Saturday, November 28, 2015

Founding Fathers: Updated

Last weekend, I was grading exams and listening to NPR when a story came on about Republican candidates making an appearance at Bob Vander Plaate’s Iowa Family Leader.  Since my days as a Nebraskan, I’ve been familiar with Bob and his evangelical right-wing dog and pony show.  Appearance at his forums are a necessary pre-condition to receiving the Vander Plaate endorsement, which is sadly valued by Iowa Caucus Republican candidates.

Donald Trump skipped the forum but Marco Rubio was there, patiently explaining to the folks that, “This nation was not founded on political principles. This nation was founded on spiritual principles.“ He then qualified his rather unconventional claim by noting that in the Declaration of Independence our rights are granted by God.  Strictly speaking, the language of the Declaration references Nature, Nature’s God, and a Creator, word choices that were deliberate.  The segment is at the start of the Declaration; an explanation of what the Declaration is about and in whole reads, “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

Then comes the most famous line of the Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights….”

I’m not one to split hairs, but let me just go ahead and split some hairs.  I have been studying and teaching the Declaration to students for more than 20 years.  I’ve been reading about the document for even longer.  While all of the founders were men who claimed a Christian faith for themselves, many were not particularly religious, among them Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration and a man whose questioning of religion was well-known to his peers.  In the Declaration, he makes a general reference to God, but always Nature’s God or the Creator, a notion that could accommodate Christianity as well as other faiths and, perhaps most importantly, no faith at all.  In any case, the most important claim being made here is that mankind has rights, popularly called natural rights, and that those inherent rights require that we be permitted to govern ourselves.  

Beyond Marco Rubio’s deliberate misinterpretation of Jefferson’s language is his claim that the American Revolution was a Christian one.  This understanding of the revolution is just flat-out wrong.   It was an economic revolution; they protected their property, including a designation of enslaved men and women as property.  It’s a political revolution; as they claimed political rights and liberties for themselves that had never before been claimed for all free men and ultimately would create a representative democracy system of government.  To the extent that they claimed political equality for white, free men, while excluding Native Americans, enslaved people of color, and otherwise free women, it was a social revolution for some members of the society.  

But a nation that would ultimately require government to stay out of the religious life of the nation, as the founders did in the First Amendment, was not in the business of a revolution founded on spiritual principles.  To claim this is as a private philosophy or in the midst of a discussion with one’s family and friends is one thing.   But to claim it in public forums an an effort to earn your party’s nomination for the presidency, as Marco Rubio did, is to demonstrate yourself as unworthy of the presidency.

It’s also a way to fail the 7th grade unit test on this subject.  That, Mr. Rubio, is a distinction to be avoided.

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