Janine Giordano Drake
There has been great discussion on this blog in recent months about antihistory--that popular assumption that differences in time, space and culture between the Constitutional founders and Americans at present is trivial and in most respects irrelevant. We see this in contemporary Tea Party protests for present taxes as well as recent political candidates' statements that they are "simply" for The Constitution. As Linford Fisher has recently said on this blog, Jill Lepore calls this habit of investing the words of the Founders with timeless meaning, irrelevant of context and ambiguity, "historical fundamentalism." Some contemporary Tea Partiers have indeed sought in the history of the Founders an unambiguous set of directives for taxation, the separation of powers, and the tensions between different interest groups.
And yet, watching the "Rally to Restore Sanity And/or Fear" yesterday, I began to wonder if antihistory looms just as largely within the secular, moderate majority as within the Tea Party. Jon Stewart said he was calling the rally to restore sanity and civility to political discourse. He thus assumed that at one point in the past, American could "have animus and not be enemies." In its lead-up, he referred to the event as a "million moderate march." However, when in the past was there animus without severe political infighting? When in the American past was there political turmoil without fervent religious discourse? Stewart's understanding of moderation was tied to secularism, but this must be recognized as a forward-thinking, and not a "restoration-ist" conviction.
I find myself wondering why Stewart's understanding of civil political discourse makes no room for firm religious commitments. For example, Stewart could have left out a benediction entirely. Instead, he opened the rally with a parody benediction by SNL's Guido Sarducci. Mocking all exclusionary religions and especially the intellectual humility of the Italian-American Catholic priest, Sarducci asked God to send a sign of the particular religion that God liked best. The joke thus not only mocked believers but mocked the possibility that God could be fit into one religion. Stewart didn't have to go here, but he chose to make a clear statement at the beginning of the rally about the irony of both religion and religious leadership in political discourse.
Stewart's closing speech reiterated this statement. He argued that in restoring civility, we need to denude political discourse of religious sensibilities. "We live now in hard times, not end times," he said. By "hard times" he likely referred to difficult economic times, and by "end times" to the conviction that Jesus' return is imminent. This not only bothers me because the idea that we are living in the end times has encompassed the entirely of American religious and political history. But, Stewart's suggestion that the reality of economic hard times become the common denominator of political discourse projects an alternate, secular framework for civil discourse that does not make room for religious convictions.
Stewart closed the rally, "[S]ometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the promised land. Sometimes it’s just New Jersey." Stewart here hoped to push us to see the world through less optimistic and more worldly eyes. He also secularized the founding mythology of a Promised Land to imply that what we really needed to learn from this American experiment was the importance of working together. He could not, or did not want to, imagine political civility within the context of our American plurality of cultures and serious religious convictions.
To imagine we could "restore" a time when Americans argued without calling each other unfair names and declaring some ought to be silenced politically and socially in the name of true religion is to engage in antihistory. Indeed, many these days try to imagine differently (as this pretend political attack ad suggests that even the Founders could not have withstood such oversimplified bickering). However, I think this is just wishful thinking. Politics has always been brutal, and political discourse in this country has always been about coalition building. If it sounds civil, it is just civil enough to engage the moderates who might be wiling to become allies.