Thursday, May 24, 2007

Summer reading about the very hot Summer of 1787

An astonishing amount of what passes for political discussion these days --from congressional debate to political campaigns-- is shot through with ringing anthems of America-as-christian-nation.

I'm reading The Summer of 1787 by David Stewart, published this month. He's done an admirable job of tracing the trajectory of the debate that forged the Constitution out of the frustration and manipulation that flowed from the original thirteen constituents imperfectly bound together under the Articles of Confederation. It was a long, hot summer in Philadelphia, four months of tortuous work.

There was compromise, obstruction, boycott of the Convention, compromise, more fighting followed by more compromise and, ultimately, the Original Sin of our Constitutional Democracy, the door left wide open to that utterly un-christian, abjectly immoral institution of slavery.

He lays out the passions and contradictions that led to our imperfect and flawed, yet brilliant and enduring founding document.

The book is short, but steeped in the original documentation--letters among the framers, complementing the meticulous (and occasionally manipulative) keeping of the minutes by James Madison.

What is striking--and germane to dialogue in a 21st Century blog--is how totally the framers left religion, God, Christian morality, their own religious beliefs out of the discussion. They clearly had no time for it. It was irrelevant. One need only read the brief chapter on the Three Fifths Compromise to know that these were pragmatic men, focused only on the things of this world, perhaps ignoring the compartmentalized issue of religious belief, particularly as it impinged on the unholy parts of the bargain they were agreeing to.

They were single-minded in their pursuit of a scheme for a constitutional republic that would rid them of monarchy--that stinking notion that there exists a Divine Right of Kings. That, and the manipulative and thuggish theocracy flowing from it--the monarch supported by nobility and catered to by the ecclesiastical princes.

Reading Stewart's history brought me back to the essence of it all. If the framers had not compromised, there would have been no republic, no constitution, no reason to be arguing 220 years later over whether the this odd bunch of deists, methodists, unitarians, quakers, atheists and Don't-Give-a-Damn's believed in God, much less thought that belief in god, much less christian morality, was the foundation of the American experiment.

Predictably, the Original Sin has never been expiated; it still marks every one of us. It still threatens this flawed-but-enduring, presently-limping Constitutional Democracy. It will likely be the end of it. (In case anyone's been thinking America is, of its very nature, millennial).

And arguments about how one or the other of us knows for sure that the founders were devout and god-fearing and fundamentally christian is just so much chaff in the wind.

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Of the biblical allotment of three score and ten I have lived only three of them more than a bicycle ride from one of the Great Lakes. I grew up ten blocks from Lake Erie in the (once Irish/Italian ghetto, now newly-hip) "Near West Side" of Cleveland. I can still cycle to the Milwaukee lakefront in an hour and a half; but, a round-trip has always been more than I would (noror ever did) attempt. -0- I'm a "...somewhat combative pacifist and fairly cooperative anarchist," after the example of Grace Paley (1922-2007). -0- I'm always cheerful when I pay my taxes (having refused--when necessary--to pay that portion of them dedicated to war). -0- And I always, always vote.