Having been raised by a high-ranking military intelligence officer and having been converted to socialism by the red-diaper babies I went to high school with, I was very active in left-wing politics in the San Francisco area until about 1968, at which time I drew the conclusion that the fundamental values of a society can be changed only on the level of religion, not by politics, and at which time I and my friends founded the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn as an experiment in creating a spiritual pathway for ourselves that might better meet our needs and thus the needs of our society.
(Having an MA in poetry writing and years of editing science books have enabled me to write a sentence that long with, I hope, some elegance.)
A viable balance between politics and religion is as difficult to achieve and maintain as is such a balance between the partners in a marriage. Neither too close nor too distant will work in the long run. Here I will argue that Paganism and Socialism are compatible partners, by means of a commentary on the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, to show that we are socialist, and on the Bill of Rights, to show that, in the broadest sense, we are Pagan.
One logistical problem here is that the term ”socialism” has been poisoned by the lies of the rich and powerful, just as the actual teachings of Christian faith have been. The classic socialism of the Enlightenment period was simply the concept that a society should be governed for the benefit of all the people who make it up, not for the benefit of any minority, as Lincoln emphasized at Gettysburg. That concept, which Jefferson derived from John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, is the foundation of our political system. We have been socialists since 1776.
Our social philosophy is embodied not in the Constitution, but in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, which declared our independence not only from the British Empire, but also from the “dead hand” of all previous religious, philosophical, and political beliefs. Ours was not merely a political revolution. The colonists did not want to govern themselves in the way that England had governed them. Rather, ours was a social and cultural revolution, changing even the way people spoke and still speak: everyone would now be addressed with the respectful “you,” not the familial “thou.”
In 1952, in the seventh grade at Boody Junior High, Public School 228, in Brooklyn, I had to memorize the Preamble to the Declaration. I have never forgotten it. The rather few who can also recite it rarely, I suppose, think about what the words mean, much the way most people say the “Our Father,” although many who hold hands and recite that prayer at the end of a Twelve-Step. meeting do think about what its words mean.
A Commentary on the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence
To pull out the meaning of these 110 words, I will examine them phrase by phrase.
- We hold these truths to be self-evident
This is the logic of geometry: to begin with propositions so obviously true that they need no proof, or with statements of value, which are inherently nondisprovable, and to derive conclusions from them that are logically indisputable.
The first self-evident truth is:
- that all men are created equal
Obviously, all humans are not identical; as individuals we differ greatly in our strengths, weaknesses, talents, and so on. Instead, this proposition asserts that all humans are equal in value, that every human life is its own fundamental value, and that no human life is more valuable than another when one is thinking, as Jefferson was, about what laws an adequate social system should have. There could be no hereditary aristocrats in America.
The next truth is:
- that they are endowed by their Creator
Here is where the Dominionists (a useful term, since it refers to only their political agenda) cry, “See! We began as a Christian nation!” No, we did not. What Jefferson meant by “Creator,” as is clear in his other writings, was not a version of the Judeo-Christian concept of God, but the Deist concept of a God who set the cosmos in motion, then stepped back from it and does not interfere with it, not from a lack of caring, but because humans have free will. (I’ll get into a detailed discussion of free-will theology some other time; here it would be a distraction.) Jefferson called himself a Unitarian. He did not believe that Jesus was anything other than a normal (although highly gifted) human being, and neither did almost all the other Founding Fathers.
- with certain unalienable rights
Our rights are innate and fundamental. Jefferson was not concerned with how they might have been created; he could just as well have said, “that all men have unalienable rights.” The point is that the rights are the fundamental reality; they are not conferred by and cannot be taken away by a government. Instead, it is these rights that circumscribe the powers of a government.
- That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
John Locke’s original phrase was “life, liberty, and property.” Jefferson and the rest of the committee changed the phrase because, whereas the right to life and liberty is absolute, the right to property is not. One insight of classic socialism was that all property belongs ultimately to society, not individuals, and that it is unjust for an individual to own so much that the lives of others are threatened.
The third truth is:
- That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men,
The purpose of government is to protect the rights, which exist before the government does, of the people and to enable them to exercise those rights. Governments are created by people, not by God.
- deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Here Jefferson uses Locke’s key concept, that a government can be just and legitimate only if those being governed freely consent to it. In other words, before our revolution, every government in history had been illegitimate. All had been based on force, on Thrasymachus’ concept that “Might makes right.” Thomas Paine’s incendiary pamphlet, The Rights of Man, attacked the “Divine Right of Kings,” that is, the claim that “I’m the King because God wants me to be the King.” No, Paine said, a man is king only because his ancestors were the meanest SOBs around and simply took what they wanted. Locke proposed that we humans have an unwritten “social contract” with one another by which we consent to obey the laws we ourselves create in order for all to benefit.
The fourth truth is:
- That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends,
That is, when a government fails to protect the basic human rights
- it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government,
Since the people have created the government, they can also dissolve it and replace it
- laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
We thus have a permanently subversive form of government. It subverts all claims to privilege or power that are not based on the freely given consent of all concerned. Happily, given James Madison’s genius in designing the Constitution, we can alter it peacefully by the process of amending it. That has worked well so far. Still, if two thirds of the states held constitutional conventions and voted to rewrite the Constitution, it would be rewritten—without a civil war.
In Part II, I will comment on some of the Bill of Rights (mainly the First Amendment) to carry on my argument that we were and still are a Pagan nation.