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Jeffersonian Democracy: What Is Sacred Versus Secular

Jeffersonian Democracy: What Is Sacred Versus Secular

In my lifetime I have witnessed the devolution of America from a brilliant star that in every arena shone brighter than any other nation… To an America that is a grotesque reminder of what we once were.

A bit more than half a century ago, we were tops in technology, material progress, military capabilities, and in critical services like education and medical care. Above all, we had an unwavering commitment to freedom.

Today, among developed countries, we’re ranked near the bottom in almost every important category. Life expectancies here have been declining and are now less than even in many developing countries, including China. Material progress has virtually ground to a halt for all but the richest Americans. Articles in two prominent journals, Nature and the American Economic Journal, argue that the creation of disruptive technology has slowed dramatically over the past five decades.

Our democracy, as defined by Thomas Jefferson in the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence, survived wars, pandemics, and economic depression. Yet about half a century ago, our miracle of democracy hit a wall that turned good into evil. Freedom of thought has been replaced by blind adherence to government narratives that resemble the worst aspects of totalitarianism rather than anything resembling democracy. Here I explore how that happened and what our chances are of regaining what we’ve lost.

The most important distinction in defining how any society is governed is that between the material and nonmaterial. Roughly speaking, material beliefs are those that are shared by everyone in a group or collective, from agreeing on what a table is to agreeing on the laws of science. Nonmaterial beliefs are personal beliefs and cannot be shared. They range from spiritual inclinations to the meaning of pain to what is blue. A well-known distinction elucidates this difference. A material description of blue defines the physical characteristics of its wavelengths. A nonmaterial description is your unique experience, or consciousness, of what blue means to you.

Nonmaterial beliefs encompass everything in the spiritual and personal realm, from your basic rights, your view of the world, and your definition of personal satisfaction. They originate in your own unique consciousness of the world and include all that you consider spiritual and sacred. Jeffersonian democracy was founded on the notion that the purpose of government is to guarantee freedom of thought. Laws were there to guarantee your right to your own sacred beliefs and to reduce as much as possible any undue influence on what those sacred beliefs should be.

President Kennedy’s inaugural address in 1961 made a powerful reference to Jeffersonian democracy. He began:

“We observe today not a victory of the party but a celebration of freedom–symbolizing an end as well as a beginning–signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.

“The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe–the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.”

The opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence stand out for their eloquence and remarkable timelessness:

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness …”

These words make it clear that Jefferson saw the primary role of government as ensuring the sacred is preserved in each and every man. Moreover, any attempt to compromise the work of a higher power that endows man with a right to pursue his own wellbeing should be staunchly resisted.

While not expressed in those paragraphs, Jefferson also was clearly aware of how easily man’s freedom of thought can be compromised. He kept at his bedside a version of the Gospels in which he had cut out all references to the miraculous, including any miracles attributed to Jesus as well as any reference to the resurrection. Why? Because once you acknowledge the miraculous, it limits your ability to freely choose Jesus as divine. In other words, you should not be compelled to believe Jesus’s moral teachings because of any magic surrounding them but because you freely accept them as sacred.

Jefferson’s implicit goal, echoed nearly two centuries later by Kennedy, was that the material or secular had to be corralled lest the essence and individuality of man be undermined. Remarkably, about a century after Jefferson created his own version of the Bible, the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy – best known for such masterpieces as War and Peace and Anna Karenina and many short stories – published the little-known The Life of Jesus, The Gospels in Brief. Tolstoy’s rendition of the Gospels was remarkably similar to Jefferson’s Bible, which wasn’t published until after the deaths of both Jefferson or Tolstoy. In other words, these two great thinkers arrived independently at the same conclusion: that to rely on the miraculous – whether true or false – to convince people to accept Jesus’s moral thinking is to conflate the secular – changing water into wine, or the crucifixion and resurrection – with sacred personal beliefs derived from the teachings of Jesus.

This may sound complicated. But if you think about it enough, it becomes simpler to understand. In my case, a particular phrase helped me to connect the dots. It came from the beginning of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

For some reason – no doubt peculiar to me – the reference here to “created equal” stands out more than the phrase in other speeches or writings. It is evident here that in only one sense would Lincoln be saying that all men are created equal: in the nonmaterial sense. After all, from a purely material standpoint, clearly not everyone is created equal, in Lincoln’s time or ours. People differ in any number of ways, from eye color, physical characteristics, innate skills, and more. Equality can exist only in the nonmaterial world that we each possess uniquely and of which the sacred is the cynosure.

Dumas Malone, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his definitive six-volume biography of Jefferson, noted in the second volume that “belief in the freedom of religion – which to him meant freedom of the mind – lay at the heart of his philosophy and he was always proud to be identified with it….” It is easy to see why, since any threat to freedom of the mind, i.e., nonmaterial consciousness, threatens to undermine the notion of equality. Jefferson was sensitive to the political character a religious organization could assume. Such a political character can exist in any collective, and according to Malone, in Jefferson’s view “it limited, in one way or another, the freedom of the mind – on which, as which he never ceased to believe, the progress of the human species depends.”

My goal so far has been to review the philosophy of the founding fathers and at least hint at how such thinking resulted in a country capable of magnificent achievements. Overall. it endowed Americans with mutual respect for one another, which in turn propagated a sense of mutual achievement, which was self-reinforcing. For most of two centuries, Americans saw themselves as all being in the same boat, with all oars pulling in the same direction.

It allowed America to go from one great milestone to another. But starting in the early 1970s, it all began to become undone. To understand what went wrong, what turned this great experiment in democracy and equality into a travesty of what it once was, I start with the gospel of Timothy. The earliest version was written in Greek, and the relevant phrase translates as: “for the root of all evils is the love of money.” But even prior to this Biblical warning, there were references in ancient Greece to the perils associated with money.

Realize the gospel of Timothy doesn’t say money itself is evil. Rather it’s the love of money that is problematic. Next, ask yourself what money is used for, and the answer is, it’s something that can be exchanged for material things. Indeed, the only material things that you might be unable to buy with money would be sacred objects. (Emile Durkheim, widely considered to be the founder of modern social sciences, believed that truly sacred objects cannot be exchanged for money.) Thus, the love of money is essentially equivalent to the love of the material world.

In 1971, President Nixon severed the link between gold and the dollar. Until then, other than for a few years, gold and the dollar had always been tethered to each other in some form. The monetary system that Nixon abandoned was established in the 1944 Bretton Woods conference, in which mainly European and North American economists and politicians set the monetary contours of the postwar world. The goal was a system that integrated currencies from a collection of countries and that was pegged to gold. At the center of it was the dollar and gold. Any country that accumulated dollars could exchange them at any time for gold. As long as America was prospering and not overspending, however, other countries felt no need to do so.

That changed when sharply rising spending on the VietNam war, in conjunction with social spending from Great Society programs, resulted in the kind of inflation that dollar holders rightfully assessed was not a transitory state. Dollars were redeemed for gold in rising amounts, and by 1971 it was clear the U.S. didn’t have enough gold left to continue honoring its dollar-gold commitment.

After Nixon jettisoned Bretton Woods, attempts to keep the system alive proved futile, as futile as trying to win a war we never should have fought. By 1973 the dollar’s link to gold, which had gone hand in hand with America’s unprecedented prosperity, was gone.

But that didn’t mean it was the end of the dollar. The dollar, free of its peg to gold, remained the world’s reserve currency thanks to the Saudis’ willingness to price oil in dollars in exchange for our military shield. Without the restraint of the gold peg, there were no checks on America’s spending. And spend what we did, on anything and everything.

Those controlling the purse strings here had fallen in love with money. Long-term projects, the kind that are necessary to create the sorts of disruptive technologies that were a major part of what made our country great, lost their allure. Replacing them were short-term schemes for making money.

But wait, you might say. Gold, too, is money. Indeed, you’d have trouble finding any place on the globe that wouldn’t accept gold as a currency that can be exchanged for something material. Gold has a monetary history of 5,000 years or so; no paper currency comes close.

No argument there, but it misses something important: Gold isn’t just another means of exchange, it’s a sacred metal. In an article published by a volunteer archaeological program managed by the UK government, Charlotte Behr of the University of Roehampton, makes many of the points I have made about gold in the past. She writes:

“Gold has long been associated with a divine sphere, both in pre-Christian and in Christian religion. The shine of gold, its indestructible nature, its malleability and its relative scarcity made it an ideal material to embody divine qualities, but also expressions of human veneration of the divine. Gold was perceived as an appropriate material with which to address the gods (Elbern 1988). Temples, sanctuaries and churches were decorated lavishly with golden or gilded statues and images. Liturgical equipment was made out of gold (La Niece 2009). The gods of Germanic myths lived, according to the Völuspa, in a hall covered in gold, and played with golden board games (Pálsson 1996, stanzas 60 and 61)”.

Janes, in his book God and Gold in Late Antiquity, has shown the continuity of the use of gold, and its numerous associations with the numinous, from a pre-Christian to a Christian world. Gold retained its importance even within a religion that upheld poverty and the rejection of worldly goods (Janes 1998). Liturgical vessels, reliquaries, crosses, objects needed for performances of sacred rituals were made in gold. There is also a long tradition of votive offerings, for example in the shape of tablets that were made in precious metals, gold or silver, and dedicated to a divinity; again, we see continuity from pre-Christian to Christian customs. The close association of gold and the divine, the gods, can thus be observed in many different aspects, even if a precise definition of how this link worked and what it meant remains difficult.

Gold is the only metal prized more for its beauty than its material uses. Though gold can be seen and touched, its beauty has a sacred quality that affects each of us in a unique way. This makes gold the only material that can bridge the gap between the sacred and the secular. Simone Weil, the great French mid-20th century religious philosopher and thinker, wrote that once gold left the French monetary system, those that sought to accumulate money “are desirous of power.” Without its relationship to gold, money becomes a source of power or control over others.

In 1971, once the dollar lost its link to gold, the sacred became trampled by the secular, and increasingly, equality was a distant memory. Specifically, a nonmaterial and unique view of the sacred by individuals was replaced by a secular deity called money, and many sub deities that are highly responsive to money, including science and government. Today the secular essentially defines the narratives to which most citizens adhere. Free thought, which Jefferson felt was so important to human happiness and progress, has largely vanished. Most Americans have become cogs in a money-making machine.

Psychological research has further affirmed what so clear to Jefferson, other founding fathers, and to literary and philosophical giants such as Tolstoy, and Weil. Xiang Wang of the City University of Hong Kong along with several British collaborators have shown through many experiments that the love of money results in viewing other people as mere objects. This further corroborates my belief that many or most Americans today are simply cogs in a money-making machine.

In that context, it’s worth revisiting the well-known and chilling Milgram experiments, which generally are cited today as evidence that most people will do horrifying things to others simply because an unknown authority figure tells them to do it. After the original experiment in the U.S., similar tests were given in ten different countries, at varying times.

The results of these cross-cultural studies are consistent with what I’d expect. Countries in which there was evidence of reverence for the sacred showed a lesser willingness to blindly obey. For instance, obedience was extremely low in India, where religion, the sacred, and family are all far more highly valued than in the U.S.

Because the Milgram experiments had caused such psychological trauma in those individuals who (falsely) believed they had administered extreme harm to others, the experiment was not replicated in the U.S. But it’s telling that in other rich Western countries, when similar experiments were carried out in post-1971 years, after gold no longer was part of the monetary system, the tendency to obey was far greater than in the U.S. during the 1960s when gold was still at the center of the monetary system. This plethora of psychological research goes hand in hand with the observation of Simone Weil that without gold as an anchor, the accumulation of money is a road to a society marked by power and obedience. I emphasize that Weil’s comment came in the context Hitler’s rise to power.

One simple question suggests how far this country has fallen. Ask yourself how comfortable you would be in supporting Germany if statues of Hitler were to start appearing throughout the country and Hitler’s birthday was considered a national holiday. I suspect your answer is: very uncomfortable. Yet in the Ukraine war, this is almost exactly what we are doing. The reason most readers likely aren’t aware of this is that the mainstream media doesn’t report it – along with a lot more they don’t report that is comparably chilling, as I detail in later chapters.

When Ukraine became a country in 1991 the first president, Leonid Kravchuk, had a major gathering of intellectuals and politicians from many other countries with a special emphasis on Israel. He made it a point to say that the country was turning over a new leaf and wanted to move past its very ugly past by owning up to its most horrible deeds. He openly admitted that Ukraine had been complicit in the Holocaust. In Babi Yar, a ravine in Kiev, about 35,000 Jews were killed in two days in one of the most brutal horrors in human history. A horror in which the Ukrainians were willing participants. The leaders of this unspeakable violence was an organization going by the acronym OUN/B. The B stood for Bandera, a man, whose own writings leave no doubt he fully supported Hitler’s aims toward the Jews and the Russians. About a decade after Kravchuk’s new leaf, not too much was heard about Bandera. But in the new century, very gradually at first and then much more rapidly, Bandera began to be celebrated. Streets have been named after him, and statues of him have started to appear. One, some 20 feet tall, sits in front of four pillars that are supposed to stand for four important traits of Ukraine.


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