Conserving a non-existent past, revering radicalism’s forgotten

Recently I watched this Christian duet’s paean’s ode to Rick Santorum and was struck by the references to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I am aware that Christian conservatives have a “Constitutionalist” focus, and often suggest that the Founding Fathers were “Bible believing Christians.” In regards to the latter the historical record speaks rather easily on this issue because many of the founders were men of letters, and have left their opinions. Aside from a few exceptions such as Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen most would have accepted the appellation Christian, but then again most Mormons also assert that they are Christians. Unitarian Christians such as John Adams explicitly rejected Trinitarian Christianity.

In other words, by and large a substantial proportion were heretics from a modern conservative Christian perspective. Others, such as Thomas Jefferson exhibited skepticism of revealed religion more generally over most of his adult life; even producing a bowdlerized Bible. Again, as noted above aside from Paine and Allen most of the founding generation of American statesmen would not be confused with militant secularists. Their cultural presuppositions and contexts were radically different. But they were a generation which matured during an era where educated elites tended to view belief in institutional supernatural religion with more indulgence than sincere ardor.

But it is issue of cultural presuppositions that I want to get back to, as this is actually the largest rupture with the conservative Christian patriotic paradigm which strikes me. The American republic organized as a federal entity was a radical break with thousands of years of human history, explicitly separating the sacral and the profane. The radicalism of the American republic existed int the political dimension, certainly. Many thinkers were skeptical that republican forms of governance scaled upward in size. The failure of ancient Rome being the classical example known to all educated men of the era. But another issue from a mainstream perspective was the tearing away of the divine sanction which a political order must receive. The decoupling of faith and state was a great innovation (only a few American states had done so at the time!). We know now that the rise of the state and civilized political order was accompanied by the liberal mixing of religion and politics. Many of the early states which were vehicles for antique civilizations were famously more religious than political in character. But the American republic took the process of secularization farther than had been conceivable. I can grant the proposition that even the Deist founders might be curious and confused as to the details and passions of church-state separation policy in today’s America. But I do not think that that negates the radicalism of their secularism in their age.

All this goes to show that modern political movements draw inspiration from the past, but they refashion the past to suite current propositions. I have had friends of Left-liberal persuasion who have suggested that the founders were pioneers in multiculturalism! Again, I doubt that the founders would even recognize terms of the debate. As a factual matter both the Right and the Left draft the past to suit present ends. This is not wholly without merit or utility. We see the past darkly, collectively and personally. So long as we can separate the past as a positive and empirical matter, and a romantic, almost mytho-poetic one, cold truth and nurturing falsity can coexist usefully. For much of the population the lived reality is that positive matters of truth are of little concern. They are consumers of fiction and the novel, not connoisseurs of monographs. The key is to keep a balance between the reality that was, and the myths we cherish going forward.

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