The inclusion in the American Constitution of the right for free men to pursue happiness strikes me as naïve as Google's motto "don't be evil". They are both naïve because they do not recognise the darkness of the human soul. That darkness is born witness to in our history and the art we produce. We should know that our actions are not pure and simple but are produced by mostly unseen forces within ourselves. In other words, we are all sinners. A gap exists between our good intentions and the meanness, envy, fear and hubris that we find in our hearts.
It is this naivete in the American population that allowed so many to respond with enthusiasm to Trump's "Make America Great Again" and for so many to believe that "they can be anything that they want to be" as if being the "best I can be is" within a person's power to bring it about.
We may trace this humanist optimism to John Locke who wrote in his Second Treatise on Government:
To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.
It is thus that the individual is given priority over the communal/democratic. American politics were formed by the debate about the balance between the power of government and individual freedom. This attitude is reflected in President Regan's announcement that: "Government is not the solution to the problem government is the problem". He followed this up with "The most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help." The individual, being born free and capable of governing his own life will reject any help from government.
The pursuit of happiness sits at the centre of the Constitution and is the worm in the apple of American democracy that is directly related to its present dire political circumstances. The framers of the Constitution insisted that religion, particularly Christianity, should not have a voice. Indeed, the word "God" is not to be found in its text. Emerson was a great admirer of John Locke and presumably of the idea that the constitution should be written so that any rational person could accept it.
The absence of a Christian voice is surprising, considering that much of the movement of peoples to America was to build a new Jerusalem away from the religious restrictions of Europe, particularly for English Protestants under the Catholic leaning James II. It represents the imposition of the thoughts of the Enlightenment upon an overwhelmingly Christian population and is an example of the prioritising of "rational" thought over revealed knowledge even though that knowledge has been recognised over many centuries.
What is at stake here are two different anthropologies. The triumphalist anthropology of John Locke and the lapsarianism of the Christian Church i e that human nature is essentially broken. The story of what has been called the "Fall" in Genesis 3 is the mythological version of this doctrine while, the denial of Peter (Mark 14:66ff) and Paul's agonised expression of his own incapacity to act righteously (Rom 7) are confirmations from experience. When this central doctrine of the Church is ignored in the name of the triumphant human spirit, we clear the path for all the dictators of the 20th century bent on producing the thousand-year Reich based on blood and soil, or a communal brotherhood of man that would produce a worker's paradise. The results of these efforts may be read in the millions of dead produced by fascist and communist regimes. To be fair, the capitalist empire builders were responsible for the slave trade, the displacement of indigenous peoples and the elimination of local regimes, particularly if they stood in the way of free trade.
Christianity has a different view from the above. It insists that to seek one's life is to lose it, that the meaning of one's life resides in the person next to you, the neighbour. It understands the life of individuals as being members of the Body of Christ, the Church i e they do not exist on their own and are not the authors of their own lives. Self-creation is replaced by vocation, a calling to service. As such, individuals owe obedience to the Church within the confines of the economy of grace. They live in the knowledge that true freedom lies in bondage to the gospel and that self-proclaimed freedom is an illusion.
Is it possible to define a nation with the above characteristics? I think not. Paul's description of Christians as being under the authority of the state is a warning that there is a problem with theocracy. The examples of Calvin's Geneva and Islamic theocracy are negative examples. Vatican City exists under the laws of Italy. Monasticism was an attempt, largely successful, to enact a Christian polis and certainly, each Christian community should understand itself as such while obeying the laws of the land. Such examples are signposts that point to the Kingdom of God/Heaven that glimmers on the horizon for all believers and that is rehearsed around the Eucharistic table each Sunday.
In making the pursuit of happiness the human quest, the American constitution directs us to a chimera, an emotional state that is fragile as the day passes. It is too easily filled with material aims and becomes the engine that drives Capitalism. How do we know when to stop? How do we measure it? We will be happy when we have enough. We think that we will be happy with the next step up in lifestyle. Does that ever happen?
The New Testament does not contain a word that is usually translated as "happy". Instead, we have Greek words that are translated as "joy" and "blessed". They are not states that we can aspire to but that we discover in the economy of grace. Anyone familiar with the beatitudes (Matt.5ff) will realise that the blessed are a long way from those who seek happiness, indeed, its complete inversion. We hear that those who suffer will be blessed as will the poor. Hence the gospel overturns our understanding of what human fulfillment entails.
We can only hope that Joe Biden, a faithful Catholic, will offer some healing. But the seed of the lie exists in the very constitution that the new President has sworn to uphold. I wish him luck. But how do you reform the unreformable, given the holy status in which the constitution is held?
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