Sunday, December 4, 2011

The American Pantheon

Speaking to a women’s evangelical conference in April of 2010, Sarah Palin defended the union of church and state, saying that our Founding Fathers “were believers [in God]” (Sargent 2010). Palin’s statement is in line with much of political conservatism in the United States; there is a propensity to anchor the party line with an invocation of the Founding Fathers, but the Right are not solely responsible. In response to Palin, only days later, liberal television pundit Keith Olbermann retorted, quoting Thomas Jefferson in an 1823 letter to John Adams. The quote reveals that Jefferson regarded the story of Jesus and the virgin birth as fantastical as the Roman myth of Minerva born from the head of Jupiter (Cappon 1959). “A believer?!” says Olbermann, as if Jefferson is solely representative of the Founders.

The Founding Fathers are often called upon to testify on behalf of those that need to drive home a political, social, economic, religious, or cultural point, and always under the auspices of patriotism. Examples abound on both sides of the aisle, from presidential candidate Michele Bachmann’s memorable assertion that the Founding Fathers worked “tirelessly to put an end to slavery” (McCarthy 2011), to Senator John Kerry saying that, were they alive, the Founding Fathers would vote against the balanced budget amendment in the summer of 2011 (McIntyre 2011). There is power in invoking the entity to which Americans owe so much of their freedom, and it is the wild card of political discourse. Discussion can be stopped in its tracks (akin to Godwin’s Law) or it can be catalyzed into an out-and-out debate of historical veracity and tug-of-war. Speeches made with the Founding Fathers in mind can be, at best, inspirational and patriotic, but because the Fathers are generally unquestionable and ambiguous in American society, they can be manipulated to suit any agenda. One of the best examples is the claim that this country was founded as a Christian nation. This is often substantiated by those that point out how many times “God” is mentioned in a Father’s speech or letter, that a passage from Psalms was recited at the meeting of the First Continental Congress, or that one must swear upon a Bible in American court rooms (“Christian Nation” 2011). An oft-heard response to this evidence is that the Fathers were Deists, and believed that religion was poisonous and foolish (Till 2011). In this regard, the Founding Fathers are a moldable entity, subject to the whims of the political shaman that calls them forth.

The sacredness of the Fathers is intriguing because the mythos surrounding the founding of the United States is one ingrained into every schoolchild. Most Americans are familiar with the stories of George Washington cutting down the cherry-tree or Paul Revere riding across the countryside to warn colonists of the invading British army, and it is because of this that our understanding of the Founding Fathers is one that begins in legend – unverifiable anecdotes based on historically documented human beings. Both the allure and misunderstanding of these men have made summoning their presence an acceptable cultural practice during political discourse, despite the fact that the American people may not be as versed in the historic facts as they ought to be. On the other hand, that dissonance is irrelevant; the ritual and practice, as pointless as it may seem to the outsider, is part of the culture and rightly remains so until something changes that might do away with such rhetoric. The collection of men and women who contributed to the founding of the United States is an American legend, and as such, it is to be regarded as part of the folklore from which much of American patriotism and values are derived. I call this collection the American Pantheon.

Ancestor Worship
There is a cultural phenomenon whereby the dead are venerated by the living, generally in order to ensure a sustained happiness for the deceased in their afterlife. It is often believed, for instance in a “Chinese cosmological worldview,” that even after death, one has an interest in the wellbeing and events of those kin that were left behind (Khun Eng 2006:247). Rituals, both funerary and annual, are performed to remember the lives of the dead, but also as a means of communication (e.g. Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico and Central America) (Nutini 1991:772).

Totemism is also a means of honoring the dead. By identifying one’s self in allegiance with a particular apical ancestor, and acting in accordance with what one perceives are the values of that ancestor, the deceased has gained a sort of life-after-death, via a living proxy (Vail et al 2010; Palmer et al 2008:731). Because of the apical nature of totemism, it is likely that the imagery of such ancestors is based upon people that lived many generations ago, rather than the recently deceased (see Kennedy 1984; Keen 2004). In both cases, the dead are considered to retain a sort of interactivity in the lives of the family, from influencing decisions to manipulating fortune and health – directly (Keller 2008:659) and indirectly (Palmer et al 2008:731).

The American Pantheon
There is a parallel between totemism and the phenomena that surround the establishment and maintenance of the American Pantheon. One of the most obvious is that of kinship. Americans call those that founded our political and legal system fathers – they are the apical ancestors of that which we celebrate and proselytize to the rest of the world. The American folklore of the Pantheon is steeped in a rich national cosmology – not just the “creation story” of our country, but also that of liberty, democracy, and escape from tyranny. Even in the English orthography of the phrase “Founding Fathers,” the letter f is capitalized, bestowing tribute to the collective as one would when speaking of the Christian god, God. It is as if to distinguish this group of founders from another less notable group of founding fathers.

Another element of the Pantheon that lends to the ease of manipulation is that of membership; the Founding Fathers are not often clearly defined. What is clear (from the number of times one may hear their names in the news media) is that the core constituent of the Pantheon – the Titans, if you will – are Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. These men were either actively engaged architects of the systems that would eventually become the United States, or they played a singular (though major) role in the legend of its founding. They spring to mind at the very mention of “Founding Fathers,” virtually by way of apotheosis. And yet, there are many more to add to the list. Often, the Founding Fathers are invoked during debates concerning the Constitution, thus a possible defining feature could be that the Founding Fathers were present at the Constitutional Convention. Many Constitutional arguments, in which the Founding Fathers make an appearance, are related to the Bill of Rights – a document that was not ratified until two years after the United States Constitution, and thus the definition of Founding Fathers expands yet again. All in all, one could argue that the Founding Fathers are comprised of between seven men and a few hundred men (and some women). In reference to the example above, it would be pointless, with so many people, to claim that all of these people were solely Christians or Deists. Likewise, it is futile to assume that all of the Founding Fathers were pro- or anti-government, though Ron Paul has said that “the Founders were Libertarians” (“Ron Paul: The Founding Fathers Were Libertarians” 2011).

With regards to today’s political discourse, the absolute identity of each Father is irrelevant, except when it is convenient. Ultimately, the American Pantheon is a faceless symbol of revolution, reinvention, and resistance of tyranny. Only when a pundit, politician, or activist needs to attribute a specifically salient and translatable anecdote, are particular Fathers conjured. Despite so many people constituting the American ancestral spirit (even as little as seven), one may be called upon to represent the whole, at the sacrifice of not just historical accuracy, but epistemological clarity. For instance, one could argue that if the Founding Fathers were alive today, they would resist the establishment of a national bank. Specifically, Thomas Jefferson opposed the idea of a national bank, thus if one wanted to defend that argument, one may cite Jefferson’s stance. On the other hand, another Father of the core group, Alexander Hamilton, was for the establishment of a national bank, and likewise one could cite him if they wanted to argue that today, the Founding Fathers would not resist such an issue.

This is a fairly simple and sterile example of the dissonance between political rhetoric and historic context. As one considers more and more figures that qualify as members of the Pantheon, the variation of opinion increases, and the accuracy of a single individual’s political stance as representative of the whole decreases. This fact is irrelevant to the person that may cite a member of the Pantheon, as the very phrase “Founding Fathers” (and any of the names associated with it) seems to be sacred, and generally unquestionable.

Political Dichotomy
As it was discussed above, the Founding Fathers exist as a single entity. If, in the course of political rhetoric, the Pantheon needs to be fragmented, it is generally into individuals. Rarely, if ever, do the pundits and politicians in the mainstream cable network media break the Fathers into their political parties. Thus, upon conjuring the Fathers as a whole, or a single individual, one has called upon them to represent their “side” of an issue. Because of the nature of our political culture – one of binary opposition – the invocation of the Fathers often accompanies such words as: for-against; intended-did not intend; support-oppose; and would-would not. (Also, one may hear the phrase “rolling in their graves,” which seems to reinforce the conception of ancestor worship, specifically that one who has died is still alive and is affected by decisions of the living.) To assign such “on-off” qualities to the Fathers ignores their rich cultural, social, religious, economic, and political diversity, and it cheapens the long hard process that it took to establish a sovereign country from nearly nothing. This oversight is irrelevant, however, because American political culture endorses such a view, and that cultural practice keeps the process cohesive in that it is constantly reminding the American people of their “common ancestors.”

A simple observational review of political media (blogs, news articles, punditry, etc.) seems to suggest that there are two possible reasons that the Founding Fathers are either invoked individually or as a whole, but never as their intermediate components (e.g. political parties). By avoiding demarcating the Founders into parties that might roughly parallel today’s liberal and conservative wings, one does not have to sacrifice a Father they might otherwise be able to utilize. For example, if one were to call upon the Anti-Federalists in support of small government, binary opposition may force one to ignore that John Adams, a Federalist, is credited with designing the “Separation of Powers” model – that is, separate legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Secondly, and more importantly to the strength of political rhetoric, breaking the Founders into groups only weakens one’s argument, and sidesteps the entire strategy of American ancestor worship in the first place. Without invoking the Pantheon, a pundit may be left defending a view from their position at either end of the political teeter-totter – an unimpressive position indeed, and invoking a specific “side” of the Fathers doesn’t change the bias of that position. However, by rallying the Founders as a whole to one’s side of the argument, a pundit can easily make that argument from authority (as well as patriotism and tradition), which is more or less the whole point of using rhetoric.

The American Pantheon, a legendary collection of human beings, founded this country over 230 years ago. They solved their own problems with solutions that were untested, risky, and sometimes cutting edge; democracy on the scale of America was experimental. Today, however, it is difficult to apply the same logic and problem solving to a society that is faces 21st century issues (though not for lack of trying [“The Founding Fathers Didn’t Want Gay Marriage” 2008]) – abortion, gay rights, universal health care, nuclear proliferation, tension in the Middle East, and globalism to name a few. Not only is the wisdom of the Fathers outdated, but it was flawed and inconsistent when they were alive. And yet they are still conjured in defense of political, social, and economic issues, despite being roughly 200 years dead. Even Thomas Jefferson (1816) himself recognized the weakness of ancestor worship, saying:

Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. It was very like the present but without the experience of the present; and forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading; and this they would say themselves were they to rise from the dead (Fischer 2010; Peterson 1988).

None of this matters, however, and that is why the Pantheon is an object of patriotic American ancestor worship. It is tempting to wonder what the Fathers may think today of the institution which they worked so hard to establish, but ultimately that curiosity is futile and without purpose, other than to adhere to an American cultural tradition. While a cold look at this style of ancestor worship may reveal that it is simply a distraction from the immediate attention that our political, social, and economic problems may deserve, it may also be a necessary catalyst of both American culture (by way of folklore) and also a stopgap revitalization movement in which those that wish to do so, may return to a more traditional and simplified perception of the nation’s problems. In this light, despite the media’s divisive and polarizing manipulation of the Founding Fathers, this somewhat affinal, kinship-based ancestor worship is actually a mechanism for a greater social solidarity.

Works Cited:
Cappon, Lester Jesse, ed.
   1959    The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
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   1984    Review of Ancestor Worship and Korean Society. In American Anthropologist 86(1): 216-218.
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   2011    Video clip.  Accessed November 24, 2011. YouTube.,
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