The void where the sacred used to be

5 01 2011

Another one from Salon:

The folk culture of American constitutionalism blends themes from 17th-century English Protestantism and 18th-century neoclassicism. From Protestantism comes the rejection of the “Catholic” idea of an evolving scriptural tradition interpreted by an authority — the Vatican or the Supreme Court — in favor of the idea that the Christian or American Creed is in danger of corruption if it strays too far from the literal words of the original, perfect revelation. According to the Washington Post, one Tea Party member in Louisiana “has attended weekend classes on the Constitution that she compared with church Bible study.”

From 18th-century neoclassicism comes the idea that citizens of a republic must be taught that their constitutions are perfect and were handed down by superhuman lawgivers or “Legislators” — Solon in Athens, Lycurgus in Sparta — and must be preserved without alteration as long as the republic endures.

The blending of Protestant fundamentalism and neoclassical Legislator-worship explains the semi-religious reverence with which the Founders or Framers or Fathers of the Constitution have long been discussed in the United States. Other, similar English-speaking democracies — not only Canada, Australia and New Zealand but modern Britain itself — achieved self-governance or universal suffrage generations later, when these Protestant and neoclassical traditions had died out in their domains. The Canadians do not revere their first prime minister, John Macdonald, and to this day the British do not even have a formal, written constitution. Our Anglophone peers regard American constitution-worship as bizarre and quaint, like our fondness for displaying the national flag.

Just as my literary education was more in Spanish literature, so my political education came more from studying the volatile history of Latin American republics rather than my own.

My wife and I were once in southern Alabama, and someone was selling shrimp out of the back of his truck. On one corner of his truck, a prominent American flag was placed, waving in the wind. For some reason it hit me then that it is a sacramental sign for most Americans. I have never shared such enthusiasm. When I was a Marxist, I would never do the flag salute or stand for the national anthem. Now I do it merely out of courtesy. Nor do I think the Constitution a particularly sane document. Really, I think “the American way of life” is more due to an interior and exterior imperialism masquerading as a republic. Also, the myth that the United States is a “classless society”. Nothing to get excited about, really.