In honor of the fourth of July, CSPAN’s guest this morning was Sebastian Mallaby, bureau chief of The Economist who criticized America’s "civil religion" that the holiday exemplifies. He accented several points.
1. By deifying the Founding Fathers and attributing idealism to them, Americans set themselves up for disillusionment, which leads to democracy threatening apathy and low voter turnout. Such glorification of the American experience also leads citizens to believe in a nonexistent consensus about the meaning of America.
2. The Declaration of Independence is almost irrelevant to the present American government. For instance, the idea that all people have a God given “inalienable right” to “the pursuit of happiness” is simply not believed by vast numbers of Americans who are constantly legislating the details of morality.
3. The Constitution is more important to American government, but it is subject to a very wide range of interpretations. In several ways, the Constitution is a hindrance to good democratic order and government. For instance, Militia groups use a very narrow interpretation of the Constitution to advance their [obviously] wrong agenda. The second amendment thwarts popular gun control laws, and the first amendment makes needed campaign finance reform very difficult to pass. [The Supreme Court held that using one’s money to promote one’s political ideas is a form of free speech.]
You will have to forgive me for this synopsis of the writer’s points. I watched the show for an hour this morning and am now trying to recall the main points. I’m sure that I have forgotten and mistated some of his important ideas.
I have a problem with people who talk about Americans in general. Even in the beginning of this country, there were several distinct populations. Among the English colonists, there were groups with Puritan ancestors and groups with criminal ancestors. The Scotch Irish certainly had many different attitudes towards government and religion than the English. A large number of Black slaves and Indians also influenced the country.
Today, America is a hundred times more diverse. How can anyone make pronouncements about America without spending some time among the born-again Christians not to mention Amish groups? What are the attitudes of Arab Americans or the various groups of Asian Americans? Eric Hoffer once said that American was founded by people who were not at home anyplace and this attitude persists among certain radicals and reformers, religious and civil. But by and large, most people are quite comfortable about calling America home.
The habit of talking about a singular American people can mask intellectual dishonesty. For instance, George Will talks about the schizophrenia of the American people who say they want less government but keep voting for and demanding more government programs. There are a quarter of a million people in this country. It’s not surprizing that they disagree among themselves. Could it be that those who are complaining about big government are not the same people who are voting for it?
Who among Americans believes in the "civil religion" of Americanism? My guess is that the believers are mostly conservative, reactionary, or they are strict constructionists of the constitution. At present these groups share an opposition to modern liberalism. But if liberalism continues to crumble, the differences between these and other so-called right wingers will become increasingly pronounced. Even now, social and economic conservatives are held together only by their desire to drive a stake through the heart of modern liberalism. In fact, right wing Americans include all opponents of modern liberalism and that means fascists, libertarians, religious rightists, conservatives and even monarchists if there are any left. The right doesn’t exist as a coherent group.
The writer’s opposition to “civil religion” is probably no more than a liberal opposition to anti-liberals. Several liberal callers pointed out that the founding fathers were liberal, and that is true. Others pointed out that the founding fathers would have been horrified at the size and scope of the modern American state, and that is true too.
The anti-liberal “civil religion” is a formal faith in which the adherents try to find support for their beliefs in the political pantheon of deified American politicians. It has often been said that conservatives revere dead liberals. Libertarians revere dead classical liberals.
Mallaby does not talk about the liberal religion which is more vibrant and alive than civil religion. Modern liberals believe that the state is the engine through which positive change can come into the world. They believe that morality consists in supporting state efforts to create this positive change. This religion still has many devout practioners, but it also has its own share of disappointed cynics today.
Mallaby charges that the civil religion leads to disappointment. As a radical libertarian, I believe that cynicism and apathy are the correct emotions to feel toward our government. I don’t believe that they are a threat to good government. I’d like to think that most of the nonvoters and nonparticipants were cynical or angry, but the truth is that they are simply apathetic by nature (and besides, things are going OK). Those who don’t vote are, in general, the least informed and the least intelligent members of the community. Their nonparticipation in democracy may be the key to democracy’s survival.
The writer’s second point was that the Declaration of Independence was practically irrelevant to modern American government. I couldn’t agree more. To paraphrase the usual patriotic speeches, we fought a war in the 1860’s to make the Declaration of Independence irrelevant.
From my point of view, the Declaration of Independence is the only relevant political document. It contains two fundamental ideas. 1. People create and are entitled to destroy governments. 2. Governments lose their legitimacy when they attack or fail to protect inherent rights. I don’t believe in inherent rights, but I believe that people can make any government they want to. I also believe that the constitutional experiment to limit government has failed and it’s time to look for new organizations to provide government functions.
I’m not sure if Mallaby felt that there was a legitmate range of interpretations of the Constitution. I don’t believe there really are. The average high school student can read and understand the Constitution; but Supreme Court justices study for many years, not to discover the document’s meaning, but to find ways around it.
Mallaby felt that even the government granted permission to bear arms should be taken away even though the second amendment implies that the population should directly control the state’s use of force. He also seem to believe that the Supreme Court’s protection of the individual’s speech rights was excessive in regard to political campaigns. The Constitution has thwarted democracy from time to time, but I and many civil libertarians regard this as one of the best things about American government. Even though most constitutional protections have been abolished or watered down, the division of powers created by the Constitution has slowed our progress to totalitarianism. In the economic sphere, the result of this slowing has been very beneficial. Our economy, however anemic, far surpasses the socialistic experiments of the Europeans and illustrates to the world the futility of central planning.