07/02/2012 07:21 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2012

Founded in Enlightenment, America Faces Ignorance and Confusion As the Challenges Grow Ever More Complex

As we prepare to celebrate the 236th birthday of America and its founding document, the Declaration of Independence, we have some deep problems. In some quarters, the ideals of the Enlightenment which gave rise to the nation are flatly rejected. In others, they are barely understood.

As a result, we have one major political party which is essentially anti-Enlightenment political party and a highly distractible and frequently very shallow media culture. And all of it as we face a set of very complex challenges requiring sophisticated knowledge and clarity of thought.

Amidst a welter of contentious issues, we have to grapple with a still very uncertain recovery from economic and financial meltdown, a struggle over the nature of democracy marked by the expansion of money politics, unprecedented environmental/climate challenges, and a big geopolitical pivot from over-engagement with Islam to increased engagement with Asia while still deeply entangled in war and potential war.

These things would challenge the best of the Enlightenment thinkers. But their ethic, which lies at the core of the foundation of America, is falling away.

The Enlightenment was a watershed period in political thought, a time of very creative philosophical development in Europe and North America which ran from the late 17th century through the whole of the 18th century and into the early 19th century. Drawing on Renaissance humanism and the emerging scientific revolution, Enlightenment thinkers rejected royalism, feudalism, and superstition, urging an egalitarian approach and expanding human rights, applying the reason of science to a society to be marked by a separation of church and state.

Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin -- polymaths and promoters of science, disdainful of all religious orthodoxies, staunch democrats -- were the key leaders of the American Enlightenment and the principal moving forces behind the Declaration of Independence, which was largely crafted by Jefferson. George Washington, John Adams and many others also partook of Enlightenment thought.

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.

The Declaration of Independence

Jefferson and Franklin were also Revolutionary America's first two ministers to France. Without the very active help of France, the United States may well have lost the Revolutionary War against Britain. And French thinking in turn helped spur the Enlightenment to begin with.

As president, Jefferson sent out the Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore the rest of the continent to the west, executed the Louisiana Purchase, thus vastly expanding the young nation, and waged America's first foreign war. He promoted expansion in pursuit of exploration and core American interests while, at the same time, he urged the avoidance of unnecessary entanglements and the seeking of hegemony.

An example to keep clearly in mind as America undertakes an historic geopolitical pivot.

Throughout it all, Revolutionary America's founding Enlightenment thinkers championed the expansion of knowledge, viewing ignorance as a mortal danger to the Republic. Today that danger is increasing.

A Gallup Poll last month brought home just how far away from Enlightenment thinking much of the country, largely the part represented by the Republican Party, has become. It's shocking.

An astounding 46% of Americans believe in creationism, the doctrine that denies the science of evolution and holds that human beings in our present form were created by God within the past 10,000 years. This is is a doctrine which has people and dinosaurs all existing together, like in some cheesy old B-movie or TV show.

Big majorities of Democrats and independents reject this stuff but the great majority, some 60%, of Republicans embrace it. When you remove those Americans with postgraduate educations from the mix, most of the remaining Americans believe in creationism.

We have more and more media platforms, more and more tech, more and more ways of accessing information around the world, and it isn't helping make people any better informed.

The overall numbers are essentially the same as they were 30 years ago. Even though there have been many well-known scientific discoveries over the past three decades demonstrating the science of evolution and debunking the superstitionism of creationism.

This is just the latest and greatest example of the rise of medieval anti-Enlightenment thinking in America.

The anti-Enlightenment forces in America have come together around some very bizarre notions that are contrary not only to science but to the Enlightenment principles that drove the American Revolution. From the evolution deniers and the birthers who scream that the first black president is really not an American at all but, naturally, an African to greenhouse deniers, anti-gays, anti-choicers, and on and on, denying the commitment to rationality and egalitarianism of the Declaration of Independence.

Centered around one party, the Republican Party, this has made the once Grand Old Party virtually unrecognizable from the organization that, in the past, embraced civil rights, conservation, and the preservation of the Union against the rebellion of states which today make up the geographic core of the anti-Enlightenment forces in America.

It was 149 years ago, the day before Independence Day, that the Union won a dearly-bought victory over the Confederacy at Gettysburg, the turning point in the Civil War and one of the crucial pivot points of American history. Some four months later, the man still credited as the father of a party he would scarcely recognize today made a speech commemorating the sacrifice and proclaiming the rebirth of the United States along the Enlightenment lines of the Declaration of Independence.

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," President Abraham Lincoln began, making it clear that egalitarianism was at the core of his conception of the Re-United States he was bringing into being.

He closed his brief remarks, fewer than 300 words, by proclaiming dedication to "the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain--that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

In so doing, he rejected, as had Jefferson and Franklin and the other founders before him, royalism and feudalism in all its forms, positing the power and legitimacy of the state in the power and legitimacy of its people, not its elites.

Lincoln remade America by reaffirming the Enlightenment principles of the Declaration of Independence at a time of great turbulence and division. We live in a time of great turbulence and division as well, though the challenges are more multi-faceted and global.

Lincoln saw that Jefferson had framed an ideal nation toward which the real nation would evolve, each generation building upon the advances of the last. Change is the constant of the American experience. It's the nature of the American ideal to experience continual revolution not through convulsive chaos but through constant evolution.

And so America today struggles with its latest evolution in human rights. Just as past generations of Americans have had to confront their own forms of insularity and squeamishness, we do the same with regard to LGBT rights and the struggle over same-sex marriage.

Just as past generations struggled with the expansion of human rights for blacks and other racial and ethnic groups and for women.

It's important to remember that the Committee of Five of the Continental Congress -- Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, John Adams of Massachusetts, Robert Livingston of New York, Roger Sherman of Connecticut -- charged with producing the Declaration of Independence in 1776, included slavery as one of the ills to be removed from the new body politic.

But slavery's end was not included in the Declaration. Practical politics dictated otherwise, so it was left to Lincoln to end slavery as he remade America in the most fundamental of conflicts over its nature.

Things very seldom happen all at once, but the Founders' direction for America, one of historically expanding human rights, is clear.

So, too, is the intent for the ongoing expansion of knowledge. Without it, the democracy they established is threatened.

Which makes our state of increasing ignorance and confusion all the more dangerous.

As our nation, and the world of which it is a part, becomes ever more complex, our politics must improve. Which means that our media must improve.

Last week's dramatic incident, in which some major media outlets falsely reported the outcome of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on President Barack Obama's national health care law, brought the problem into sharp relief. I wrote about it here on the Huffington Post. When such basic facts as the up or down decision on one of the most relentlessly publicized issues around are screwed up, there's not much hope of understanding more complex matters that don't fit into simplistic templates.

So as we celebrate another day off and think of fireworks, hot dogs, and all the rest, let's give some thought to how and why this country was founded. And consider how far we have to go in meeting challenges that would daunt even the best of the Founders.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ...

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