The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The 4th and Mythology of the Past

Monday was Independence Day in the U.S., the day when we blow crap up to celebrate the fact that 235 years ago, a group of men sent what amounted to a "Dear John" letter to England and declared that the United States was a sovereign nation of its own.

What fascinates me is the way in which this event, and the period in time surrounding it, has become mythologized within the U.S. that a mythology has built up around it is not surprising, this happens in most, if not all, countries. What fascinates me is the way in which the mythologies often radically depart from reality, and the degree to which people cling to their views when even the most cursory research would prove them wrong. And I'm not even talking about the "Paul Revere rode to warn the British*" nonsense.

There are a few different types of mythologization. One of the most common is the heroification of the Founders. By this, I mean the assertion that they did more than they really did, such as can be found in the "Price They Paid" account. There is also a particular strain of heroification in American Christianity that holds that the Founders were supernaturally inspired and "the wisest men ever to have lived." In these cases, the Founders are blown up beyond who they really were, usually for social or political purposes that serve the person creating the myth.

And people buy into it because they want the myth to be true, they want these guys to be larger than life. Which is weird, because these are people who rejected the existing order, created a new system of government based on trying to fix some of the problems that led to the fall of the Roman Republic, fought a war over this, and then relinquished power when their terms in elected office were up, despite what one might expect. If that, the reality, isn't cool enough for you, then I really have to wonder what would be. They don't need to be supernaturally inspired or have models of virtue in order to be pretty damn outstanding. Yes, these were humans, and they had their faults - slave ownership, an ability to fall into petty partisanship, and the prejudices of their day. But the reality, good and bad, warts and all, is amazing enough. These were remarkable men living in remarkable times, and it doesn't need to be made into something it wasn't.

But the myth gets warped in all sorts of ways to suit various purposes, all of them requiring that facts about the events be ignored and, often, that new facts be invented. One of the arenas where I have taken a particular interest is that of how the religion of the Founders is viewed. It is increasingly common for people to assume that they were all Christians of some sort, with many Fundamentalist Christian sects claiming that they were all specifically Born-Again Protestant Evangelical Christians of a sort that many a mega-church pastor would recognize as one of his own. This is, of course, not true. It's difficult to get a handle on how many Founders there were, because the term can be defined in many ways (just the signers of the Declaration of Independence? All of the representatives at the Constitutional Convention? The prominent writers who pushed the agenda of the rebel colonists?), but any reasonable count would include people of a wide range of religious positions, which includes numerous Christians, it must be said. However, the particular brand of Born-Again Protestant Evangelical Christianity that is prominent in modern politics today is a relatively recent creation, growing out of 19th and 20th century religious movements, and none of the Christians who were present for any of the events that might qualify them as among the Founders would recognize it as the Christianity with which they were familiar. Moreover, even amongst the Christian Founders, the role of Christianity in their lives was highly variable - George Washington, for example, is known to have stopped bothering with church and didn't attend.

And, of course, many of the Founders were clearly not Christian. Thomas Jefferson re-wrote the New Testament to remove supernatural elements. Thomas Paine was openly atheist, and often wrote disparagingly of religion in general and Christianity in particular. Deism and even atheism were not uncommon amongst educated men of the time, and that category includes the Founders.

Which brings us to another myth. While many Christians falsely claim that the Founders were all Christians, or even more falsely claim that the Constitution sets the U.S. up as a "Christian Nation"**, it is common amongst my fellow atheists to hear that the Founders were all deists - sort of a "weak proto-atheism"*** that was popular in the 18th century. This is also not true. As described above, there were many religious views amongst the Founders, and the claim that they were all deists is just as false and absurd as the claim that they were all Born-Again Protestant Evangelical Christians.

It fascinates me that we tend to project our present politics onto the past without regard to what was actually going on in the past. This is, to a degree, understandable, but it is mistaken. While there is much int he past that can provide information and guidance for the present, the past is, nonetheless, a different place with different social orders and different rules, and it leads to nothing more than dubious mythologies when we try to read the past by the issues of the present.

*No he didn't, you illiterate twit. Actually what surprises me about this is that the original statement seemed like a basic slip of the tongue - the sort of mistake that all of us can make even when we know better, she likely wanted to ay that he was coming to warn the colonists about the British and stumbled over her words a bit. No big deal, we've all done that sort of thing. What surprises me is the fact that Palin stuck to the erroneous claim after she made it, and really she has to know that she was wrong, simply so that she wouldn't have to admit that she made a mistake. What surprises me even more is that many of her supporters seemed to take this as a sign of her conviction rather than a sign of her unfitness for any responsibility beyond running the Slurpee machine at the 7-11. Really, being firm in your conviction of a completely false premise - and one that you probably know is completely false - is not a strength, it's a severe liability.

Then again, from what I have seen, most of her supporters are also young-Earth creationists and believe that WMDs were found in Iraq, so whatcha' gonna' do...

**Fun fact: Religion is mentioned only twice in the Constitution: 1) when religious tests to hold public office are prohibited (in other words, a member of any religion or no religion can legally hold public office, and it's nobody's business but their own what their religious beliefs are); 2) in the Bill of Rights when prohibitions against the government establishing or interfering in religion are stated. In other words, the Constitution is pretty clearly not a Christian document. Anyone who claims otherwise is either lying or wholly ignorant.

***The basic idea of deism is that, as there is no evidence for miracles or any sort of supernatural interference in people's day-to-day lives, this is consistent with the creator of the universe, usually conceptualized as a god of some sort, having put the universe into motion, and then stepped back and not interfering any further. Once cosmology and biology began to discover natural processes which explained the orign of complex systems better than a creator deity, deism began to decline. This is the reason why flat-out atheists were unusual in the 19th century, though some did exist, while deists are relatively rare in the 21st century.


Diana said...

It particularly irks me when certain groups try to ask "what would the founders do" type questions. Such as what would the founders do about all the porn on the internet? What would the founders do about the morning after pill?

This seems like a step toward deifying (or maybe just sainthood) for real human beings with real flaws.

And why should our society bend backward to be like the society of that time period. Really? Was life better back then? As a woman I would say no. I enjoy my modern freedoms!

Lynn said...

nicely written... thanks

Anthroslug said...

@Lynn: Thank you.

@Diana: There's two reasons why people ask this question. One is because of a near-deification of these people, or else it is done for rhetorical purposes, which isn't helpful, as you point out.

But the other is because the Constitution is literally a set of laws, and when one is trying to determine the appropriate way to apply a law, documentation of the intent of writer(s) of that law is part of the process. This isn't just the case with the constitution, but applies to all legal code.

So, when a politician or your mouthy neighbor asks what the Founders meant, they're asking one type of question, and often it's a pointless question. When a judge or attorney asks, it's typically a legitimate legal question.