Putting the “Fun” in Fundamentalism

For those who insist on God as part of the original intent in America, allow me to disabuse you of the most commonly mistaken beliefs. To begin, there are no references to God in the Constitution.

The “my-perverted-form-of-Christianity-is-crazier-than-yours” show will be coming to New York soon when the GOP candidates come-a-barnstorming through our blue state. I have already received a lovely letter from Willard Romney asking for my support as if things aren’t bad enough with Tebow-mania sweeping the region.

My pitiful Jets. Sigh. That’s for another day.

Recently, my wife and I were fortunate to procure tickets to The Book of Mormon on Broadway. As one would imagine, it was delightfully wicked and painfully funny. (Unless, of course, you’re a Mormon, in which case I wouldn’t recommend it.) But its brilliance isn’t necessarily its provocative humor as much as its ability to bring the audience from uproarious laughter to dead silence within seconds. For all of its entertaining vulgarity, this Broadway show is a cautionary tale against the evils of forcing a belief system down the throats of others. If nothing else, it will leave you wondering how this particular sect became so powerful and accepted as to produce the odds-on favorite for the GOP nomination.

On the same side of the bizarro-spectrum is the new breed of Christian fundamentalist personified by Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator. In addition to the many things I find loathsome about him and other sanctimonious politicians is their annoying habit of twisting the words of the Constitution and, in particular, the Founding Fathers.

The rise of the conservative Christian fundamentalist clutching the Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other is one of the more intellectually insulting developments of our time. The Founding Fathers were undoubtedly brilliant. But many of their flaws such as their racism and infidelity have been whitewashed over time, explained away as unfortunate characteristics of the era instead of the morally reprehensible traits they have always been. By claiming ownership of their ideas and intentions, the conservative fundamentalist movement has completely distorted the spirit of the Constitution. In everything they did the Founding Fathers—many of them downright heathens if ever there were any—took great pains to eradicate the role of God in governance. After all, these were men who knew and understood that America was settled by people fleeing, not seeking, religious persecution.

One needs to look no further than the Constitution itself to discover that our form of government was intended to be an entirely secular affair. Moreover, The Federalist Papers, which offers the greatest insight into the intentions set forth by the most scholarly of the Founding Fathers, explicitly denounced religious influence over government.  In his portion of the introduction, James Madison credits the “zeal for different opinions concerning religion,” among other things, with having, “divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.” The majority of the writings proffered by our forefathers echo this sentiment. While freedom of religion among citizens was indeed a critical aspect of their collective philosophy, so too was freedom from religion.

This doesn’t mean they weren’t men of faith. In fact, my guess is that if they heard Rick Santorum profess that JFK’s insistence upon separation of church and state made him want to throw up, the Founding Fathers would likely vomit themselves.  After a good laugh at Santorum’s expense and a few hits of opium, Benjamin Franklin would take off with one of his several prostitute paramours, Jefferson would go back to chasing Sally Hemmings around her slave quarters, Washington would return to bidding on a few more colored people, Hamilton would resume paying hush money to the husband of his 20-something-year-old mistress, Adams would continue attempting to imprison reporters under the Alien and Sedition Acts, and Aaron Burr would get back to his target practice.

These guys would have fit in perfectly today with the likes of former Nevada Sen. John Ensign and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who both called for President Clinton’s impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal while simultaneously carrying on extra-marital affairs of their own— the former with the wife of his best friend.

But enough about those God-fearing noblemen; let’s get on to the oft-abused phrases that seemingly comprise the bulk of Middle America’s knowledge of American history.

For those who insist on God as part of the original intent in America, allow me to disabuse you of the most commonly mistaken beliefs. To begin, there are no references to God in the Constitution. Period. Furthermore, the phrase “under God” was not part of the original Pledge of Allegiance, which was written by a socialist, by the by; it was formally adopted by Congress in 1954 as a reaction to the rise of secular Communism. I’ve also heard the argument the president serves the Almighty first and foremost because the Oath of Office closes with the phrase: “so help me God.” This is true, but you should know that it was ad-libbed by George Washington, not originally written as such. And finally, “In God We Trust” is neither from the Constitution nor the Declaration of Independence. It’s on our money. How very Christian of us.American history is fascinating and the work of our Founding Fathers is legendary and enduring, but it’s important to get it right. So too is it important to understand the origins of the modern Christian fundamentalist movement. In a nutshell:

A couple of babbling prophets roamed the country in the 1800s and early 1900s selling a new shiny brand of Jesus with little attention paid to them. Then, in the 1920s, Bruce Barton, best known as one of the “B’s” in the BBD&O ad agency, published The Man Nobody Knows. It was a self-help book about Corporate Jesus that spread like wildfire, and the fundamentalist movement latched on immediately with the thought that if you’re successful in this life, then Jesus must love you. Of course, the flip side of that coin is that if you’re poor through no fault of your own, it must be because Jesus hates you. Fundamentalists don’t like that side of the story much, though.

That’s right; the babbling nomadic Christian fundamentalists who evangelized throughout the United States were universally recognized as the crazy people they were until they got a makeover by the Don Draper of the 1920’s. The result: Rick Santorum. And the people who believed Jesus buried golden tablets (that no one ever actually saw) in the three days between dying on the cross and rising again only to later tell an angel named Moroni to let Joseph Smith know that the plates were buried in his back yard…in Rochester…New York…? I give you, Mitt Romney.

These are the GOP frontrunners that shall walk among us next month in a primary that looks like it actually might matter. And since I have maintained my Republican registration, I get to weigh in on this contest. Any thoughts on which one I should pull the lever, er, fill in the bubble for? Can I just go all the way and write in “Tim Tebow?” What the hell, right? Oops! There I go again.

Live Free and Die

Um, sorry, black folk. Apparently in Ron Paul’s America, the right of a state still trumps your right to be considered more than three-fifths human.

Originally published in the January 12th, 2012 edition of the Long Island Press

The highest office in the land is the only job where applicants are rewarded for the level of disdain they express for the position they seek. The greater the antipathy toward government, the better the candidate connects with voters; or so it seems given the tenor of the GOP primary season. 

The image of the self-loathing politician promising to shrink the role of government in our lives is as old as the nation itself and usually appears during woeful economic times such as these. Of course, what someone utters on the campaign trail is almost always a far cry from how he speaks upon ascending to the Oval Office. Watching the current slate of GOP-hopefuls repackage this timeless anti-government dogma while vying for the single most powerful job in government is as ironic as it is ridiculous, but it is not without precedent. 

Many of the Founding Fathers were highly suspicious of government and the competence of the men seeking to run it. To them, government was a necessary evil, which is why so many provisions were enacted during America’s youth to protect its citizens from tyranny. But even the Founding Fathers weren’t immune to the awesome and corrupting power that accompanies the presidency. One early example was John Adams, one of the staunchest proponents of the Bill of Rights and the author of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, which included many of the Constitutional amendments we hold so dear today. It was Adams who cajoled a reluctant James Madison to introduce the Bill of Rights in Congress to protect citizens from encroachments on their liberty. 

Only a few years later, Madison was jolted from retirement to join with Thomas Jefferson against an emboldened President Adams, who had recently signed the Alien and Sedition Acts into law, thus allowing the federal government to detain and arrest any citizen who spoke out against it. Adams was reacting to federalist fears triggered by watching the French Revolution turn ugly, and his paranoia was not without merit. But the totality of federal authority granted under these acts was so abhorrent to many of his contemporaries and fellow American revolutionaries it prompted the passage of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions whereby these respective states unilaterally deemed the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional. 

Now put this conflict into its proper current context. Libertarians such as Ron Paul, the second-place finisher in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, and free-market conservatives (every other GOP candidate including frontrunner Mitt Romney) routinely paint themselves as Jeffersonian state’s rights advocates. Paul, in particular, identifies strongly with the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions in spite of the fact that they were specific to the threat of the Alien and Sedition Acts and later were the primary separatist arguments upon which the Civil War was fought. While the larger field of candidates is likely incapable of discussing these measures in any thoughtful way, Paul has actually made a career arguing that these resolutions are somehow as sacrosanct as the Constitution itself. He has even gone so far as to criticize their demise under President Abraham Lincoln and has called the Civil War a “major setback” due to the “undermining of the principle of sovereign states.” In a statement made on the floor of the House of Representatives in 2004, which was re-circulated by the organization Campaign For Liberty over the summer, Paul lamented this development saying, “The Civil War profoundly changed the balance of power in our federalist system, paving the way for centralized big government.”

Um, sorry, black folk. Apparently in Ron Paul’s America, the right of a state still trumps your right to be considered more than three-fifths human. 

Beyond the unintended consequence of setting the stage for the Civil War, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions did serve to unify the Democratic-Republican Party (later just the Democratic Party) against the Federalists and Adams’ frightful encroachments on individual liberties. But the fight with Adams was cover for the real issue that divided the nascent empire: taxes. 

Most of the Founding Fathers were opposed to Alexander Hamilton’s insistence upon centralizing and maintaining a strong federal treasury. They opposed it, that is, until it was their time to lead the nation as president. America’s ability to purchase land, fight skirmishes at home or wage war on the high seas was impossible without levying taxes upon its citizens: an early example of the evaporating campaign promise. When it comes to dollars and cents, ideology cannot overcome fiscal reality. 

It’s one of the reasons why our economy is struggling so badly today. Believing that war somehow pays for itself and, even more magically, stimulates growth, the Bush administration chose to ignore history and embroil the nation in two costly wars while simultaneously cutting taxes to anemic levels. This type of disconnect is central to the Republican psychology of this presidential campaign and each candidate’s continued misinterpretation of the Founding Fathers.

As much as the Jeffersonians were ideologically opposed to a strong central bank and morally opposed to the Alien and Sedition Acts, they were pragmatists. Their fight against the latter gave spirit to the party, the former provided substance. Same concept, different century. 

Mind you, the GOP isn’t alone in their disassociation between candidacy and presidency. Take the curious case of candidate Barack Obama, self-proclaimed expert on the Constitution who signed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012 on New Year’s Eve, which includes the controversial indefinite detention provision that has libertarians and others going berserk. As well it should. It’s a confusing bundle of words that, in conjunction with the authority granted to the government under the Patriot Act, theoretically provides President Obama with powers dangerously akin to those bestowed on President Adams by the Alien and Sedition Acts. 

So while pundits split hairs over who hates government the most and which candidate has been married the longest, we’ve tragically lost our place in our own history. And so here we are again: back where we started, none the wiser and with little to show for our experience.

Founding Father’s DNA

One might ask how is it that the Greatest Generation begat a Generation of Whining Juveniles? Men who prevailed through the Great Depression and World War II, not to mention the 91% top income tax rate in the ‘50s without weeping in public sired kids who tuned-in, dropped out then either Oprified into support groups or Rushed into tea baggers, victims all.

James Watson has nothing really to do with this story except that he did discover DNA and probably knew the Founding Fathers personally

At the intersection of Fathers’ Day and Independence Day, aka Founding Fathers’ Day, consider how we got the way we are.

Revisit your biology course of yesteryear and recall the pre-Darwinian theory of inheriting acquired traits known as Lamarckism.  The French zoologist made the following observation: if a giraffe regularly stretches its neck to reach leaves, its children will be born with longer necks.  Origin of the Species concluded, to the contrary, that evolutionary changes take place over many generations and through millions of years of natural selection.  In the realm of pseudo-scientific causality, Lamarckism was filed away along with bad air as the cause of malaria.

Or so it seemed.  Turns out DNA predestination ain’t necessarily so.  While DNA shapes who we are, epigenetic mechanisms can shape DNA.  Epigenetics evaluates changes in gene activity.  The epigenome has been called software to the genome’s hardware. Good and bad behavior, it is now believed, can be passed along to successive generations.  Body builders who take steroids, for example, may bequeath their shrunken testicles.  It is as the Bible told us: iniquities of the father are visited upon the son. 

Last fall Forbes ran a cover story entitled “How Obama Thinks,” moshed from a book, The Roots of Obama’s Rage, by Dinesh D’Souza which deems that the President is channeling his absentee Kenyan father in Mau-Mauing American exceptionalism.  In Dreams from My Father, D’Souza contends, “Obama isn’t writing about his father’s dreams; he is writing about the dreams he received from his father….  To his son, the elder Obama represented a great and noble cause, the cause of anticolonialism….  Obama grew to perceive the rich as an oppressive class, a kind of neocolonial power within America….  Colonialism today is a dead issue.  No one cares about it except the man in the White House.  He is the last anticolonial….  Incredibly, the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s.” 

I know a great deal about anticolonialism, because I am a native of Mumbai, India,” D’Souza contends.  Following the strand of D’Souza’s legacy DNA, reveals that his parents are Roman Catholic Brahmins from the small west coast state of Goa, which was colonized by the Portuguese.  Many Goan Christians were distressed when their state was decolonized and annexed by India in 1961, the year D’Souza was born.  Though converted three centuries earlier, Catholic Brahmins retained the Hindu caste system that discriminates against so-called “untouchables” even if they too were Catholic converts.  Indian bishops were rebuked by Pope John Paul II for these practices on his visit to Goa in 2003.  By D’Souza standards, Dinesh extends a family tradition of currying favor with the ruling class by wielding his poison pen for Forbes heir, Steve, whose self-professed, most traumatic life experience was the day big daddy Malcolm packed him off to boarding school.  Best not to delve too deeply into the way Forbes may be channeling the appetites of his old man.

Another intriguing trek down the legacy DNA strand leads to the forbearers of Rush Limbaugh. It might surprise “dittohead” followers of the arch-enemy of Big, Bad Federal government that there is a Limbaugh Federal Courthouse named for his grandfather in Ft. Girardeau, MO, Rush’s hometown on the Mason-Dixon line.  Less surprising, is that the Limbaugh family website cites six ancestors who fought in the Civil War, all for the Confederacy.  Lamarck might have observed that rednecks get more crimson through successive generations.  It provides a cause-and-effect for what one journalist characterizes as “the southernization of American politics.”  The South has risen again, ya’ll.  The conflict continues to course through the true blue veins of red-blooded America; today we call it culture wars.

The epigenomic source for our continental divide can be traced back to the Founding Fathers, Federalists v Anti-Federalists.  James Madison, writing as Publius in Federalist Paper No. 10, sounds off like the anti-colonial caricature of Obama: “the most common and durable source of factions (read special interests) has been the various and unequal distribution of property….  The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man.”  Weighing in for the Antis, the pseudonymous, equally anti-colonial, Cato warned that, “In a large republic there are men of large fortunes, and consequently of less moderation,” that can lead to a house divided against itself.  So factionalism proved out in the dirty presidential election of 1800, when Adams was branded a “hideous hermaphroditical character,” and Jefferson, “the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”

Of more recent vintage one might ask how is it that the Greatest Generation begat a Generation of Whining Juveniles?   Men who prevailed through the Great Depression and World War II, not to mention the 91% top income tax rate in the ‘50s without weeping in public sired kids who tuned-in, dropped out then either Oprified into support groups or Rushed into tea baggers, victims all. 

In the lead-up to Fathers’ Day, I asked contemporaries what they learned about fathering from their fathers.  While some overhauled and others merely fine-tuned, all imparted the sense that fatherly influence is more art than science.  So it is with the dynamic legacy bequeathed us by the Founding Fathers.  Our nation is a work-in-progress, open to interpretation.  The Founding Fathers guaranteed the right to claim so-called ‘original intent’, but never etched it stone.