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The American Idolatry of the Founding Fathers

And Their Two Most Magnificent (But Nevertheless Flawed) Documents 

 The OLD Philosopher – John M. Miller

Two articles on the second page of the July Fourth edition of The Island Packet and the re-printing of the Declaration of Independence on the editorial page prompted this essay to be written on Independence Day in 2018. The first was a story about what the President legally and constitutionally can and cannot do with respect to the Mueller investigation regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election. The second was how difficult it has become for Prof. Alan Dershowitz to live among his liberal neighbors on Martha’s Vineyard for the summer. He has insisted that constitutionally the President can pardon anyone he wants, including the President himself, should things get too dicey for him in the Russia investigation.

The Bible never specifically defines idolatry, but frequently in context it describes idolatry as showing allegiance to and worshiping false gods.  In biblical times, idols were figures carved out of wood or stone, depicting the purported deities of various ethnic neighbors of the Israelites.

Idolatry was considered such a threat to what the Bible considered to be proper devotion to Adonoy, the God of Israel, that it was officially condemned in the First and Second Commandments. In them God is quoted as saying, “You shall have no other gods before me,” and “You shall not make yourself a graven image.” Idolatry was believed to be so inimical to God that the first two of the Ten Commandments referred to it.

In the eastern Mediterranean area, graven images and little tin gods probably went out of style by the Babylonian Captivity in the early sixth century BCE. However, idolatry still continues to the present in other, much more subtle, forms. Idols can be created by worshiping famous people, or by women who idolize men, men who idolize women, fancy cars, huge homes, investment portfolios, bank accounts, or similarly worshiped beings or entities.

Because the United States of America was the first nation to rebel against its ruling power and to establish itself as the world’s first long-term democracy, its revolutionary leaders have ever after been known as the Founding Fathers. Almost always those words are spelled with capital letters. There also were mothers among the Founding Fathers, but they tend to be overlooked in the national sanctification of our eighteenth century ancestors.

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are the two most historic and world-changing documents that were produced by the Founding Fathers. The Founding Fathers, plus the Declaration and the Constitution, have become virtual gods to millions of Americans over the past two hundred and thirty years. That is understandable, but also it is most unfortunate.

Intuitively we suppose that gods, or God, must not and should not be questioned. God is infallible, so it is claimed. Many also claim that the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution are infallible as well, and therefore should not be questioned. That, of course, is demonstrably false.

I had a history professor in college who claimed that the generation of political theorists living in the American colonies in the last half of the eighteenth century were the greatest collection of human beings ever assembled anywhere on this planet at any single period of time. Indeed they were remarkable. Their brilliance in statecraft and political theory could not be surpassed by any group of political philosophers living in any other place or time.

Nonetheless they were mere mortals, and thus they were flawed, as all mortals are flawed. The two primary documents upon which the new republic was founded also were flawed.

In the first clause of its second paragraph, the Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Of course they did not really mean what they so resoundingly decreed. They may have believed that all white, property-owning males were created equal. Poor white males with no property, non-Caucasian males (especially enslaved blacks or native American Indians) were not equal to white, property-owning males, nor were any females, children or youth of any race equal to the white males who adopted the Declaration.

For political reasons, they never would have or could have spelled out what “all men are created equal” really meant. It would have rendered null and void the movement for independence before another shot was fired by either the Continental or the British armies. In deliberately leaving the essence of the statement vague, they undercut their own ringing words from the Declaration’s very inception.

What they said was right - - - but it was wrong. All people are not created equal, except in the eyes of God. All people are not equal throughout their lives. Inequity is woven into the fabric of all human beings, even those born in or who become citizens of the United States of America.

Furthermore, the Founding Fathers had no intention of legally establishing by law their vaunted proclamation that all men/people are and should be equal. These were, after all, the colonial elite, the aristocracy, such as they were, of the thirteen colonies, and they were loathe to give up their elevated status in society to anyone, however “equal” they might be. They were idealists, but they were not egalitarians.

Nevertheless, they were one of the most if not the most gifted and elevated small group of political thinkers in the history of our race. There was no coterie of geniuses to surpass them anywhere in previous centuries, or in the centuries since then. Yet they were mere men, mortals, not gods. It is America and Americans who have tried to turn them into gods. The founders would find this trend both baffling and infuriating.

We particularly make that mistake theologically and politically in how we deify the second and greater of their two greatest documents, the Constitution. The Constitution of the United States of America is arguably the most important political treatise ever written. For widespread influence among other nations, It outshines the Code of Hammurabi, the writings and the democracy of Pericles in the Golden Age of Greece, and the Magna Carta.

Despite that, it had major flaws when it was adopted in 1787, and its flaws have plagued us ever since. The Constitution has been amended twenty-seven times, which clearly illustrates that it had inherent errors when it was initially written. How can we idolize something which has been altered twenty-seven times? One of the many problems of the Constitution is not that it has been amended so often, but that it has not been amended nearly often enough. New occasions teach new duties;/ Time makes ancient good uncouth (James Russell Lowell).

In order to be approved by the thirteen new states, the Constitution offered far too many egregious compromises. The compromises were a political necessity for its passage, but they laid out a minefield for the future.

Among those noxious compromises were: giving the states more collective political power than the central government, the notorious Three-Fifths Compromise, the anti-democratic electoral college, granting two senators to every current and future state regardless of population, or, perhaps, having two houses of Congress at all, giving the executive and judicial branches too much power and guaranteeing the legislative branch too little power, making the President the sole commander in chief rather than having collective commanders in chief, plus several others. Not the least of its flaws is that the Constitution deviously made itself very difficult to be amended.  

The writers and signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were incapable of foreseeing the changes in the nation whose existence they formulated by their handiwork. In a small, struggling nation of four million people, how could they imagine the most powerful nation in history, with three hundred and thirty million people, the largest economy ever, and the strongest military ever? They were incomparably brilliant, but they were not God, nor were they gods.

We do neither ourselves nor the Founding Fathers any favors when we treat the Founding Fathers and our Constitution as though they are infallible emanations which must never be questioned. They would want us constantly to inquire into the validity of their observations. They certainly fiercely debated their own ideas among themselves.

These men and this set of founding political principles are not eternal. On the Fourth of July, out of all days in the year, it behooves us to remember that. This is, as another famous American said on another date and day, a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. No people and no declarations or constitutions written by people are gods. Only God is God.     

-       July 4, 2018


John Miller is Pastor of The Chapel Without Walls on Hilton Head Island, SC. More of his writings may be viewed at www.chapelwithoutwalls.org.



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