In a way, it doesn’t make much sense to ask what was wrong in the American Founding that contributed to the pickle we’re in today. We’ve got our problems but other countries mostly outdo us. We invented PC, and first made abortion a legally enforceable fundamental right, but so far at least we don’t normally put people in jail for saying un-PC things, and we haven’t (yet) ratified CEDAW or the convention on the rights of the child. Still, laws, constitutions and theories have been extremely influential in America, and they’ve shown the way to things that haven’t been all good, so it’s worth sketching issues with the particular path we’ve followed:
- A basic problem with the Founding is viewing it as the Founding, as if American society hadn’t already existed for a century and a half. The 1787 constitution and those who wrote it were admirable in many ways, but it’s wrong to treat them as divinities that called a society into being.
- Then there’s the nature of the national institutions that play such a role in what amounts to our political religion. The federal government was set up for purposes that were pretty much limited to commerce and national defense. People had doubts whether it should be viewed as the ultimate focus of worldly loyalty and political authority. Those doubts were effectively laid to rest in 1865. Ultimate legal authority backed by the power of the sword of necessity made it supremely authoritative. How though can something set up for such restricted and mundane purposes hold such a status?
- The wholly secular nature of our national government, and therefore in the end our national life, became explicit in the Founders’ decision to make religion irrelevant to participation in those things, as evidenced by the “no religious test” provision, the Establishment Clause, and the letters of Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport and Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists.
Even if the Founders and those who voted to ratify their work didn’t think they were helping make our national society a self-contained godless system devoted to wholly material goals, what they actually did points in that direction.
So what to do? Certainly it’s not necessary to “give up on America” or say our national life has been a bad thing. In any tradition you have to look at past acts and decisions and value some aspects of them more than others. Even those that are admirable in many ways, like the drafting of the Constitution, have limitations and you can’t make them objects of worship. America is bigger and more enduring than its positive legal institutions, and like everything else it’s part of things that transcend it. It seems to me that what experience shows is that American patriotism has to change to become more conscious of such things.