INTERVIEW BY TERRENCE MCNALLY
Jacob Needleman distills solutions to our current challenges from the spiritual wisdom of the Founding fathers.
The notion that the founding fathers were religious and meant the nation to be Judeo-Christian is repeated often enough to seem true. Yet, I’d fancied them all deists, wise men who, like me, would mark a survey question: “spiritual, not religious.” In Jacob Needleman’s The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, (Jeremy P. Tarcher, 2003), however, I learned that the founders believed religion necessary to provide a moral structure for a free society: to guide human beings in their exercise of democracy, suddenly free of the domination of church or crown. But Needleman also makes clear that, with the experience of Old World religious intolerance still fresh, theirhighest goal was freedom of conscience.
The Declaration of Independence asserts that our nation is entitled to secede from England and “assume a separate and equal station among the powers of the Earth” by “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” Thomas Jefferson then writes one of humankind’s greatest sentences, beginning: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…”
What was to become the United States emerged out of the search for our right to pursue happiness. Needleman also makes clear that these brilliant social entrepreneurs of the enlightenment, most of them in their 30s and many of them Freemasons, had both political and mystical visions of a new society. They took the creator seriously. And when they equated happiness with life and liberty, they were not taking happiness lightly. They didn’t mean the most toys —or the biggest empire.
They created this country—separating not just from England, but from Europe and from all that had come before—so that a society could fulfill the promises of the reformation, the enlightenment, democracy and the invisible hand of free commerce. If spirituality is experiencing the sacred in the ordinary, the founders envisioned us having both the means and the freedom to experience the sacred. That’s the American dream.
Jacob Needleman, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University and the author of many books, including Lost Christianity: A Journey of Rediscovery (Jeremy P. Tarcher, 2003), Money and the Meaning of Life, (Doubleday, 1994) and his most recent, The American Soul. He has great insight into the strange political dance involving the religious right, the Bush administration and our deepest spiritual roots.
WLT: Polls consistently indicate that the United
States is more religious than most other highly developed nations. Do you believe these findings are accurate and, if so, what do you make of that?
JACOB NEEDLEMAN, PH.D.: European countries are much less explicitly religious than America, that’s for sure. But there are different kinds and levels of religiosity. The average American is more inclined to the religious dimension in the conventional sense.
Although our founding fathers were religious in certain senses of the term, someone like Jefferson was highly critical of the church. He and many others felt that dogmatic religion was a terrible tyranny of the mind and the cause of great suffering and violence in human life.
Washington, Franklin, Jefferson and others up through Lincoln were religiously minded in the sense of a feeling for some higher power in the universe and in the affairs of human life. That’s about as far as you can go. You leave by the wayside sectarian religion, institutional or church religion in many of its recognized forms.
Why is it that Americans are more “church religious” than other countries?
For many people, even in the big cities, the social fabric of the community centers around the church. We are a little bit less intellectually jaded or disillusioned with the power of religion than many other nations.
You could think of Europe as having been so burned by ideologies and religiosity that they’ve developed, on the one hand, a kind of cynicism, and on the other, a sophisticated realization that religion causes as much harm as good in the affairs of human life. The streets of Europe are stained with blood from all sorts of religious and ideological conflicts. People came to America to escape that.
The whole strain of African-American culture rooted in slavery is also bound up with a powerful religiosity. The spirituality of African-Americans is a force that we are all touched by, whether we’re black or white. Same with the Native Americans in relation to the environment and ideals of what an authentic human being is.
What do you think the founding fathers were thinking when they spoke of faith or religion? These guys were pretty thoughtful. They studied philosophy and classical texts. If you read the Federalist Papers or the like, you’ll see these guys could write circles around any of us.
Their idea of religion was of a higher principle accessible to thought and reason, a highly developed feeling that you could call faith, but it was anything but blind faith. They could call this higher principle “god,” but they didn’t want to identify it with what the church necessarily taught.
We have to find a way of making what they said meaningful for us without doing violence to them, but also without thinking that just by reading their words we know exactly what they meant. When they founded this country, they were protecting the right of men and women to search for their own conscience. This would be inevitably a spiritual element—not necessarily religious, but spiritual.
The current administration—certainly Bush himself, John Ashcroft and others—seem to be the most openly religion-led of any high officials I can recall. They aggressively claim to represent the true calling of America and the founding fathers, but you’re saying that’s not necessarily so.
I don’t think it is, but I also think every politician in recent memory has tried to appropriate the founding fathers.
They openly declare that it was the intention of the founding fathers that the United States be a Christian or Judeo-Christian nation, and they bow to Christian moralizing in making policy in areas such as abortion, stem cell research and homosexuality.
That’s what they’d say, but the founding fathers were very sophisticated in their understanding of Judeo-Christian. It doesn’t mean taking the Bible literally. It doesn’t mean making traffic laws based on the Book of Isaiah.
The administration is touching a nerve partly because a lot of Americans are afraid that, without some sense of sacred morality, we will become so relativistic that many will do whatever they want. The crisis of ethics in our country is the search in our culture for an ethical anchor. Right now is not a good time to try to take God out of the pledge of allegiance.
In The American Soul, you point out how Washington and Lincoln sacrificed individual ambition, yet our culture seems to celebrate the individual over the group. How do you square these notions? Was there simply a lesson in our heroes that we are missing, or is it more complicated than that?
The meaning of democracy is respect for the other and service to the community. I serve the community best by being truly myself. Being truly myself I serve my conscience, and therefore I become virtuous.
There’s a terrific misunderstanding of what being an individual means. Being truly myself doesn’t mean that I go to the mall and buy what I want. An individual is not simply a consumer or a pleasure seeker. An individual is somebody who comes in touch with the source of individuality, which is a spiritual energy or identity. Individuality fuses with democracy. I respect you. I give you the right to speak and think—and I need you. We need each other to think and speak together in order to come to true intelligence, and that’s getting lost left and right.
Someone without an understanding of that history might think of an individual as simply “me”—my rights, my desires. But, at the time, the founding fathers were writing, coming out of the Enlightenment, wasn’t the very definition of an individual really a new phenomenon? To the founders, an individual was almost a newly created entity no longer dominated by a church or a king.
You’re absolutely right. An American was a new kind of human being.
As such, this individual had a huge responsibility. Democracy was based on individuals looking at each other—at you and you and you—and asserting that we are dependent on each other, not on a king or a church.
That’s exactly right, and it’s been terribly lost.
It would be easy to bash the Bush administration and others for their misinterpretation of the founding fathers, but I believe the crisis of democracy we face is more complex. If we step back and include the full culture in our questioning, where do the progressives fit in all this? Might it be that the true American dream is endangered because democracy as envisioned by the founding fathers is not able to cope with or survive certain current conditions? Could they have foreseen the enormous political domination of the twin monsters of money and television that change the game so profoundly? You say politics defines not only an economic and a financial face for America, but a moral and philosophical. Thomas Jefferson wrote one of humankind’s greatest sentences, beginning: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…”one as well. It looks to me as if, in a cynical and unspoken pact, the corporate libertarians and big money interests on the right have said, “We don’t really care about the moral and social vision of America. We’ll let it be dictated by a religious minority who aren’t really in tune with the complexity of our current situation, in exchange for their supplying ground troops when it comes to winning elections.” Any thoughts about that?
Oh boy…I think that may be to some extent accurate, probably semi-consciously. I don’t like to speculate about corporate motivation, not knowing it from the inside. I don’t see corporate leaders twirling their moustaches, saying, “Let’s see how we can use the religious right to screw the people.” But they do play into each other in many ways. Both are against a kind of leveling, against a kind of socialistic influence, and against a kind of moral relativism.
In the interests of their corporate aims, they allow enforcement of cultural and moral views that they themselves don’t actually share…?
That’s a hard one. Most people—even the crooks— are trying some of the time to be good. I would say there’s a disconnect between moral life and business life. It probably has its roots in a failed concept of the meaning of capitalism in America. At its root, business is something that society allows for the good of the greater whole, and business sometimes forgets whom they’re serving.
You’re referring to the original definition and charter of a corporation—to serve the common good?
Yes, but it’s true of the whole notion of business as well. Instead, you have a disconnect, so that in each individual as well as in society as a whole, business life is buffered off from moral or ethical life. You tell yourself you’re being ethical, when actually you’re operating as a split personality. The ethical person and the businessperson don’t know each other; they just imagine they do.
That’s why we see people who do horrible corporate crimes saying, “What, me? I didn’t do anything wrong…” At least in the old days, crooks knew they were crooks.
Now we have to ask whether our children are being brought up without any sense of right and wrong. I ask my students for ethical dilemmas that they’ve confronted, and sometimes I can’t even get one response. They don’t even know what it is. We are in deep trouble here.
What do you see as some solutions?
I’ll tell you what I see, and I hope it’s not too unrealistic. I think a lot of Americans no longer have any idea what it means to think. I don’t believe our salvation depends on everyone becoming good or noble; it’s just a question of people finally beginning to realize that the culture has made them stupid. There’s no thinking going on.
The level of discourse in the country echoes people yapping loudly on television—that’s not thinking. I won’t say where or how, but I meet with folks in some very big circles of influence in our country, and, when we start thinking together—not trying to make sound bites or to win—people are excited.
With students, as well as with people in positions of power, once they get a taste of thinking, they like it. They say “Look, I’m thinking, my God.” That sounds arrogant on my part, but it really isn’t. People need to think together about values, about America, about who and what we are. I have a vision that if people could rediscover what it means to think quietly, carefully and respectfully about a subject, it would really make a difference.
What do you assume would follow?
People are polarized partly because they don’t realize that they could resolve conflicts without just brokering each other’s needs, but by actually touching and reconciling differences. One of the functions of thought is to reconcile differences. People have to be sincere, and they have to be face to face with one another. And people want to listen and think together—once they get a taste of it.
If you really listen to another person, you begin to realize that there’s a human being there who has an opinion. You can be against the opinion but not against the person. That realization could be the salvation of so many of our troubles.