The United States of America is in a place, but it is not a place.
The United States of America contains over 300 million people, but it is not those people.
The United States of America has a government, but it is not that government.
As a nation the United States of America is an idea. I suppose the same could be said of any nation, but nations which evolved over millennia on a place they still occupy are much more a combination of place and people. There are national identities, but the identity and the idea, the rationale for the identity, grew up together. Even after the vast migrations of the 20th and 21st Centuries there are still many Germans whose genes have walked that very land for tens of thousands, perhaps in some cases a hundred thousand years or more. Humans started out in Africa, and some of them never left. Americans speak of tracing their lineage back to the Pilgrims. There are Africans who can trace their lineage back to the dawn of humankind. There could be, probably are, people dying in Syria today whose genes have lived within walking distance of where their current bearer just died for over a hundred thousand years.
It is not that way here. Even the ones whose genes have been here the longest are, relative to a Syrian whose ultimate ancestor walked right in that same spot a hundred millennia ago, absolute newcomers. We are all, even the first nations among us, the children of immigrants, to coin a phrase.
The vast majority of Americans carry genes that were brought here just the blink of an eye ago. Not even a measly thousand years. Many not even a hundred. Most of us, whatever our place of origin, are made up mostly of genes that just came here a few short generations ago. This nation is not the people.
This land was here before humans. Any humans. Humans didn’t start out here, but some of them did come here a long time before the current ruling bunch, and their genes still walk among us. Mostly those genes are carried by people who are, for now at least, powerless. The newer newcomers who also people the land brought their ideas and traditions from Europe, from Africa, and later from Asia. Europeans led the migration, bringing only their genes and an idea. (And a lot of deadly microbes.) The nation is not the land.
So all that is left with any claim to our allegiance is the idea, or set of ideas. Our soldiers, our Presidents, our rulers do not pledge to the fatherland, to the government, or to the people. They take an “oath or affirmation” to uphold and defend an idea, carefully written out in the plain language of the day. The Constitution of the United States of America.
We have never lived up to our idea of ourselves, but we have kept the idea. We still have it written down, but we no longer read it like it was an idea. We read it like it was some holy writ, or a hymn book, for the majesty of the phrasing and the ways we can twist it to get our way. I think few of us consider that whole idea, think “OK, what exactly are we trying to do here?”
The United States of America was founded during, and by respected thinkers in, the Age of Enlightenment. After the Middle Ages, still sometimes referred to as the Dark Ages, an intellectual light came on across Europe. There was a widening acceptance of certain new ideas. The idea of separating church from state led to other revelations and revolutions as science took root and knowledge of the world we lived in grew. People wrote about equality, about liberty, about Constitutional Government. People challenged the long-held belief in the Divine Right of Kings. Enlightenment thinkers said outright that kings were not, in spite of what they had told us, created and blessed specifically by God to rule over others. The idea that everyday people were qualified to govern themselves took root. With, naturally, some caveats. These were, after all, humans.
The American Revolution was quite literally the outgrowth of the Age of Enlightenment. We threw off the king; our founders had only fear and contempt for royalty. We threw off the yoke of the Church, which up until the Revolution still had a powerful grip over many states. Not until this named nation, this idea given form, this United States of America was founded on this soil was the Enlightenment idea of freedom of and from religion, a formal separation of church and government, accepted. The myth that the Pilgrims came here for religious freedom is far from the truth; the Pilgrims came here not to live in a place where people were free to choose their religion but rather so they could be the ones whose religion was boss. They didn’t want religious freedom for anyone who believed differently from them. The religious freedom the Pilgrims awarded themselves and themselves only led directly to the Salem Witch Trials, religious persecution at its finest, heir to a long tradition in the theocracies of Europe. But all that was before the founding of the United States, the Age of Enlightenment incarnate.
OK, so we didn’t quite get there. We’re humans. Humans aren’t as good as we wish we were. That’s better than being like we are and being satisfied. We had slavery, we did horrible things – I don’t have to tell you. Wikipedia knows it all if you’re curious. We did many terrible things.
But we had an advantage. Our founders had written the ideas down on paper. They wrote up a rule book. Then after they wrote the rule book they wrote scores of letters and essays explaining what they were thinking and why. No matter how lousy we did, we didn’t get to compare ourselves with ourselves yesterday. We could compare ourselves to the ideals we had followed, the ideals we had espoused, and the ideals we had written down. We didn’t get to say, Hey, nice work, you let all those totally innocent, anonymously incarcerated Japanese people out of those camps. We had to look at the ideals and say, Geeze, I can’t believe we did that. What a terrible thing.
Somebody has hidden the books. Somebody has said, No, NO, those weren’t the ideals! God really does bless certain people so that they should be, if not actually King, exactly, at least richer than Pharaoh and personally own more property, and control more lives, than King George before the colonists sent him that nasty Declaration of Independence. The Church really should get to tell people how they can live, who they can marry, and what they can do with their bodies. People really aren’t created equal. Some are born lazy, some are born stupid, you can tell by the color of their skin or the shape of their nose or…
I used to think that I should teach the Constitution, but we need to go back farther than that. America needs to look closely at the ideas on which our nation was founded. We were founded on the Enlightenment. We were founded to repudiate the Kings and to put the Church in its place. We were founded to believe in mercy, justice, equality, science, and an honest attempt for people to tell the truth as they believed it to be.
The Age of Enlightenment gave birth to the United States of America. The guiding philosophies of government came from John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and others. The Scientific Revolution was one of the nation’s foundations. They left us, not prescriptions, not do this – do that writings, but a broad idea based on concepts of a Social Contract, discussions of how humans would interact in a more civilized world than the Dark Ages in Europe, and an intense respect for science and empirical knowledge. They left us the idea of America. Technology has not rendered the idea obsolete; liberty, brotherhood, and equality could and should still work in the age of the internet.
The ideas being advocated by people who call themselves Conservatives in America today hark back, not to an earlier, golden age free America, but to Europe before the Age of Enlightenment, when the Church ruled the people and Kings divinely owned every single thing of value and said who could use it and how. A casual glance at human history for as long as it has been written shows a long tug of war between the two world views. In her best year America bears conceptual resemblance to Rome in her first Republic, or perhaps ancient Greece. But those very same nations fell under the rule of Church and King, and remained there for a thousand years. Regular people like us, not some proto-human lesser beings. The pendulum swings back and forth. If there is free will, if we are not trapped by the pendulum of time, we in the United States and the Western World need to look back to, discuss, and think about the principles of Enlightenment, the principles on which this country and all the liberal democracies of Europe were founded. Because from here it looks like the night might be falling.