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Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Philosophical Revolution

Thomas Paine wrote "Common Sense",
which argued for a new perspective on divine
authority. Photo: Graphic compilation by
DT Strain. Elements,
(cc) GenBug (U.S. Flag), (cc) porteous (statue).
The American revolution was not merely a political revolution, but a philosophic one. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson (with editing and revisions by several other founding fathers) wrote to their King their intentions to defect from the British Empire:

"When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."

The philosophical significance of this statement cannot be overlooked. This is no mere declaration as it might be taken simply today, "Hey, we've had it up to here with you and we're doing our own thing now." Rather, this was what would have been looked at in its time as an outrageous and presumptuous act of boldness, treachery, immorality, and to some, even sacrilege. One's King was not merely a political ruler, but placed into power by the providence of God. Yet, here were these people declaring not only rebellion to that authority, but having the nerve to refer to "Nature's God" in their proclamation. Not only saying, "we are doing this thing you think is immoral" but with the added claim that it is not immoral, but rather that it is the King who is immoral.

This type of ethical reversal reminds me of the tone in the ballad sung from the 60's generation to their parents, The Times They Are a-Changing, by Bob Dylan. In one verse he sings, "your sons and your daughters are beyond your command" but this is no mere disobedience. Inviting mothers and fathers throughout the land to join with them he ads, "your old road is rapidly aging. Please get out of the new one if you can't lend your hand." The ethical upheaval has reached such a point in this kind of phenomena that rebels not only defend their own actions, but cast moral indignation upon the powers against which they rebel, inviting them to make themselves useful and be a part of the new vision. They have moved beyond the discussion and debate over who is right, as the momentum of history has already propelled them on to the next battle of making the new paradigm a reality.

The Declaration of Independence outlined a conceptual break from the model in which authority flowed from: GOD to STATE to INDIVIDUAL. And turned this ethical foundation on it's head. Now, authority flowed from: GOD to INDIVIDUAL to STATE. Thus, what gods have to say about anything is a matter for each individual and their conscience, and they direct the state to those ends. No longer would the state be telling us what god has to say. One can imagine how those of the old school (including the King, no doubt) would find such a declaration not only highly unethical, but perhaps even nonsensical.

The principles outlined in the declaration were inspired by the enlightenment and philosophers such as John Locke, who wrote of Natural Law, and Thomas Paine who spelled out this flow of authority in his pamphlet, Common Sense. Only by understanding this principle and mindset of the founders regarding the flow of authority, can one begin to understand the principles separating church from state in our country. It explains why, despite the deism and other beliefs of various founders, they saw fit not to include any mention of God in the U.S. Constitution, why they forbid Congress from making laws having the effect of establishing a religion, why they forbade religious tests for office, and why President Thomas Jefferson refused to proclaim a day of prayer. It also explains the Supreme Court ruling stating that the rest of the governments in the U.S. are bound by the same restrictions, and it explains many of the Supreme Court rulings on the separation of church and state today.

Included in this would be their decision on prayer in public schools. Contrary to many conservative religious folks' conception of that decision, children can (and always could) pray in school. Many public schools, in fact, allow student prayer groups to meet on their grounds. What is forbidden is for a teacher to lead children in prayer - because a teacher at a public school is an employee of the state, a representative of the government - and the state has no authority to tell you or your children what God says, or wants of them. Rather, it is families who have their own religious beliefs which act as a personal guide to them in their lives, including their political participation and the causes for which they work. The people tell the state what God wants, and the state is to obey their direction.

When we declared our independence from the British Empire, we declared our independence not from one King, but from all Kings; and not from one government, but from all would-be political powers that would attempt to tell us what God wants or doesn't want. If anyone ever questions the use of philosophy, one need only point to the American revolution as one example where philosophical ideas changed the course of human history.

Happy Independence Day 2010!

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