Sunday, September 4, 2011

When Is The Past Not The Past?

“When is a door not a door?” asks the old riddle. “When it is ajar.” is the unexpected reply. Silliness, of course. Or is it? Riddles, much as they frustrate me, are an age-old means of helping one define their world. Things aren’t always what they seem, on the surface, to be. A door is used to separate two spaces but if it is left ajar, is it any longer a door? An argument could be made that it is, or that it isn’t. Everyone knows a door is not a jar, but the riddle seems to be saying that a door that is ajar is no longer a door. It is, perhaps only a piece of wood dangling on two hinges, no longer doing the work a door should do.

I’ve spent the last two days reading Jon Meacham’s American Gospel. Meacham, formerly the editor of Newsweek, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian, and a vestryman in his Episcopal congregation, is arguing that the Founding Fathers deliberately created a nation in which public religion (ecumenical, inclusive of Christian and non-Christian religions) was freely expressed but which forbid the state from either endorsing or prohibiting private religion (particular dogmatically structured religions or denominations). In a very rapid review of key political figures from Washington to Reagan, he demonstrates their use of (and belief in) public religion without attempting to assay their private religious beliefs except in those cases where they willingly revealed them. It is an interesting book I would recommend to anyone interested in the “religious wars” swirling in our culture today.

But like most good books, Meacham accomplishes more than he imagined, stimulating thoughts that are peripheral to the primary point he is making. It is one of those points I’d like to pick up on in this essay, reserving some other ideas Meacham’s work inspires for other times.

Meacham draws heavily upon the past in order to issue what is essentially a warning to the present that removing the barrier between the state and private religion not only violates the intent of the Founders but also threatens to destroy the freedoms of all religions except the one that can breach the barrier and impose its will and its interpretations of religious reality upon the others. He further reminds his readers that no ideology remains supreme forever, so eventually the “dictator” of religious correctness of one era will be replaced by a competing correctness in a different era.

But it is the past that teaches us the wisdom of the Founders, Meacham argues. Time and again various religious organizations have mounted campaigns to amend the Constitution so as to remove the ambiguity they see in its declaration of America’s Christian character. But each time the “center” has held and those seeking to abolish the separation of church and state have failed to amass the support to accomplish their goal. Meacham is hopeful, though not certain, that the present enthusiasm for sectarian solutions to problems of abortion, homosexuality, school prayer, religious tolerance, and others, will not overwhelm the center, and that we will remain a nation in which all faiths can freely worship as they see fit, but in which none dictates to another what must be affirmed or denied.

So, back to our riddle, but with a difference. This time the question is: “When is the past not the past?” I would argue that there are two ways in which the past ceases to be the past. First, the past is not the past as long as we give it a voice in our present. As long as we continue to learn from those who have gone before us, both their mistakes and their accomplishments, the past is still the present. But the past also ceases to be the past when we forget it or dismiss it as irrelevant and no longer consult its wisdom and instruction. It becomes . . . nothing!
I agree with Meacham that history has affirmed the wisdom of the Founders, some of whom were men of deep personal Christian faith, and some whose ideas of personal religion we either do not know, or might find wanting. They knew, from their understanding of history, that giving the state power over the convictions of individuals led to tyranny. They believed that granting religious freedom to all was the only way to assure that all would be free. If sanction, or even pride of place, were given to one religious sect, the freedom of all others would be diminished.
Humans are unique in their ability to record and retain the memory of generations who no longer are alive. Those memories offer us the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and benefit from their wisdom. Thus the “past” is not the past, to us, but rather a set of present tools with which we can continually repair and maintain the gifts we have been given by previous generations.

But when we forget, or choose not to attend to the lessons of our forefathers, the past will no longer be the past. We will be left with a void behind us and before us. We will be required to shape our future out of sheer nothingness. Some declare themselves eager to do so. If they wish to structure their own lives in that manner it is one thing, but when they propose to lead our nation by such a philosophy, God save us from such fools.

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