposed to those ideals.

Right-wing ideologues in MOST contexts are able to promote their agendas by touting a revision of history that happens to serve their purposes.  Those who argue for tax-breaks for big corporations claim to be doing so in the spirit of the American Revolution.  Such people are stupendously confused.  The Boston Tea Party, after all, was a protest against corporate tax breaks. (!)  The British crown had instituted tax policy that favored the East India company over the smaller, local merchants–thus doing the bidding of oligarchs at the expense of the lower classes.  America was founded on a REBUKE of corporate power; yet the way those on the right wing tell it, one would think that the Republic was predicated on plutocracy rather than democracy.

Manufacturing a heritage has become somewhat of a cottage industry in certain communities.  The key is that the heritage is highly-varnished; and designed to suit the purposes of those doing the varnishing.  The theocratically-minded in America do this by propounding a chimerical Judeo-Christian legacy.  They can then justify their tenets by recourse to confabulated histories.

This is more a matter of self-ingratiation than of perspicacious deliberation.  For the revisionist, historical records are made to be broken.  It is easy for today’s ideologues to disregard what the Founders ACTUALLY said in favor what what they WANT them to have said.  While Neocons disregard George Washington’s warning’s about “foreign entanglements”, right-wing libertarians disregard the Preamble to the Constitution, which explicitly states that the federal government was instituted to provide for the general welfare.  Never mind Thomas Paine’s position that the State’s role is to facilitate the commonweal (via public education, public healthcare, social security, etc.)

By clinging in desperation to a confectionary heritage, Reactionaries revel in a farcical legacy that–they insist-must be upheld.  Little do they seem to realize that ideals are not static blueprints to follow; they are guides for evolution (to wit: an open-ended process).

One does not need to retain the dogmas of 1776 in order to uphold the spirit of 1776.  The dream of the American Republic is not about what we used to be; it’s about what we can become.

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