Sunday, December 7, 2008

Pontiacs and the Founding Fathers

So there I was, in the waiting room at the local Omnibus Car Dealership (servicing Buicks, Pontiacs, Volkswagens, Chevrolets, Hyundais, Toyotas, Hudsons, Nash Ramblers, Stanley Steamers and the occasional DeLorean), waiting, as the room suggested I do, for my new passenger-side rear-view mirror to be put on. It was an odd space - spartan chairs and tables, a welter of magazines (some even current), and a coffee and tea table that featured a rather expensive "Winter White Earl Grey" tea - and I was just getting comfortable with my book when an old man sat down next to me and began to talk.

Instantly, it was clear that the book was no defense against this conversation, so I folded it up and joined in.

He was a nice guy, and our talk progressed through the usual subjects, beginning with sports (how 'bout them Packers?), wandering through the weather (mite cold, ain't it?) and from then on to occupations. He was excited about me being a historian, and that's when the conversation took an odd turn into the kind of delusional politics that have become so popular in these Evangelical States of America of late.

It didn't surprise me that he was a Bush supporter. Well, it kind of did, as vocal supporters of the outgoing regime are hard to find these days - Our Fearless Litre has an approval rating only slightly higher than athlete's foot and, in point of fact, considerably lower than that of Richard Nixon the day before he resigned in disgrace. Nixon, for all his faults, could take a hint. But from what my companion had told me about himself, he fit the mold of the Bush voter - white, older, male, rural, evangelical, blue collar, without a college degree. Run through all the demographics that were endlessly dissected in the run up to election day, and this guy fit neatly on one side.

We had a pleasant debate over W's regime and legacy, with neither one of us convincing the other. And then he hit me with this gem: he insisted that the Constitution itself explicitly deferred to the Bible for all problems not immediately addressed in its text, and even for those that were, and no amount of discussion could move him from this point. "Says it right there!" he kept insisting.

No wonder the country's in such sad shape, when nobody - not even the President - bothers to read the Constitution anymore. For crying out loud, it's a short document - four pages of eighteenth-century handwriting that manages to be both cramped and elegant in the way that they did it then, maybe eight pages if you type it out in a large font. It's not all that difficult a read, either - certainly not when compared with The Federalist Papers, the essays Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay wrote to explain what they meant by the Constitution.

It says something about our own times to realize that they wrote those essays for general circulation newspapers, I suppose.

The Founding Fathers were very clear about the separation of Church and State. They knew the history of the Thirty Years' War, when quite literally millions of Europeans had been butchered over different spins on the Prince of Peace. They did not want this to happen here, a country even then far too religiously diverse to expect everyone to support the same church, or even any church. They understood that when you mix religion and politics, you get politics. And that neither religion nor politics is improved by this.

And yet millions of Americans today forget this, or actively deny it. It is brutally ironic that by and large the main group of people doing this consider themselves "conservatives," since they clearly have no idea what they are trying to conserve.

The clerk called my name in the middle of that discussion, and the guy and I shook hands and parted amicably. No doubt he thinks I was the deplorable one in that conversation, but so it goes.

No comments: