On the Fourth of July it is traditional to think at least a little about the founding of our country. In a country that replaced the birthdays of specific presidents of great historical importance with the anonymous “Presidents’ Day” holiday, this doesn’t require much thinking, and still less learning. Flying the flag is popular, but less popular is thinking about what it stands for. When we occasionally do think about what it stands for, the issue quickly gets complicated.
Many of us were appalled when we learned of the massive crimes committed by our ancestors. The destruction of Indian societies, the curse of slavery, and the many aggressive wars and subversion of other societies no threat to ourselves, the better to serve corporate interests, all give decent people reason to pause at the more unthinking forms of patriotism that have been the norm. The hypocrisy of claiming something superior about our society while thoughtlessly approving such crimes is over 200 years old and seemingly unending.
Why then, celebrate? Is it not like celebrating the marriage du jour of someone like Donald Trump?
I think there are three very important reasons.
First, the Declaration of Independence based its arguments on the rights of human beings, and not of Englishmen, which would have been a traditional reason for seeking independence. All were equal in their rights.
Second, and related, the absolute right to religious freedom was made a basic principle of our constitution. The United States even ratified this principle in a treaty with Tripoli stating we were in no sense a Christian nation, a treaty where Washington and Adams both played a role in its writing.
Finally, given that our Declaration justified government by consent of the governed, adopting the constitution required the consent of every state to enter. It could not be imposed. Tiny Rhode Island was a continual thorn in the Founders’ side, but rather than incorporating it into any of the much larger neighboring states, as was the European precedent, it was accommodated.
These three reasons lie at the core of what is most accurately called liberalism. Liberalism is rooted in two principles: individuals are the basic moral unit in society and all are equally so. It is a political philosophy with its most important roots in John Locke, and includes Americans with such different political agendas as Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Franklin Roosevelt, Barry Goldwater, and Robert Dole. Two call themselves Democrats, one prefers the ‘socialist’ term, and two were Republicans, Their policy ides differed greatly. And yet, all were liberals.
What made them liberals was that all believed the individual was the fundamental moral unit of society, the right to vote was sacrosanct, and no religion had any legitimate role imposing its views by law.
Of course these people would criticize one another for failing to adequately understand liberal principles. People will always have different views on how basic principles apply to life. And America’s first liberal leaders were often deeply inconsistent in how they applied these principles. Slavery, the dispossession of Indian lands, and women’s inequality under the law were examples. Some even knew of such contradictions, but could not for the moment figure out how to deal with them.
Today we are so aware of our Founders’ failings to fully institutionalizeliberal principles that we have forgotten, or never knew, of the degree to which these principles actually changed society. A majority of American states abolished slavery peacefully, and those that did not explicitly repudiated the Declaration of Independence as mistaken. Its veneration undermined their tyranny. Women were able to vote in a number of northern states, with New Jersey using the terms “his or her” in its constitution. Within a short period of time property qualifications were abandoned for voting in all states. Tiny Rhode Island had been ahead of its time.
Not every liberal innovation lasted. Women’s right to vote was a step too far for those states to incorporate it, and failed to last. But remember, even today a majority of Southern White women support taking away women’s control over their bodies and adhere to a religion more at home with denying them the right to vote than to giving it. And, of course, the issue kept returning until the right to vote was guaranteed even for Southern White women who never would have managed to establish it on their own. In making their arguments, the suffragists always emphasized the country’s failure to abide by its own founding principles.
The influence of ideas
No ideology so completely dominates a society that all its practices are defined by it. Calvinist New England tried, and failed. Marxism Leninism tried, and failed. I am sure that when we learn more about Iran, we will find the same is true for Shiite Islam there. Ideas, good and bad alike, are players in a complex social ecology.
The US inherited deeply illiberal practices, and with that inheritance, a great many people who profited from those practices. Ideas have always had to push against or modify other ideas and interests in seeking to influence the world, and liberalism was no different in this respect. For example, the anti-slavery North benefited from Southern cotton, picked by slaves. So what matters, I argue, is the direction in which ideas push change. They will never be all powerful, bit neither will they be simply window dressing.
What matters, to my mind, is their influence over time.
By basing the new nation on universal moral principles applicable to every person, they incorporated the grounds for criticizing our failures into its foundations. And these are the strongest grounds possible. They have empowered all movements that, in retrospect, have gradually expanded human well-being in this nation. There were no such internal principals able to criticize South Africa’s apartheid constitution or the Soviet Union’s Leninist one. For them, change came from repudiation of the founding values, not efforts at their perfection.
Today liberalism has fallen on hard times. The Republican Party has repudiated our founding principles on all three levels. The political and moral travesty that is called ‘neoliberalism’ subordinates individuals to the dictates of corporate interests and their need for profit. Critics of the status quo increasingly use collectivist concepts to frame their objections in terms such as White men or gender while abandoning talk of rights, preferring the term “privilege.” (Imagine building a movement based on “civil privileges’ rather than civil rights.)
I think I is important for Americans to honor our liberal founding principles, and we Pagans have a particularly appropriate symbol enabling us to do so. Today the Statue of Freedom, whose original stands atop our capitol dome, also adorns my altar.