“What the Founding Fathers actually meant was…”
“Well, if you really read into the Bible, you’ll see that Jesus meant…”
“We’re not meant to eat wheat. If you knew what our paleo ancestors used to eat…”
We hear remarks like these all the time, in casual conversation on politics, religion, history, to the point of cliché. They all share a common theme: to put it simply, things aren’t going as well today as they were yesterday, so if we can only figure out what people were doing yesterday, we can get better!
When I used to teach, I would occasionally emphasize three “rules” of history.
1. There is no Virgin Land
2. There are no Indigenous Peoples
3. There is no Golden Age
I’m going to focus here on the final of the three rules (the other two I may get to later). The quotes I opened with were fixations upon “Golden Age Mythology,” a mixture of hero worship, applying ideals of platonic perfection to the past, and being severely dissatisfied with the modern world. They’re not necessarily false, but can be severely misguided.
On the surface, we can all think of obvious “Golden Ages” in our cultural memory that we also know were not quite so Golden. We think of the virtue of the Roman republic while forgetting the political corruption and assassinations; the high art of the Italian Renaissance while forgetting plagues and religious oppression; the suburban family-friendliness of the 1950s while forgetting institutionalized racism and the looming threat of nuclear annihilation. We remember the good– the 1960s had the Stones and Beatles, the 1990s had Nirvana and the Pixies!– while forgetting the bad (Herman’s Hermits and Milli Vanilli).
However, despite our acknowledgement that the past has always been less than perfect, we continue to subtlely and subconsciously assume that some times, characters, or events are so sacrosanct that they are beyond reproach and criticism by anyone from any part of the sociopolitical spectrum.
Deferential reverence towards our nation’s origins, particularly the U.S. Constitution and the “Founding Fathers,” is a great example of this irrational reverence for the past. In the current (and anachronistic) debate of “were the founding fathers Christian?” both sides of the argument fundamentally want and need a bunch of white guys who have been dead for two centuries to agree with them. Fundies misuse Jefferson’s words about the “creator” and “nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence as some sort of evidence that he was Christian in the sense of 21st century evangelicalism. Secularists like Richard Dawkins or even Bill Maher will quote Jefferson’s or Franklin’s words on the inutility or riduculousness of religion, as a way of making their case that these guys were somehow synonymous with modern-day internet-activist atheists.
At this point, you are probably saying, “so what DID the founding fathers really think about religon?” Rather than spend paragraph upon paragraph upon this question (short answer: they varied, none were what we would call Dawkins-atheists, or fundamentalist evangelicals), I would respond with this: “why do you care what they thought?”
The very fact that we want to have the case closed on what Jefferson or Franklin thought of evangelical fundamentalism just shows how deeply our culture is entrenched in this reverence for the past. These men simply HAVE to agree with us! To win an argument, we only have to show that some respected figure from the past agreed with our stance, rather than take on the more difficult task of arguing our case on its own merits of logic and reason.
Or, as Thomas Jefferson himself said,
Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment…But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.
So yeah, I just used the words of Thomas Jefferson to strengthen my case for why we don’t necessarily need to use the words of Thomas Jefferson to strengthen cases. This has got to be some sort of paradox.
It’s the Jefferson paradox! Get in the TARDIS before it explodes!
But the fact remains that, if we can tie something to a sacrosanct institution, it gives our argument more merit. Scholars almost unanimously agree that the U.S. Constitution did a terrible job of dealing with the slavery/freedom paradox that has plagued American since before we were a nation. It swept the issue under the table, gave special favors and concessions to slaveholders (such as the 3/5 clause) that it did not give to any other special interests, all the while not even being able to even mention slavery by name within its own words.
And people knew this from day one. As the slavery debate snowballed toward the Civil War, William Lloyd Garrison called the Constitution a “covenant with death,” and “dripping with blood.” David Walker, a free black anti-slavery pamphleteer, openly mocked Jefferson’s “declarations” as hypocritical.
However, the anti-slavery activists whom we remember the most are those who refrained from attacking our nation’s origins, those who believed that the Constitution was foundational to the point that, if it attacked, the house above it would divide and fall (forgive me for riding the metaphor car off the track). Frederick Douglass, on addressing a crowd of white, middle-class females in New York, made sure to temper his angry “What to the Slave is Your 4th of July?” with occasional reassurances that he respected the Constitution and our founding fathers; they were not wrong, maybe just a bit misguided, and the fault was upon us for not really knowing what they meant.
In a lot of ways, this comes down to the difference between what political scientists call “radical” and “conservative” revolutions. Radical revolutions attack the very roots of the institution that they’re seeking to change (“The Constitution is wrong!”), while conservative revolutions seek change within these roots (“We need to rethink how we’re reading the Constitution!”). And of course, Abraham Lincoln, the consummate conservative revolutionary, abolished slavery in a rather genius way that preserved the sancrosanctity of the Constitution. Realizing how important it was to the cultural memory of a nation that was not even a century old, he did not suspend or overturn the Constitution, but rather forced the Southern States to secede, and then used his power as commander-in-chief to seize the human “property” of belligerents in a time of war, all while following the rules of our founding documents. The Revolutionary Golden Age was thus preserved.
Walter Sobchak was not the only one to give a shit about the rules.
Jesus wouldn’t approve of the Westboro Baptist Church! Jesus wouldn’t bomb an abortion clinic! Jesus wouldn’t oppose gay marriage!
Even more deeply entrenched than our reverence for the revolutionary period, is the deference from all sides of the political spectrum to a person whom we know very little about. It’s interesting; while the Right usually supports their arguments by saying “the Bible clearly says…” almost everyone from the Left– whether atheist, agnostic, or progressive– is even more guilty of Golden Age hero-worship, in which they try to point out to conservative Christians that Jesus was some sort of liberal, passively resistant hippy (the long hair and beard probably help this argument).
“Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Ghandi also was guilty of Golden Age hero worship.
Once again, I’m not going to jump into the cesspool of selectively quoting scripture to show how Jesus-would-vote-for-my-party-therefore-WIN! We can find passive quotes, active quotes; quotes supporting collectivism, and quote supporting free enterprise; quotes supporting and opposing statist government action, or quotes relating to any other convoluted argument that our society it fixating upon at a given moment. Yawn.
Scholars such as Bart Ehrman and Reza Aslan have done a great job of peeling away the centuries of spoken and written mythology that surround Jesus, and laying bare the few facts that we know about the historical man. It basically comes down to this: he was a Jewish mystic who fervently believed that the Roman Empire’s presence in Judea was fulfilling some sort of end-times prophecy, and this was more than enough to get him condemned to death. That’s it. We don’t know what the definitive story of his birth was, or why there are conflicting accounts of his last minutes and words. And there is no passive resistance, no love-everyone hippitude.
Or this, unfortunately.
But, because every story needs a redeeming, sacrificing hero, our entire society has gotten behind the idea that Jesus agrees with THEIR cause, and that any veering from their cause is a result of misinterpretation and misreading. Not only do secularists attacking Christianity refrain from attacking Christ, they often go out of their way to show that they AGREE with him, to the point of fabricating evidence just as much as the fundamentalists whom they are assaulting.
In the end, it is just obvious that the very ways in which we tell stories and make points rely on Golden Age mythology. Mormon faith is built upon the idea that they are reclaiming “true” Christianity that was corrupted by the Catholic Church. Wilderness preservationists from Muir on have tried to retain some sort of static, idealized outdoor landscape that has never existed. 1960s Red Power activists emphasized that Indians before Columbus had lived in complete harmony with the earth and each other. Free love advocates and some feminists write and talk of how all of today’s problems are tied to the hierarchical imposition of monogamy that took us away from our polyamorous, bonobous roots. Cultural anthropologists like Margaret Mead implied that less “modern” societies such as those in Samoa could show us how our own society was before it fell from its golden age. Paleo fiends tout how much better off we were before the rise of agriculture. Grumpy trad climbers on supertopo.com forums angrily type away at their keyboards about how rad they were back in the Stonemaster days of Yosemite in the 1970s. I am dead convinced that the pinnacle of popular music was during the grunge years, when I was in high school with my Nirvana t-shirt.
None of these myths that different subcultures have built around their ideologies are 100% wrong. I love listening to grunge on my headphones while climbing trad routes in the wilderness. But, they all fall short when they try to buttress their cases with what Jill Lepore has termed “historical fundamentalism”– the selective seizing of the broad, expansive past for purposes that fall into narrow chronological and ideological scopes.
Our entire society and Western culture is built around this, as Carolyn Merchant showed in her excellent book Reinventing Eden; and in many ways, the Garden of Eden myth is the ultimate Golden Age that we just wish we could get back to. But we need to realize that history is more complex than just supporting single issues, and that asking the question “What would Jefferson/Jesus/Kurt Cobain/John Bachar do or think” is anti-intellectual at its heart.
That is all. I’m going to go listen to 90s music, now.