Crucifying Polybius In Connecticut
We don't pray in my household. Perhaps we ought to. There's more than enough chaos to keep a band of angels busy. But our heavens are silent. We give thanks for one another and for such health as we enjoy. Among the things for which we are thankful is the Bill of Rights and a historical tradition that makes possible the United States Constitution.
We worry that those who also cherish the Constitution do not give history its due. Detach the Constitution from its historical roots and the documents floats, untethered, and is capable of being shaped into grotesque images. Those images frighten us. We worry that liberty and all the other values enshrined in the Constitution will become mere caricatures, playthings in the hands of tyrants.
Who reads any longer John Adams? Who gives more than lip service to the Notes of the Constitutional Convention? Does anyone really read beyond the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence? Who, in fact, reads?
But for Polybius, Aristotle, Cicero and all the other commentators on Greek and Roman history, there would be no federal Constitution. The founders knew that. They read the classics. They read them in Greek and Latin. They learned of mixed constitutions from Polybius. The learned of federations from ancient Greek experiments trying to unite a tiny peninsula of warring city states. They learned of the importance of moderation from Aristotle.
Few read these sources any longer, in Greek, Latin or English. Today, many folks turn for inspiration to the Bible. Tragically, they forget, or seek to ignore, the historical significance and place of the assembled tracts printed there. They read it and they think they hear the voice of God. In this, they are no better and certainly no worse than the parade of those purchasing a too easy familiarity with the divine throughout history.
Unfortunately, the misled and misbegotten now have a toe hold in Connecticut. A group calling itself the Family Institute of Connecticut has set up shop here, importing the sort of wholesale silliness that passes for orthodoxy in the deep South and Texas, that land apart. The institute hopes "to see citizens, institutions and government acknowledge and encourage the vital role of family and to once again see the Judeo-Christian principles that are rearticulated in the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution re-employed in our society and its public policy."
This business about Judeo-Christian principles in the founding documents is little more than gibberish. Those documents owe more to classical, than Christian, sources.
That's not to say that the Church did not play a role in the vast sweep of history. Of course it did. When Roman civilization collapsed, the monasteries kept alive a learned tradition and preserved texts that would otherwise be lost. So did scholars in the Arab world. But for the Church, we would not know as much as we do about Greece or Rome or ancient Jewish writings. Neither would have the founders.
This effort to hijack history and transform the United States into some sort of fundamentalist paradise reached fever pitch in Connecticut last month. The Family Institute together with the Enfield Board of Education fought a losing battle to hold high school commencement ceremonies in a mega-church. United States District Judge Janet Hall visited the church and found it so steeped in religious symbolism and imagery that she concluded holding the ceremonies there amounted to an establishment of religion.
She could have reached a contrary conclusion. The symbols and images are as much a part of our culture as are images of Greece and Rome. But she rightly concluded that the Family Institute's lobbying to force a little God and gospel down the throats of those celebrating a high school graduation was suspect.
Jesus didn't write the Constitution. The gospels don't discuss the separation of powers. Yes, the Christian ethic emphasizing the dignity of persons is a profound influence. But Jerry Falwell wasn't at the founding, and Billy Graham didn't sign the Constitution. Men who knew the classics did. Shame on the Family Institute. Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.