The Enlightenment Divides American Politics

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, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

from the Declaration of Independence

There is no shortage of political divides in this era of angry politics. But one of the most fundamental of all is between those who favor the Enlightenment and those who oppose it. Considering that the ideals and values of the Enlightenment ushered in the transition from the medieval to the modern and drove the American Revolution, it's a quite stunning and ironic state of affairs to find ourselves in during the early part of the 21st century.

The Enlightenment was a sustained starburst in political thought, a powerful philosophical movement in Europe and North America from the late 17th century through the whole of the 18th century and into the early 19th century. Drawing on Renaissance humanism and the emerging scientific revolution, Enlightenment thinkers rejected feudalism, royalism, superstition, and religious prophecy, applying the reason of science to society.

Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were the key leaders of the American Enlightenment, with George Washington and John Adams in substantial agreement.

With the guidance of these Founding Fathers, egalitarianism, expanding human rights, and the central role for science and rational inquiry in a society marked by a separation of church and state were central characteristics of early American thought.

The most ironic thing about the Tea Party-ized Republican Party, which, despite its appropriation of the Boston Tea Party moniker, is in reality little more than a re-branding of the far right, is that it rejects the ideas which animated the American Revolution, as demonstrated in the Declaration of Independence, and which spurred the remaking of America during the Civil War, as proclaimed in the Gettysburg Address.

A Gallup Poll earlier this month brought home just how far away from Enlightenment thinking much of the country, largely the part represented by the Republican Party, has become. It's actually rather shocking.

An amazing 46% of Americans believe in creationism, the doctrine that denies the science of evolution and holds that human beings in our present form were created by God within the past 10,000 years. Which has people and dinosaurs existing together in some sort of ludicrous cartoon view of reality.

While big majorities of Democrats and independents reject this stuff, the great majority, some 60%, of Republicans embrace it. And when you remove those Americans with postgraduate educations from the mix, most of the remaining Americans believe in creationism.

So much for the power of the news media, the Internet, and other forms of media to inform the people.

Amazingly, the overall numbers are essentially the same as they were 30 years ago. Despite the fact that there have been numerous well-publicized scientific discoveries during the past three decades buttressing evolution science and debunking creationism. In fact, the number of Americans with this woeful sense of the world has actually gone UP a few points, from 44%.

Here's the understated way in which the Gallup organization sums up this appalling pooling of ignorance: "Still, it would be hard to dispute that most scientists who study humans agree that the species evolved over millions of years, and that relatively few scientists believe that humans began in their current form only 10,000 years ago without the benefit of evolution. Thus, almost half of Americans today hold a belief, at least as measured by this question wording, that is at odds with the preponderance of the scientific literature."

Unfortunately, this is only the latest example of how what is frankly medieval anti-Enlightenment thinking has coalesced in America.

The anti-Enlightenment forces in America are all of a piece -- birthers who scream that the first black president is really not an American at all but an African, evolution deniers, greenhouse deniers, anti-solar types, the drill-baby-drill crowd who don't get that oil is a global market so even more drilling here won't drop the price of gasoline, anti-gays, anti-choicers, and so on.

Jefferson and Franklin would roll over in their graves listening to this gabble.

And the supposed "moderate" Mitt Romney is squarely behind all of it.

His own son made birther cracks about Barack Obama, the first black president, several months ago. Romney himself chose to celebrate his clinching win in the Republican primaries with a big fundraiser at the Vegas Strip casino of the most famous birther in the country, Donald Trump, who that very day gave interviews pushing his vicious nonsense.

Romney ran as a moderate in rather liberal Massachusetts. So the question is, when was Romney lying? When he ran to the left of Teddy Kennedy on gay rights when he tried to get elected to the U.S. Senate in the '90s and pushed what's now known as "Obamacare" as governor of Massachsetts in the past decade? Or now, when he runs for president as head of a political party that has pitched itself as anti-Enlightenment.

For Romney is also a former bishop in one of the most conservative religions in America, the Mormon Church. His conservative faith meant enough to him that he worked as a Mormon missionary in France while others his age were going to fight in the Vietnam War, which Romney, a superhawk, vociferously supported. But he doesn't talk about it in public, and the media never presses him.

It's all a far cry from the now vanished Republican Party we had in this country from the Civil War of the 1860s through the Mad Men days of the 1960s, when Republicans embraced civil rights, conservation, and the preservation of the Union against the rebellion of states which today make up the geographic core of the anti-Enlightenment forces in America.

Following the very hard-won victory of Union forces over Confederate at Gettysburg, one of the most critically important battles in American history, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln made a little speech, just 272 words. In this speech, the Gettysburg Address, the man credited as the father of the Republican Party celebrated the turning point in the Civil War and proclaimed the rebirth of the United States along the Enlightenment lines of the Declaration of Independence:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain--that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom--and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

As Garry Wills pointed out in his excellent Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, Lincoln saw that it was necessary to defeat the reactionary forces massing behind the banner of states' rights. And Lincoln saw that Jefferson had framed an ideal nation toward which the real nation would evolve, praising Jefferson for his intellectual acts as "the most distinguished politician in our history."

Lincoln's remaking of America by reaffirming the Enlightenment principles of the Declaration of Independence in the crucible of Civil War came at a time of great turbulence and division. We live in a time of great turbulence and division as well, though the challenges are more multi-faceted and global: A still uncertain recovery from economic and financial meltdown, a struggle over the nature of democracy marked by the expansion of money politics, unprecedented environmental/climate challenges, a big geopolitical pivot from over-engagement with Islam to increased engagement with Asia while still deeply entangled in war and potential war.

While all this goes on, the country struggles with its latest evolution in human rights.

Most generations of Americans have grappled with their own forms of parochialism, insularity, and squeamishness.

The Committee of Five of the Continental Congress, charged with producing the Declaration of Independence in 1776, included slavery as one of the ills to be removed from the new body politic. Only Virginia's Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration's principal author, came from a Southern colony, while Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, John Adams of Massachusetts, Robert Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut all came from the North.

The end of slavery, of course, was not included in the Declaration. Practical politics seemed to dictate otherwise, so it was left to Lincoln to end slavery, a more complex task than a simple proclamation.

So it has been with the expansion of human rights for blacks and other ethnic groups, for women, and now for LGBT rights with the struggle over same-sex marriage.

These simply aren't times for an increase in the power of the forces of ignorance. Even Lincoln would have trouble in this political environment.

Which is why we must recognize how starkly fundamental the challenge really is.

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