The Dynamics of the Archaic

The Republican party has made itself the champion of religious, constitutional, and economic fundamentalism. What power dynamic does it seek by combining these ideological choices?

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

As in any book club, you are kindly invited to let the rest of us know what you think!

Disclaimer: Being the result of personal work, this chapter summary cannot and does not pretend to offer a detailed and accurate transcription of all the author’s ideas.

According to a thorough study published in 2017about America’s religious identity, more than one-third (35%) of all Republicans identify as white evangelical Protestant, while 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% of them voted for the Republican candidate to the presidency in 2020.

The reason why Evangelicals have embraced the Republican political establishment may seem unclear at first, given the expectations of high-tech marvels and unbridled capitalism professed by the GOP. In reality, fundamentalist views do not apply to religion only but to all areas of life where a meaningful narrative is warranted. It is, quite simply, a state of mind by which one prefers to mentally hide behind absolute and unquestionable truths rather than confronting the discomfort of critical thinking. Since these truths supposedly originate in time with the Bible and the Constitution, Sheldon Wolin labels them “archaic.” The purpose of this chapter is to examine the objective power alliance of religious and political archaisms with the free-market fundamentalism of corporate dynamists.

The Dynamics of the Archaic
Religious groups’ voting patterns in the U.S.

Sheldon Wolin first invites us to remember that “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.” Unlike scientific truths which are cumulative and often superseded, archaisms are fixed, impervious to evidence.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 to hold one’s core beliefs as true and superior to rival beliefs specifically because they cannot be subjected to the relativity of a scientific perspective. Making such beliefs out of this world, their unchanging quality also makes them true in the believer’s comforting view.

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 existence and, ultimately, decide the fate of one’s soul. Archaic truths are powerful because they are transforming truths. By extension, they can save a nation in the mind of believers. Their absolute beliefs lead them to think that the political changes they call for will fundamentally restore the natural order of things wanted by God. To them, it is out of the question to consider the United States as nothing else than a Christian endeavor. A mythological “original intent” of the Founding Fathers must be sought behind the formally secular wording of the Constitution. As Christians, it is assumed, they could only recognize that God is the Great Ruler and that society should consequently be ordered according to His will.

The Dynamics of the Archaic

Since the Ronald Reagan years, the Republican party has echoed the white evangelicals’ ideal of a United States theocracy:2 “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 form, archaism has a narrative that is equally gratuitous. 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.” To archaists, therefore, the Constitution is the political counterpart of the Bible. In their perspective, 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. They were not in the business of politics with the primary intent of setting up a formal backbone to freedom and justice for all. They were in the business of prophecy. All of them. The Constitution is the fundamental, inerrant, and unchanging text to be applied—not “interpreted” by “activist judges.”

This is how archaism understands “following the letter” of constitutional scripture. In and of itself, this injunction makes no more sense from a historical, political, and critical standpoint than taking the word of the Bible literally does from a spiritual one. The specific codependency between the letter and its meaning must first be understood. Regarding the Constitution, Chief Justice John Marshall said it all when he wrote in 1827, “the intention of the [Constitution] must prevail; that this intention must be collected from its words; that its words are to be understood in that sense in which they are generally used by those for whom the instrument was intended.” 4 The meaning of the Constitution is its intent as expressed in the vocabulary of the time it was written. Decyphering this meaning is an unending task because new social and political issues will necessarily appear over time.

From there, some argue that these challenges can only find their constitutional answer from within the letter itself of the constitutional documents. Recognizing themselves as “originalists,” their reasoning is that the Constitution would not be the Constitution if its wording were not complete and self-sufficient. The path to an extension of constitutional protection, consequently, should always be a formal amendment process that will explicitly state the nature of that extension. This argument ignores that the Constitution is a political document that is, as such, necessarily broader than itself. The overall intent of freedom and justice for all supersedes which categories of people or types of situations were originally alluded to in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, or the Amendments.

The Dynamics of the Archaic

Same-sex marriage is a good example of such an occurrence. 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. It would, nevertheless, be difficult to argue that recognizing gay people’s rights was among this amendment’s original intents when it was crafted in 1868. This shows that the letter of the 14th Amendment and what it was positively referring to at the time it was written is not all there is.

Contrary to what originalists say, therefore, as long as the eventual recognition of a basic right as law of the land does not require specific conditions for its implementation there is, then, no need to amend the Constitution. What is more, 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 ground of the universal values it is supposed to reflect, turns constitutional documents into an objective rampart against social and political changes that conservatives do not want to see happening too quickly, if at all. It is not by accident that all self-proclaimed originalists are politically on that side.

GOP apparatchiks, for their part, pose as proud archaists. With them, originalism transmutes from a methodology into an ideology giving priority to the Founding Fathers’ mythologized “original intent” over the text itself of the Constitution. Their idea is that this original intent is a fixed, definite, and absolute message to later generations. Grossly inept, this assertion is also self-contradictory. Denying that the Founding Fathers saw their own work as eminently political and thus requiring an open understanding is inept. Thinking that all was somehow said in 1787 is contradictory. If George Washington and his colleagues brought with them to heaven the absolute meaning of the Constitution, how can we access it? We are basically left, on the one hand, with a bunch of words no one should dare reading through and, on the other, with an “original intent” devoid of any specificity for mere mortals. That is the price of obscurantism archaists are happy to pay for sacralizing the Constitution. The truth nevertheless remains that without a critical understanding opposing the relativity of its in-depth interpretation to the fundamentalist fantasy of an absolute meaning closed upon itself, the Constitution or the Bill of Rights could not guide us in the present and the Amendments would have never been produced. Unless, of course, some individuals are in direct communication with God or George Washington.

Fortunately, Republicans are. This is why they can lament that if it were not for “liberal media” and liberal administrations abetted by their minions in Congress and by judges who “legislate” instead of “following the letter,” the Constitution would not be regularly “reinterpreted.” This talking point was never politically innocent: “The vision of an idealized original constitution rarely, if ever, includes the kind of participatory democracy that Tocqueville celebrated. Instead archaism tends to support republicanism rather than democracy, that is, a system in which the responsibility for saving the Many devolves upon a selfless elite, an elect although not necessarily elected.” 5

The Dynamics of the Archaic

In the genuine intent of “following the letter,” what matters is not the words but 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. 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 has been 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 his impeachment trial and after his 1/6 sedition. It would seem that the Founding Fathers got it all wrong; power is everything, not justice.

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, notably for the sake of your political agenda. There lies the GOP lawmakers’ justification. They just have to trust that their own circle of believers is elected to speak in the name of the absolute truth of the Founding Fathers’ original intent, far and away, if needs be, from the actual words they used.

Incidentally, this act of faith is made even easier when being told that corporations are people and money is speech. What is there more to wish than your dollars becoming the word of God? This somewhat answers Sheldon Wolin’s following question: “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?” But their alliance is not just due to the mere corruption of some religious souls. “I want to suggest, adds Sheldon Wolin, that the alliance between power and faith results because each needs the other, desperately.”

To some degree, it is a doctrinal alliance. As mentioned earlier, archaism is not about religion or the Constitution only. The “invisible hand of the market” postulated by Adam Smith is equivalently used in the field of 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 what matters; it is a will to power that reality is bound to follow.

The Dynamics of the Archaic

Based on their common archaist thought process, constitutional fundamentalists see in the GOP their proper political vehicle, while the GOP, for its part, needs a stable legal framework: “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.”

The GOP staunch 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, in particular, are not fazed by their unholy alliance with Mammon, it is very likely because their dreams of purity are just that. Their faith is not in humanity but in an absolute realm that no one can see. It is only meant to be preached, not to translate into a structural betterment of society. They were, therefore, easy prey for shrewd politicians who could promise them to be as backward thinking as they are. One thing, ironically, remains valid: the fundamentalist pottage they all share about being from the elite and among the elects has its roots in the first days of European colonization on American soil. Not in the time of the Enlightenment movement that the Founding Fathers were part of, but in that, more than a hundred years before, of the Puritans. “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.”

Book Club Discussion: What do you think could be done to uproot the seduction of archaism in American politics?

Share your thoughts and build on what others say in the comment section below.

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 being hostages of Christian fundamentalism. 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
  4. Ogden v. Saunders, 25 U.S. 12 Wheat. 213 213 (1827)
  5. For the background to the idea of republicanism, see J.G.A. Pocock’s classic The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975) and the fine studies by Joyce Appleby, Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992) and Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790s (New York: New York University Press, 1984). See also Bernard Bailyn, Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), and Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969), especially chaps. 2, 3. and 11.
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