Our Religion of the Founding Fathers

Worship the Founding FathersThe Founding Fathers are all things to all Americans.

“The American people having healthier life that [‘s what] our founders wanted for them,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said last month about Obamacare. Other self-described patriots sneered, “George Washington wanted Obamacare, Pelosi says.” And “No, Nancy, the Founding Fathers Would Not Have Supported Obamacare.” Senators Rand Paul and Chris Coons penned a bipartisan op/ed for Politico Magazine titled: “The Founding Fathers Would Have Protected Your Smartphone.”

Last year a series of polls came out asking Americans if the Founding Fathers would be happy with the country today. A majority of Americans told pollsters these Framers would be disappointed.

Even as we continue to debate what religion meant to the people who christened the country—they now themselves have become a religion. And like all stern paternal deities, our Liberty Lords are frowning down on us because they know we can do better.

No one ever brings up Jesus’ name when the 2000-year-old prophet would disagree with them. As in: “Jesus drank wine with hookers and outcasts, but as a Christian, I find that reprehensible.” Jesus only gets used to corroborate personal conviction.

As an appeal to what we imagine to be our better selves we ask, “What would Jesus do?” And as Americans we’re expected to ponder, “What would the Founding Father’s think?”

The first thing worth pointing out: there were a lot of Founding Fathers. It wasn’t just guys with monuments in DC. Over 50 men signed the Articles of Association in 1774; another 56 men put their John Hancock on the Declaration of Independence (including John Hancock); and there were 40 signers of the Constitution. We’ve never heard of most of these venerated sages.

Pop quiz: Gunning Bedford, punk band or Founding Father?

There are more than 140 men who meet the qualifications to be called a Founding Father in an era spanning 15 years (1774-1789). The framers were not a monolith then and certainly would never have a collective opinion about health care let alone about a smart phone. Our current Congress doesn’t have a collective opinion about which day of the week it is and our Supreme Court is uneasy about the 100-year-old technology of cameras filming them at work.

The Constitutional Convention was not a utopian Garden of Eden where demigods gathered to shape a nation that would become the best in the world. They were politicians and leaders in their community (read: mortals). They lived in a different time with different mores. They were not exactly for freedom (they owned slaves). They weren’t exactly for democracy (women couldn’t vote). They weren’t exactly arbiters of human rights (Native Americans).

They also weren’t exactly against the fiendish Big Government; they were Big Government. In 1791, George Washington quashed the Nation’s first tax revolt: The Whiskey Rebellion ended with four rebels killed by government troops. He’s a hero to the modern tea party? Why?

President number two, John Adams, also a Founding Father, joined the Federalists in Congress gleefully passing the Sedition Act which criminalized speech against the federal government. What Nazis!

If we were contemporaries of these mystical Founding Freedom Priests, we’d have more complicated feelings about them. Just like we have about our modern presidents. No matter how much you like President Bill Clinton at this moment—you were kind of sick of him in 1999. Dubya said history would judge him. Turns out he’s not The Decider—it’s history. And history did wonders for Adams.

The Founding Fathers don’t reside on Mount Olympus and, no, Independence Hall isn’t in Valhalla (unless you think that’s Philly).

These Fathers were just rebellious products of their era who had no idea if this experiment at self-governing would ever last.

tina-dupuy-2013To summon the thought of these men to give us pause in public discourse is to subscribe to the logical fallacy known as appeal to tradition. The Founders were into dueling (look on a $10 bill; the guy on it died in a duel as Founding Fathers Richard Dobbs Spaight and Button Gwinnett did). Why not bring back dueling? The Founding Fathers would be proud. Some of them at least. The Founding Fathers didn’t believe in antibiotics! Or General Motors’ safety! Or air travel! Or Darwin’s Theory of Evolution!

Where does it stop? It really doesn’t. Canonizing the men who founded the nation doesn’t help discourse it just sanctifies history.

We’re better off humanizing than worshipping.

Tina Dupuy
Taking Eternal Vigilance Too Far

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Comments

  1. says

    Great article Tina Dupuy.

    The majority of the men who founded the United States of America would be disappointed, shocked, and dismayed that the descendants of black slaves, indigenous people, and women of all races are considered to be legally equal to wealthy landowning white men.

    They considered their privileged position to be God given and would be horrified to find that, legally, the white man had lost his superior status and had been thrown on the mercy of official decisions being made by what they considered to be inferiors, savages and female caprice.

    The Founders purposely intended to found a nation based on patriarchal white supremacy. When the documents they produced spoke of all men being created equal they weren’t using the generic word ‘men’ meaning all human beings, they actually literally meant men: adult males. They saw no contradiction in excluding Africans and Native Americans, simply because they did not consider them to be men.

    So, very much like their modern Tea Party devotees, the “Founding Fathers” might be quite upset with the very idea of a black man at the head of the white supremacist nation that they envisioned, and the Commander In Chief of all of its military forces. They would no doubt be bewildered by the concept that the country that they were involved in violently wresting from its aboriginal residents had allowed millions of Indians from south of its border to move right into its cities and live amongst its good Christian citizens. And the inconceivable idea that in this time the next president may likely be a woman would make them curse their failed experiment.

    • Ryder says

      All you are describing is culture shock. They’d be equally shocked by how we dress, what food we eat, what music we listen to, what we have in our pockets.

      Anyone transported in time a couple hundred years, forward OR backward, will be shocked by practically everything. Just human nature.

      And neither you nor I would be immune.

    • Ryder says

      And as I think about it… you might not actually get the emotion from the founders about women and the various races that you expect.

      They might look at our out of control debt, imploded families, and general moral decline since letting women and blacks vote… and then look at the racial make-up our prison population and simply say: “See… we told you.”

      Their reaction might very well be disappointment. In us.

  2. dusty says

    The founding fathers were slaveholders and capitalists who were looking to make a better buck by getting the monarch off their butts. The only founding father type that I respect is Thomas Paine, think “Common Sense”, the Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason. Thomas Jefferson and the other stole the ideals of much of the structural ideas for our government from the Iroquois Confederation but you don’t even find a footnote. Instead people try to relate back to British, Greek or Roman thought — speak of racism.

    • Ryder says

      To a guy with a hammer… everything looks like a nail. (or racist, or sexist, or homophobic).

      Widely informed men of their age, with no more or no fewer failings as you or I might have (only different failings), gave “birth” to something extraordinary… and in the process, the majority of them suffered dearly for it, losing all they held dear, even their lives.

      To characterize them as greedy money hounds that stole the intellectual property of the “Indians”, is a pretty narrow (though predictable) view, considering the price they paid.

      None of us are born Saints. It may be only once in our lives that we truly stand up to achieve greatness… if at all. It is what you do in that moment of true decision that becomes the stuff of legacy.

      The decades long efforts to dismantle them and their achievement is a terrible shame on *our* legacy.

  3. Ryder says

    I think that the reason that the FFs are considered collectively is that is it *because* individuals, like Adams, might fail at the very things they knew to be right or true.

    Like today, how many of us know better rules for eating… but fail at them? Exercise? TV habits?

    The difference between knowing what is right, and doing it, is sometimes an impressive span.

    When we consider the Founding Fathers… it is a recognition of a specific collection of work, by a group of men, that seemed to hold each other to a higher standard… and a dedication to principle. Works at a time of significant clarity of thought with regards to ageless issues.

    They are considered in their whole, far greater than their sum of parts.

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