What's with conservatives' fetish for the Founding Fathers?

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What's with conservatives' fetish for the Founding Fathers?

I can come up with two different ways of understanding this. One's more charitable, one’s less, but neither is that great.

Here's number one: Maybe the right wing loves the 1700s because government was smaller. The point isn't that there was no civil rights law -- that’s an unfortunate side issue. The point is that there was no income tax, and America was a paradise of free enterprise. This is, unfortunately, an ass-backward misreading of history. In the early days, the big government debate worked much differently. Back then, if you wanted free market capitalism, you were for big government. Lots of people were just living off their land and not doing much buying or selling, and to drag them into the market required using state power. This was the stance of the northern, Federalist "Founders," mainly -- John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, etc. Small government was the populist stance, and was in particular a Thomas Jefferson specialty.

But here's Beck: "Do you believe that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Madison, Adams, do you believe those men were enlightened men? I do. Well, their crazy idea was to allow men to be free and free in their own business to allow them to be able to engage in capitalism."

So that's option one: an uninformed nostalgia for the 1790s as a mythical time when we were a nation of Ayn Rand characters, all six-foot-five, straight-backed, square-jawed, and buying and selling free of encumbrance.

This brings us to option two, however. Even if the past had been a free market paradise, it still only would've applied to the small fraction who were seen as full human beings and allowed rights as such. It's hardly a free market if you're forced to work in the fields for no pay, or forbidden from owning property. Casually dismissing these things because they get in the way of worship of the original Constitution seems revealing of something worse than being uninformed. It's almost as if the crucial rights enshrined in the Constitution only matter for white guys.

Personally, I think the fetish can be explained by the authoritarian personality meme that predominates in conservatives.

Rightwing Authoritarianism and Conservative Identity Politics

Lakoff's conservative "strict father" (in contrast to the liberal "nurturing parent) parenting model happens to correlate with the authoritarian personality model.

.ren's picture
Apr. 1, 2010 7:50 am


Personally, I think the fetish can be explained by the authoritarian personality meme that predominates in conservatives.

I think that another component is that the Founding Fathers aren't around to correct any incorrect ideas about them and that anything written is interpretable. Therefore, the Founding Fathers can be and mean anything one wants. Like religion.

jeffbiss's picture
Jul. 31, 2007 4:01 pm
Quote jeffbiss:
Personally, I think the fetish can be explained by the authoritarian personality meme that predominates in conservatives.

I think that another component is that the Founding Fathers aren't around to correct any incorrect ideas about them and that anything written is interpretable. Therefore, the Founding Fathers can be and mean anything one wants. Like religion.

And guess what religious types like to use an authoritarian God as their basis of interpretation?

The South, God and politics

The Raleigh News & Observer ran an interesting set of stories this weekend about faith in the South, which offered some revealing insights into how faith and politics mingle in the region.

Based on a recent Baylor University study, the story points out that the issue just isn't how religious the South is, but what kind of religion holds sway. And how Southerners view God is an excellent predictor of political and social attitudes.

The survey split people's views of God into four types -- authoritarian, benevolent, critical and distant (see the study linked below for more explanation) and Southerners had a strong bias:

Southerners, more than residents of any other region of the country, believe in a God the researchers describe as "authoritarian" -- one who is highly engaged in the world and very angry as well.

While 44 percent of Southerners see God in such terms, only 31 percent of all Americans have similar views. [...]

Significantly, the Baylor researchers found that people's views of God can accurately predict their moral attitudes, political affiliations and stands on hot-button social issues. [...]

Those who believe in an authoritarian God were nearly twice as likely as those with other views of God to believe abortion is always wrong, for example. They also tended to oppose same-sex marriage and to approve of the death penalty.

The impact on political attitudes is striking. For example, here are some positions strongly held by those with an "authoritarian" view of God. In fact, people with the authoritarian view were the only people in the survey who registered over 50% support for these positions:

The war in Iraq is justified: 63.1%

Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11: 53.7%

Premarital sex is wrong: 58.7%

Cohabitation is wrong: 50.3%

Adherents of an "authoritarian God" view also held beliefs that were off the charts when compared to those with other religious perspectives:

Support expansion of government authority to fight terrorism: 76.4%

Trust Bush 'a lot': 32%

Of course, definitions matter, so from page 27 of the above mentioned "Baylor Study":

Individuals in each of the groups of believers express very different views of who God is and what God does in the world (see Figure 14 for percentage breakdown).

Type A: Authoritarian God: Individuals who believe in the Authoritarian God tend to think that God is highly involved in their daily lives and world affairs. They tend to believe that God helps them in their decision-making and is also responsible for global events such as economic upturns or tsunamis. They also tend to feel that God is quite angry and is capable of meting out punishment to those who are unfaithful or ungodly.

Type B: Benevolent God: Like believers in the Authoritarian God, believers in a Benevolent God tend to think that God is very active in our daily lives. But these individuals are less likely to believe that God is angry and acts in wrathful ways. Instead, the Benevolent God is mainly a force of positive influence in the world and is less willing to condemn or punish individuals. Type

C: Critical God: Believers in a Critical God feel that God really does not interact with the world. Nevertheless, God still observes the world and views the current state of the world unfavorably. These individuals feel that God’s displeasure will be felt in another life and that divine justice may not be of this world.

Type D: Distant God: Believers in a Distant God think that God is not active in the world and not especially angry either. These individuals tend towards thinking about God as a cosmic force which set the laws of nature in motion. As such, God does not “do” things in the world and does not hold clear opinions about our activities or world events.

Atheists: Atheists are certain that God does not exist. Nevertheless, atheists may still hold very strong perspectives concerning the morality of human behavior and ideals of social order but have no place for the supernatural in their larger worldview.

.ren's picture
Apr. 1, 2010 7:50 am

Religion is sometimes used to fullfill human needs that aren't met.

Maslow/Psychologist: At the top of the triangle [human needs], self-transcendence is also sometimes referred to as spiritual needs. Maslow believes that we should study and cultivate peak experiences as a way of providing a route to achieve personal growth, integration, and fulfillment. Peak experiences are unifying, and ego-transcending, bringing a sense of purpose to the individual and a sense of integration. Individuals most likely to have peak experiences are self-actualized, mature, healthy, and self-fulfilled. All individuals are capable of peak experiences. Those who do not have them somehow depress or deny them.

Transcendence has been discounted by secular psychologists because they feel it belongs to the domain of religious belief. But Maslow himself believed that science and religion were both too narrowly conceived, too dichotomized, and too separated from each other.

Other non-peakers have the problem of immaturity in spiritual matters, and hence tend to view holy rituals and events in their most crude, external form, not appreciating them for any underlying spiritual implications. Maslow despised such people because they form a sort of idolatry that hinders religions. This creates a divide in every religion and social institution. (Maslow. "The 'Core-Religious' or 'Transcendent,' Experience.") It is important to note, however, that Maslow considered himself to be an atheist--thus, by his conceptualization of transcendence, any individual can have such experiences.

It should be noted that Maslow considered authoritarian religions as "deficiency religions". Obstructions to human psychological development. By extention, authoritarian personalities become self-defeatng, self-limiting in the same manner.


Retired Monk - "Ideology is a disease"

Jul. 31, 2007 4:01 pm

It is more than the authoritarian religion typical of sectarian societies. But that is important. One of the features of the Southern narrative is its martyrdom context where time has to be explained outside of history. "Losers" find themselves shut out of real social power and prestige, so their appropriate response is to develop a narrative in which they are fully human and the world's opinion is wrong.

This means a rather apolitical sense of being a morally superior but defeated "remnant" who will be vindicated and restored to power. What makes the sectarian community better is personal behavior or the kind of obligations typical of idealistic communes. Personal moral character is more important than how power is exercised because there is so little of the latter. Strong charismatic and "moral" leadership is typical.

The narrative is also about divine intervention and Providence corrupted into Manifest Destiny. The mythic nature of the narrative does not change when it gains power, not until it comes apart hitting the wall of reality. And then it goes through desperation and panic before it dies or accepts defeat and the need to change.

The Founding Fathers and their Holy Writ become the saints and Scripture of our National Cult. And, like the Fundies with the Bible, what they read in the Constitution is not what the Founders or anyone outside the cult gets at all. Fundy is too limited for the ways holy texts are misused and read to support ideology. But the key ideas are about the value of the orginal texts and limits on future revelation similar to the misuse of the Bible.

Even for religious practice, taking the Bible literally and without respect to time is special orders rather than basic honesty or respect for the Bible. The tradition of Biblical Authority rests on the Holy Spirit bringing the text to current relevance working with the heart and mind of the faithful seeker. It is always about that sort of "new thing" instead of "the rules."

Constitutionalists seek a Bible for America's Church without the Holy Spirit making all things new. But that is how the sectarian authority works when time is on hold. Resisting the corruptions to hold with what is true is the work of those 'saints' as they interpret themselves and their times. It is not the way to manage bearing power and living well with others.

DRC's picture
Jul. 31, 2007 4:01 pm

Why are all these Harvard philosophy professors posting diatribes on Thom Hartmann's message board? Dont they have any useless classes to teach?

Apr. 9, 2010 1:51 pm

Conservatives supposedly hate freeloading. So why are they trying to legalize it?

Conservatives supposedly hate freeloaders.

So why do they support right to work laws - which literally legalize freeloading?

Our nation's nine unelected monarchs on the Supreme Court are poised to deal yet another blow to organized labor.

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