Sometimes I think wistfully and sadly to myself of what the United States would have become had we followed the Enlightenment tradition upon which we were based. Today the dominant narrative in the United States is that we were founded as a “Christian Nation.” As Lyotard argues, narratives serve the function of legitimation in the present. The stories we tell of the past legitimate how things are organized in the present. What if, instead of the Christian narrative, we instead had a founding narrative of the long struggle Enlightenment thinkers had overcoming superstition and despotic oppression such as that seen with respect to the Salem Witch Trials or the Spanish Inquisition? As Kant writes,

Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to make use of one’s own understanding without the direction of another. This immaturity is self-incured when its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolution and the courage to use it without the direction of another. Sapere aude! (dare to be wise!). Have courage to make use of your own understanding! is the motto of enlightenment. (Practical Philosophy, 17)

The immature one is the child that requires a parent to direct them. The child is unable to direct himself, and is a slave to his passions, thereby requiring the strong hand of parental authority to guide them through threats and punishments. The adult, by contrast, is that being capable of directing oneself, of becoming ones own legislator. The adult does not eat all the Halloween candy because he is threatened with going to bed early, but because he knows that it will make him sick. I do not refrain from murdering my fellow because I am threatened by the boogyman of eternal damnation, but because I recognize this destroys the social fabric and the vitality of my own life. Throughout history we have again and again heard these arguments whenever one group would exploit another. Prior to Women’s Suffrage, women were portrayed as immature children whose minds were filled with all sorts of fanciful ideas and passions, and who therefore required the strong hand of men to govern and control them. Mary Wollstonecraft had to stand up and demonstrate that women are capable of reason, that their behavior is a result of being denied education, and therefore they have the right to govern themselves. Slaves were portrayed as children driven by passions, superstition, and primitive ideas, thereby justifying the right to keep them enslaved as left to their own devices they would run amock. It would take a Frederick Douglas to stand up and demonstrate, once again, that this was the result of being prevented from developing themselves, that African-Americans were capable of reason and therefore self-legislation.

Jefferson had a different vision of the United States and of Christianity. For those not familiar with it, you can read about the concept behind the Jefferson Bible here and read the book itself here. What would the United States look like today had this Enlightenment path been followed? What unheard forms of legitimation would we possess? Instead we get this, from whence some 7% of the current interns to the current administration came from. Poke around a bit, it’s illuminating. Read the mission statement in the “about” section, and google their political activities.

If you have difficulty connecting to the second link, it can also be found here.