Friday, July 4, 2008

A Special July 4th Quote of the Day: Voltaire

My quote of the day for July 4th will come from Francois-Marie Arouet, known to most of us by his most popular pseudonym, Voltaire. By the way, he had 174 pseudonyms. Why would an 18th-century Frenchman be an appropriate quote of the day for the Fourth, you may ask?

July 4th in the U.S. is a day of extraordinary expressions of patriotism mixed with a lot of explosives (fireworks--invented by the Chinese). This, moreover, is often mixed with religious sentiments. "God bless America" is only the most quotidian of these. Often these are mixed with hyper-religiosity, and, at times, religion and patriotism mix so inextricably that in some quarters showing lagging patriotism apparently indicates religious doubt or backsliding. How dare one say that the "founding fathers" were not dedicated Christians of the same ilk of evangelical Christianity today? So, the mixture of patriotism and religion follows a wide range of sentiment from almost innocuous to ridiculous. Yes, many of the founders were Christians, but sometimes in almost the widest usage of the term. Many of the "big names" were Deists--those who believed that God, as the great "watchmaker," basically created the world (the intricate watch), whose ticking followed the rules laid down by God--the laws of Nature (yes, with a capital "N"). Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin--Deists. George Washington, too, never really spoke of a personal God either, but preferred to speak of "Providence."

These people, and subsequent generations of U.S. citizens, have fought, some living and others dying, for "liberty." "Give me liberty or give me death," right? They fought against "tyranny." But who gives "liberty" and who is the "tyrant" is a matter of point of view. Ironically, many of the things we associate with "freedom," such as eradication of the tyranny of slavery, occurred in England before the U.S. after the U.S. broke away from England. Today, who is the tyrant and who is free? Who has freedom? When the Patriot Act chips away at the Bill of Rights, it appears to mock so much of what we are celebrating. In 1776, we declared Independence from a Christian Empire (the British Empire) only to create one ourselves--the "wall of separation" between Church and State that Jefferson wrote about has been difficult to maintain--it crumbles sometimes, and sometimes is patched back up. It was in part the mixture of religion and politics, the state-sponsored religiosity that many tried to escape in the New World.

It was against such things, the tyranny of the inextricable links between government and the church, laws in the church's interest or more in accordance with church doctrine than legal principles derived from a conception of a just society as imagined by the philosophes of the 18th century (those such as Rousseau, Locke, Jefferson, and their most famous exemplar, Voltaire) that Voltaire, with whom Ben Franklin shared a mutual admiration, proclaimed a clarion call:

"Ecrasez l'infame"

"Ecrasez l'infame" resounded throughout the 18th century and perhaps inspired the "founding fathers." But when spoken today, who represents "l'infame"? It is no longer George III... At least those who a couple centuries ago attempted "to erase infamy" gave us the tools, the checks and balances, to work through our own "l'infame," but we must choose to use them and in our erasing not end up erasing those tools instead of the infamy.

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