I have been totally consumed by the radio programme I am making — it goes out on the 29th of December and the 1st of January: the details will he here. It’s about the role played by religion in American self-understanding. 25 minutes should be plenty to cover that, don’t you think?
Actually, I think I have got the message down to one unusable soundbite inspired by Jamie Zawinski . America is inconveivable without God because of Thomas Jefferson, who, at the conception of America, used God as his turkey baster.
Something more straightforward and less offensive will be used for the programme, but the underlying argument is a serious one. America imagines itself as a community of people with rights. Where do these rights come from? Well, from the creator. That’s what it says in the Declaration of Independence. What mattered to Jefferson was to limit the powers of government. The Bill of Rights is therefore a set of political assertions, but they are dressed up to make them seem beyond politics, self-evident truths deriving from human nature. That may be how constitutioins have to function. All political arguments have to stop somewhere. Either way, we reach a situation where to be an American is to be a certain sort of human being, one whose rights are fully recognised (even if everyone has them in potentia ) and this is a centrally important fact about America and Americans. Yet these rights or the power to recognise them were given to America, and to Americans, by the creator. They have to have been. If they don’t come from somewhere outside the political process, they can’t serve their constitutional function. Of course, in reality, they were brought into being, and have been maintained, by power and in the least resort by violence. But the belief that they have an extra-political sanction is necessary for them to perform their political function.
It doesn’t matter, in this context, whether Jefferson himself distinguished between God and Nature, or meant one rather than the other — and he almost certainly didn’t mean the God of the Bible.