Wednesday, September 12, 2012

In America, our origins matter less than our destination, and that is what democracy is all about.

The title of this blogpost is a quote from Ronald Reagan. Now, I'm not actually a Reagan fan, but I like this quote, because it inspired me to revisit several things that have been on my mind lately: what our founding fathers believed and whether it matters.

It seems to me, and I must admit that I cannot corroborate this at all: it's just my opinion, that with increasing frequency we the people are questioning the political direction of the US and referencing what our founding fathers had designed. I quote Reagan, obviously, because I identify myself as a liberal and find this quote ironic given the tendency on the right to make these bizarre "appeals to tradition," but it's not just the right... We're all doing it.

Now, I should say right away that I'm keenly aware of the context of this quote. This is from a speech he made at the Republican National Convention in 1992. I won't insert in it's entirety, but to put this in at least a slightly broader context I'll post a bit more of it here:
Whether we come from poverty or wealth; whether we are Afro-American or Irish-American, Christian or Jewish, from big cities or small towns, we are all equal in the eyes of God. But as Americans, that is not enough. We must be equal in the eyes of each other. We can no longer judge each other on the basis of what we are, but must, instead, start finding out who we are. In America, our origins matter less than our destinations and that is what democracy is all about.
Now, he's clearly talking more about personal backgrounds with regards to creed or ethnicity, and from the context it's obvious he wasn't talking about the ideas of the founding fathers versus the implementation in a modern day society. Still, I think given the broader context it doesn't miss the mark by much, and so I want to ask...

What difference does it make whether the founding fathers would concur with our current political direction?

Now, in keeping with the full title (and I would argue that this is in closer context with the larger section I quoted above) I should probably reword the question like so:

It is less important whether the founding fathers would agree with our current political direction and more important that we ensure its positive impact for all and that is what democracy is all about.

I'm quite happy with that statement, but I suspect a whole lot of my peers wouldn't be. And why is that? What is this predilection toward reverence of past figures in history. It feels an awful lot like religion to me, and indeed religion is one of the themes I very often see used in reference to the founding fathers. There is so much information on this subject that I think you can pick your sources and land in either camp, but what's indelibly obvious is that there were dissenting opinions on the matter even at the time of the founding of our great nation: just look at how Thomas Paine was largely received by his peers by the time of his death.

But does it matter?

I am an atheist and simply cannot identify even with the deism of Thomas Jefferson. John Adams didn't even believe in the trinity but openly criticized Paine and comes off, I think, like a christianity apologist:
The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue, equity and humanity, let the Blackguard [scoundrel, rogue] Paine say what he will.
I'm struggling to imagine a president of the United States in today's world claiming to be a christian, but renouncing the trinity (although I think I've read that he didn't speak of it openly, still)...

And i've really only scratched the surface. If we leave religion and move on to other issues such as women's suffrage and slavery then I think we end up in a very uncomfortable world if we aren't to stray from the worldview of the founding fathers.

So, why can't we agree to pick those pieces of contextual worth from our founding fathers and move on. We have to apply these pieces in the modern world: a post-industrialized world with antibiotics, numerous religions, tv, internet porn and even atheists like myself.