The Dynamics of the Archaic

Since the Ronald Reagan years, there is objective collusion in U.S. politics between religious archaism and market fundamentalism. How did this dynamic come to be and what makes it so powerful?

This post belongs to a reading series of Democracy Incorporated by Sheldon S. Wolin. For quick access to all chapters, please click here.

Disclaimer: This chapter summary is personal work and an invitation to read the book itself for a detailed view of all the author’s ideas.

According to a thorough study published in 2017about Americans’ religious identity, more than one-third (35%) of all Republicans identify as white evangelical Protestants, and three-quarters (73%) belong to a white Christian religious group.1 Even though white evangelicals represent roughly 15% of the population, their energetic activism has a definite influence on public policies and plays a pivotal role in elections. As shown in the table below, 84% voted for the Republican candidate in 2020.

The dynamics of the archaic in US politics: Religious groups' voting patterns in the U.S.
Religious groups’ voting patterns in the U.S.

The reason why Evangelicals have embraced the Republican political establishment may seem unclear at first, particularly given the expectations of high-tech marvels and unbridled capitalism professed by the GOP. This unholy alliance between two kinds of fundamentalism has worked pretty well, nevertheless, since Ronald Reagan thought it would be an appropriate strategic move on the part of political conservatives. As Sheldon Wolin notes, “The American zest for change coexists with fervent political and religious convictions that bind the identity of the believers to two ‘fundamentals,’ the texts of the Constitution and the Bible and their status as unchanging and universal truths.” The contradiction is thus only apparent. This chapter examines how constitutional and religious archaisms bind with market fundamentalism in their quest for power.

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“Archaism,” in the sense Sheldon Wolin uses the word, means referring in absolute terms to what is supposed to make sense in human life. Unlike scientific discoveries, which are cumulative and regularly superseded, archaist beliefs are fixed, and impervious to evidence. Whether seen from the political or the religious side, the mental configuration is the same: “What is the doctrine of ‘the framers’ original intent’ and ‘constitutional originalism’ but a variant of creationism and the denial of historical evolution?” Archaism is, therefore, to hold one’s core beliefs as true and superior to rival beliefs specifically because they cannot be subjected to the relativity of critical thinking. The unchanging quality of absolute truths is what makes them valid in the believer’s eyes. In other words, the feeling of certainty is substituted for rationality.

In its religious version, archaism can only bend toward proselytism. “Born again,” the former unbeliever will be saved not only from error but from the consequences of errors that can corrupt one’s existence and, ultimately, decide the fate of one’s soul. Archaic truths are powerful because they are transforming truths. By extension, they are deemed to save a nation since the political changes called for by the faithful will fundamentally restore the natural order of things wanted by God.

Since the Ronald Reagan years, the Republican party has echoed the white evangelicals’ ideal of a United States theocracy.2 This theocratic ideal is a familiar cultural background in the United States: “Along with other religious groups, [Evangelicals] have actively pushed to dismantle the so-called wall separating church and state. They want prayer and other religious activities to be a part of public education—the latter arguably the heart of democracy; they want public funds for the charitable activities of religious groups and for the support of religious schools; they want the Bible’s account of ‘creation,’ or a covert version of it, taught in science courses; and they want public acknowledgment and recognition of the ‘fact’ that, from its beginnings, America was understood by its Founding Patriarchs to be a ‘Christian nation.'”3

In its political version, a mythological “original intent” of the Founding Fathers must be sought behind the wording of the Constitution. Seeking an original intent implies, of course, that what they had in mind in 1787 is the primary reference to use forever after. The United States is supposed to be blessed, says Sheldon Wolin, “with a once-and-for-all-time, fixed ideal form, an original Constitution of government created by the Founding Fathers in 1787.” According to this form of archaism, the Founding Fathers could not err and did not give us the template of a working government to be adapted, as all templates are for, to what changing times may require. The Constitution is the fundamental, inerrant, and unchanging text to be applied—not “interpreted” by “activist judges,” as those who recognize themselves as “originalists” like to say.

The Founding Fathers, it is thought, did not craft the Constitution by default to protect freedom and equal rights, but to positively deliver the ultimate truth about the United States of America. Politics, consequently, acquire the sacred and hieratic character of religion. This is why constitutional archaism blends both together, and as the Founding Fathers were Christians so should be the country. Ironically, this is betraying the one and only “original intent” that can legitimately be attributed to the Founding Fathers: building a free society. The great men highly valued critical thinking and, even though formerly and sincerely Christians, were adamant about making a distinction between politics and religion.

Originalists imply that the Constitution would not be the Constitution if its wording were not complete and self-sufficient. However, asserting that the letter of constitutional documents positively dictates what is or is not constitutional is reasoning backward. These texts do acquire the status of institutional landmarks precisely because they try to solve political issues, not the other way around. As political documents, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, or the Amendments are necessarily broader than themselves; the overall intent of freedom and justice for all supersedes which categories of people or types of situations they originally alluded to at the time of their writing. Originalists, on the contrary, think that new political challenges can only find their constitutional answer within the letter itself of the constitutional documents. The path to an extension of constitutional protection should always be, in this perspective, a formal amendment process that will explicitly state the nature of that extension.

But the overall intent of freedom and justice for all is not what originalists—all political conservatives—necessarily have in mind. Same-sex marriage, for instance, was a revealing occurrence of their agenda. This basic human right could not be left to the democratic legislative process of the states, where conservative lawmakers would have indefinitely opposed it. This is why it became in 2015 a constitutional right guaranteed under the already existing 14th Amendment. From an “originalist” standpoint, it would be difficult to argue that recognizing gay people’s rights was among this amendment’s original intents when it was crafted in 1868, let alone that its letter was all by itself guaranteeing these rights. This shows that the letter of the 14th Amendment and which categories of people or situations lawmakers could think of at the time are not all there is to it.

Contrary to what originalists say, therefore, as long as the eventual recognition of a basic right as the law of the land does not require specific conditions for its implementation, there is no need to amend the Constitution. In truth, wanting an always discernable original intent in the letter of constitutional texts simply results in putting them out of step with the ineluctable march of social and political progress. The originalist assumption that the letter of the Constitution has authority entirely by itself, not on the grounds of the universal values it is supposed to reflect, turns constitutional documents into an objective rampart against social and political changes that conservative lawmakers do not want to see happening too quickly, if at all. For these scam artists of the law, it is simply too painful to admit that people can rule themselves outside of the authority of some transcendent principle. There is no other motivation for the vapid and disingenuous search for an “original intent.”

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As inept and self-contradictory as constitutional and religious archaisms might be, they answer a natural longing to take refuge in absolute truths. Avoiding painstakingly questioning our personal and collective ways is, therefore, too good a political leverage not to be used and abused by religious freaks, authoritarian egomaniacs, and mediocre but power-greedy lawmakers. “As the political fundamentalists see it,” says Sheldon Wolin, “except for the Edenic era of Ronald Reagan, the form of government decreed by the Constitution has been under siege by ‘the liberal media’ and liberal administration abetted by their minions in Congress and by judges who ‘legislate’ instead of ‘following the letter’ of the constitutional scripture.”

And yet, the only genuine way to “follow the letter” is not to stop at the literality of the words but to focus on what they point to. This is why it is so important to respect them, as opposed to turning them into relics, as all fundamentalists do with the Bible or the Constitution. Revering the words of a proclaimed sacred text is, in effect, a sure way to betray both its spirit and its letter.

To take a recent example in history, the Constitution was shredded to pieces during the mandate of a narcissistic, authoritarian, man-child U.S. President who could not care less about the rule of law. With all their faith in the sanctity of the Constitution, GOP members judged this situation perfectly acceptable. They defended their man against the Constitution’s formal letter and obvious meaning during both of his impeachment trials and after his 1/6/2020 sedition.

The dynamics of the archaic in US politics: The GOP loves to shred the Constitution to pieces.

If such hypocrisy can be lived through with a straight face, this is because it benefits from a good conscience. The hidden advantage of fundamentalism is that once you have placed yourself on the side of the absolute, there is no accountability to be had toward anything anymore, not even the literality of your sacred texts. What is presented as absolute is unknowable but also unquestionable. Wiping away the necessity for facts and reason, this holy freedom gives a moral pass to contradict yourself as much as you want when navigating the practical realities of the relative world we live in. To keep heading quietly toward your authoritarian goals, you have to trust that your circle of believers is elected to speak in the name of the absolute truth of the Constitution or the Bible.

Ultimately, referring to the authority of a transcendental principle that is out of reach of rational accountability is indeed about power, be it religious, political, or financial. This is why Sheldon Wolin can ask, “How is it possible for corporate power, worldly, cynical, materialistic, not only to coexist alongside evangelical Christianity but to subsist, to be symbiotic with it? How have Christ and Mammon come to cooperate? I want to suggest that the alliance between power and faith results because each needs the other, desperately.”

This is, one could say, a doctrinal alliance in emptiness. The “invisible hand of the market” postulated by Adam Smith is equivalently used in economics as the transcendental reason why things cannot be other than what corporate hacks want them to be. Yet again, there is nothing else behind free-market fundamentalism than an intellectual fraud: “Today when his [Adam Smith’s] teaching is invoked to reduce state power and to free entrepreneurial energies, that teaching acquires a mythical quality, another nostalgic yearning, this time for a natural economic order in which intense competition is mere surface to a harmonious order in the interests of all. Meanwhile the actual hand of government distributes corporate subsidies, tax breaks, and the like.” As with the Bible or the Constitution, free-market fundamentalists do not see the contradiction, and they do not see it because they do not care. For all fundamentalists, their confident drive is all that matters; it is a will to power that reality is bound to follow.

The dynamics of the archaic in US politics: Claiming the highest values while receiving corporate bribes. Mitch Mc Connell dressed as a French officer is confronting the alleged immorality of Humphrey Bogart in a remake of the movie "Casablanca."

At a practical level, “Corporate power has utterly transformed the constitutional system of the Founders without acknowledging the transformation. If the fundamentalists wish to believe that the corporate donors who subsidize conservative legal foundations are as fervent as they are about an original Constitution, then corporate types are more than ready to indulge the make-believe. Corporate power is more than eager to tolerate the idiosyncrasies of constitutional fundamentalists; it needs a stable legal framework, and for most of two centuries corporate operatives have successfully cultivated accommodating judges and eager lawyers. As long as the courts are prepared to step in when the federal government tries to flex its regulatory powers, corporations will continue to underwrite the Federalist Society.”

Corporatism also needs a passive citizenry: “One practical consideration that causes the corporationists to play along with religious zealots and political doctrinaires is that archaism helps to neutralize the power of the Many. The religious fundamentalists remind the needy that instead of throwing their energies into gaining the transient goods of this world, they should heed Jesus’ teaching and concentrate upon the salvation of their souls and the ‘pearls beyond price’ awaiting them in the Kingdom of God. The constitutional fundamentalists teach the same lesson of quietism but with a different logic. The Constitution, they allege, is one of limited powers, and those powers become especially limited whenever the government ‘interferes’ with property rights in an effort to remedy gross inequities, or threatens the rights of that peculiar species of persons called corporations, a status not mentioned in the ‘original Constitution.'”

If religious fundamentalists, for their part, are not fazed by their unholy alliance with Mammon, it is very likely because their dreams of purity are just that—emotional patches that imply no actual commitment to the structural betterment of society. This type of fervent crowd is easy prey for shrewd politicians who can swear to them being as backward-thinking as they are. But there is more to it than just that. Political and religious fundamentalisms both date back to the first days of European colonization on American soil: “The elect and the elite, the elected and the elect. The combination is as old as the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritans believed in both an elect destined by God for salvation and an elite destined to govern. When modern-day Republicans invoke the imagery of ‘a city upon a hill,’ they may think that they are quoting Ronald Reagan, but historically the author was the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, who assumed himself to belong to the elect and the elite.”

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Footnotes

  1. America’s Changing Religious Identity, Public Religion Research Institute, Daniel Cox, Robert P. Jones, 09.06.2017
  2. Even though some Republicans may feel that this might not be such a good strategy, after all. See, for instance, Reagan tied Republicans to White Christians and now the party is trapped. Washington Post March 22, 2021.
  3. See Sheldon Wonlin’s essay, America’s Civil Religion, democracy 2, no. 2 (April 1982); 7–17. For historical background, see Charles Norris Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1944), chaps. 8–9
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