Most of you know how much I like to chat with anyone visiting the site. It's fun. It is also a great way to get to know people beyond their labels. You know, the "I am a student/follower of ____ ____ ____” thing. For me, anyway, it makes the experience here much more alive and interesting.
Anyway, that being said, there are times when a conversation brings up a question that piques thought in unexpected directions. One of those came up when Monad and I was chatting about the US and the world in general. The question came up about the US and spirituality. We discussed the idea of posting something about the topic, so here we go!
For those of us not familiar firsthand with the USofA we are perceived in many different ways, ranging from deep admiration to disgust and sometimes both. We are a land that is obsessed with morality in ways that are sometimes off-the-wall strange. For example Fox News and the Fox TV network. How can a network like Fox produce the work of Bill O'Reilly and the Simpsons? It truly is a strange contradiction. Likewise, how can our culture produce the likes of Bishop Sheen and Charlie Sheen? It rather boggles the mind.
To understand the US spiritually is really not much different than understanding an individual. In fact if we apply the Hermetic axiom, “as above, so below” the task becomes somewhat easier. The US has a distinct personality which is a result of its structure, background and the rules that we live by. Many of these are quite contradictory and cause many around the world a lot of frustration because, in many ways we don’t play by your rules.
Spiritually, several forces were at play in the earliest history of the US. Simultaneously we had groups such as the Puritans, a sect, much disliked in their native land for their rejection of Elizabethan reforms to the Church of England. Originally the Puritans were a part of the Congregationalist Church when they emigrated and settled in Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies. As the colonies matured the Puritans held on to their beliefs while the Congregationalists charted a decisively more human and tolerant course eventually gave birth to the Unitarian Universalists, a group that promoted the concept of Deism, the notion that a deity set creation in motion but is not actively involved in the creation thereafter. Other major religions traditions of the time included the Baptists, Methodists and Episcopalians and others
With this all too brief background the stage is set for a melting pot to congeal, polarize and yield some very unlikely results. To understand the origins of the United States Government you must grasp the concept of Deism. For the most part, the founding Fathers of the US were very concerned that religious forces were used to subjugate people by corrupt governments. Additionally there was the issue of “where do we get our rights”. For ages the common paradigm was that the rights of the citizens came from their rulers. This had been pretty much true in most places. There had been previous efforts along these lines, notably in ancient Greece and Switzerland. However, what made the American experiment different was the deistic notion that our rights are endowed to us by our Creator. We, as citizens, endowed with these rights directly from our Creator, no intermediaries, by our consent are governed by those who we choose to represent us in our councils, legislatures and Congress. We also elect our state Governors and our President based on the same principle.
Why a deist position, you may ask? In this particular framework there is no possibility, or at least one that is rational that would allow an individual to claim anything resembling a Divine Right of Kings and appropriate that which is solely the province of deity. The founding fathers of this country understood the ease by which humans can claim that which is not theirs. They understood a real basic spiritual concept, and that is ORDER. Deity placed in its proper place, humanity in its proper place.
Whether it is in the affairs of nature, or our part, which we call humanity, the keystone to true happiness is the correct comprehension of order. To correctly understand order is to correctly understand the nature of deity.
That, briefly stated is the philosophical basis of the US Government.
Now, on to a bit of history and how things really work.
We have an excellent historian on Theosophy.Net, Dr. Peter O’Lalor. He has written and excellent book called The Unrealized Republic. It is a story of the early rivaly between the clash of philosophies of two of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton and its consequences. This clash has many effects that carry into today’s world. Jefferson was for a very limited government and extolled the virtues of an agrarian culture. He felt that a strong central government was for the most part evil and usurped the rights of the indivdual, and if left unchecked would result in tyranny. Hamilton, on the other hand represented the commercial interests of the country and felt that by having a dominant central government that control would be established over the individual states so that commerce and expansion would expand much more quickly.
So in the middle of this debate, there is an undercurrent that has been seething since the earliest days of settlement. The British tried checking this in the 1760’s by establishing a Rubicon of sorts for Westward expansion down the Appalachian Mountains. When independence was won, this line fell and the haggling between the US, England, France, Spain and others started. If you’re thinking about what we’re missing that would be the Native Americans. Someone forgot to tell any of them about what was happening. This is a consequence of the moral current referred to at the beginning of the paragraph. You see, people get funny ideas in their head. In American terms this particular one had a name, “Manifest Destiny”. Americans had it in their head very early on that they were going to have a country that spanned the continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans and nothing or nobody was about to stop it. Even Thomas Jefferson (who opposed large government!) supported the idea through the completion of the Louisiana Purchase, which effectively doubled the size of the US in 1803. The French needed the money and we wanted the land.
So, what about the Indians? This part is controversial but I will express it anyway. Ken Burns made an excellent documentary series about the West and one of the principal themes was of the various tribes waging war with each other as late as the 1870’s and couldn't stop, even in the face of a much larger threat from the East. Whatever claims to Native American spirituality may be bantied about in sweat lodges and other venues, the truth is that the concept of working together in an orderly fashion just wasn’t there for many of the tribes. The American government at the time, well, that story needs no further explanation, except to say that the concept of Manifest Destiny was in full swing and nothing was going to stop it, not even a Civil War.
Which brings us to another question. Why the atrocities committed by American governments over the years? Manifest Destiny plays a major role in the expansion of the US. However it doesn’t explain our late exit from the barbarism of slavery. For decades the Northern, and rapidly industrializing states were at odds with the Southern, and more agrarian states (remember Jefferson and Hamilton) over the issues of industrialization vs. agriculture. The South (see image) viewed the agrarian culture in religious terms and considered industrialization to be evil and justified slavery by saying that factory employment in the North was little more than wage slavery.
Map of US at the beginning of the Civil War, 1861
Many of the attitudes were driven by religious conviction. The South believed that slavery was part of the natural order of things, and this position was supported by the predominantly Baptist congregations throughout the South. In the North where Congregationalism and the various offshoots of Puritan culture prevailed, slavery was viewed as evil, while in the border states (in yellow) a mix of religious cultures was in conflict about the issue. K. Paul Johnson in his book Pell Mellers: Race and Memory in a Carolina Pocosin relates the struggle in the pre-Civil War era of a mixed race community known as the Melungeons, a tri-racial community of Whites, Blacks and Indians in the Tidewater area of North Carolina. Essentially the story starts off with a description of relative harmony enjoyed by the Melungeons and their supporters, who were mostly Quakers (from Pennsylvania, a colony founded on religious freedom). As time progressed the Melungeons and their Quaker supporters were suppressed, then persecuted by the local Baptist population who saw the tri-racial makeup as an abhorrence against God.
So in the story above we see a microcosm of the narrative that still reflects the reality of the United States today. Spiritually we are torn between a tradition of liberality and a conservative jingoism. The liberality explains many of the best traits of our nation, and some of our weaknesses. For example, sometimes a social conscious is needed in very limited ways and when you have the mindset that everything needs one kind of solution, it must be the one you have at hand. It’s epitomized in the phrase “to a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” On the other hand, our very conservative, Puritanical, Baptist nature tends to view the world in very Manichean terms, very black and white. It praises individualism and strong, decisive effort and has little use for subtle, nuanced solutions. In the midst of these poles there is a “pragmatist” point of view which views the US in terms of “what works”. In pragmatism, however there is a trap and that is there is no morality, only interests. It’s an American Machiavelli-ism. Domestic and foreign policy is viewed simply in terms of American interests.
These three forces are the essence of how America views the world. In our current society they are represented by, respectively the Democrat Party, and the Republican Party with the pragmatic view being something of an intersection of the two.. We have a number of smaller parties who represent the far ends of the spectrum, as you would expect on a Bell Curve.
How this plays out on the current world scene is pretty easy to see. The US has as it’s primary goal the need to protect commerce. Thus the necessity to control the seas. That the US can shut down the shipping lanes and impose economic hardship on any other country is beyond question. The same goes for economics but to a limited extent. For all of the talk of the “threat” of China or any other country to the US, the reality of mutual-self interest is usually ignored. This is a matter of order. However when the three elements above get out of balance, the United States behavior can become very unpredictable, to the point of being nearly psychotic and quite dangerous. We saw this in the aftermath of 9/11 where the US essentially went on a rampage against an ill-defined enemy, terrorism. Usually when a country goes to war there is usually a clearly defined enemy. If you don’t know who your enemy is what is there to defeat? Thus the contradiction inherent in the concept of a "War on Terror".
Ultimately, and for all of us it comes down to a matter of our values. As the saying goes, “as above, so below”. In each of our lives we constantly manage a tension between our better angels and our worst demons and attempt to find a balance that results in the greatest (perceived) happiness for a given moment. But without self-knowledge true happiness forever remains always out of reach. So it is with communities and nations. When our collective pursuit of happiness is based on our worst fears and emotions then the results are fairly predictable.
I have deliberately avoided discussion of topics like Freemasonry and the activities of various esoteric groups and numerous religious movements in the history of our country, as their traditions and currents form subsets of the influences mentioned above and to open up the opportunity for others to write material on those areas. Thanks much for taking the time to read this extremely long post and I hope you enjoy it.
Please feel free to ask questions and make your own commentary.