Baba Yetu, Civilization and the Tragedy of Originalism

March 7, 2019

I’ve always had a “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” attitude toward video gaming.  So when I came upon a deeply moving song, unmistakably African in style and language, I was shocked to discover that it was written as the introductory theme to a video game-- “Civilization.” 


Baba Yetu (Our Father), the text of the song, is the Lord's Prayer in Swahili, set to music so majestic and sweeping and yet so full of deep, irrepressible joy, it's hard to listen with dry eyes.  But as great as is the impact of the music alone, the visuals combined with the music created a vision of striking clarity. [i]


The sweeping panorama of world civilization flowed seamlessly--from the pyramids, to the Parthenon, and Roman legions, through the Vikings, the European settlement of America, the Revolution, the Civil War and abolition, the United Nations, and finally to the Space Age.  And over and above the clash of armies, the exploding bombs, the shouts of tyrants, the epic monuments of empire, you could always hear the drums of God.  And feel the brooding presence of "Baba Yetu."


It seemed I could see the Father leaning over the threshold of Heaven, alternatively cheering and weeping, agonized and ecstatic, as man moved haltingly toward openness, compassion and freedom; or marched away, erecting huge walls, inventing sadistic weapons and crushing the weak underfoot in their race to empire.  And I saw throughout, God--intimately involved, invisible yet ever-present--straining every nerve to influence people and events.  But not able to control the outcome.  Not able, despite infinite power, because He has chosen to give the human race the most costly, the most fatally dangerous gift of Heaven--freedom.  


I felt I was seeing, with a power and coherence I'd never had before, Civilization from the view of Heaven--a view infinitely far removed, completely unrecognizable to mortal, Earthbound creatures.  From Heaven's vantage point, there is nothing thrilling about conquering armies with banners, or ornately carved fortress walls, or colossal monuments to power and vanity.  There is nothing inspiring about the rantings of a power-mad leader, no matter how eloquent his rhetoric or how large and boisterous his crowds.  In the view of Heaven, might does not make right, and the pen of compassionate advocacy or liberating legislation is indeed mightier than the sword.


And it occurred to me that when America was founded, God cheered.  Not because the Founders or the system they created were perfect--far from it.  But because they had taken a giant leap toward creating history's first civilization genuinely "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."  Because the founding of America marked a new era of human freedom and dignity--a first step toward the bright, shining vision we are still striving towards.  In the words of a great moral leader of a later century, they had "been to the mountaintop and seen the Promised Land."


They saw the Promised Land--a just, equal, and free society--from afar, but they were not able to enter it.  They spoke its founding principle, "all men are created equal," with great solemnity and conviction, but they did not believe it.  They did not live it.  African slaves in chains with scarred backs were not equal. Catholic and Jewish immigrants, persecuted, reviled and banished, were not equal.  Native Americans violently removed from their lands, perpetually lied to, cheated, and slaughtered were not equal.  Women, the property of men, with few belongings and fewer rights, were not equal. 


Some of these hypocrisies, such as slavery, the Founders were well aware of and deplored, but saw no way to correct.  Some of them, such as religious inequality, they attempted to correct, but were unable to find consensus.  Some, like the injustices committed against women and the inhuman treatment of Native Americans, they simply lacked the moral vision to see.


But it was a brilliant start—a unique new vision.  And the world would never be the same. 


The Founders were great men, geniuses whose astonishing capacity for comprehending and applying the lessons of history allowed them to create a system unique in the world--a system brilliantly calculated to combat mankind's fundamental selfishness. This profound insight also allowed them to create a governing document which still inspires awe. A document, which, for all its flaws, moral compromises and rhetorical vagueness, has been the foundation of an increasingly free and just society for nearly two hundred and fifty years.


But they were no deities, as they themselves would be the first to acknowledge.  They were men of their time and they brought to the task of nation-building both the genius and the blindnesses of that age.


The founding of our country was a brilliant start, but it was a start, not a destination.  And the Founders were well aware of that.  They did not run extreme risks--committing open treason against the greatest empire in the world--just to create a slightly less oppressive form of the entrenched oligarchy they fought.  They were committed to, and they were passionate about human freedom.  "The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time." Thomas Jefferson wrote,  "The hand of force may destroy but cannot disjoin them."[ii]


They hoped their heirs would be stronger,  more enlightened, better able to resolve the thorny moral problems, like slavery, which they did not have the courage or the moral fortitude to address.


Jefferson, with his usual eerie prescience, lamented, "[N]o man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him....[O]f the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion indeed are ever seen to labor. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever." [iii]


They counted on future generations to carry forward the torch, to be better than they were themselves.


And to a great degree, their hope has been realized.  Though there have been many deviations and missteps, though evil has won out far too many times--in the Trail of Tears, Jim Crow, virulent anti-Semitism and religious persecution, and the Japanese internments, to name just a few--the needle has tended steadily upwards.  The system those great men created has allowed inexorable progress--often glacially slow, uneven, sporadic, and still sadly incomplete--but progress nonetheless.  Progress toward the shining vision of our forefathers--a nation "that lives out the true meaning of its creed."


But now, there is a powerful movement called originalism which looks solely to the past, attempting to recover an illusory lost greatness.  And the tragedy of originalism is that it attempts to arrest us in an idealized past which really never existed, with men worshipped as secular deities--oracles of infallible wisdom, policy, foresight, whose words are obsessively pored over, dissected and parsed--to wrest from them the one orthodox creed to govern with forever.  It attempts to fossilize society, like an insect trapped in amber, in the precise form prescribed two and a half centuries ago--perfectly preserved, static...and dead.


Originalism attempts to drag America, kicking and screaming, backwards toward that longed-for "perfect" society, where everyone knew their place, where only one God was worshipped in only one way, and where rich White men, like father, knew best.


Originalism urges us to forget that in that "perfect free society," poor men could not vote, most African men were slaves, and even free women were very like slaves. That in that society, workers had no rights, the elderly were abjectly dependent on their families or grudging charity, and those who could not work were forced to beg.  This, we are told, was the Founders' "original intent."


But I believe they are fundamentally wrong about the Founders' original intent. I believe the Founders had a fervent hope, not that liberty began and ended with their immortal words, but "that light and liberty are on a steady advance." [iv]


From all I know of the Founding Fathers, I firmly believe that if they could see us now--if they could see Black and White, women and men, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim, with equal rights before the law---all enfranchised and working together in government, education, science,  technology, and commerce for the good of society...If they could see us now--despite all our conflicts, hypocrisies, gross inequities, hatreds, and factions--after they picked themselves up off the floor--they would give an ecstatic shout. 


"THIS IS IT!  Our original intent.  We could not IMAGINE it was really possible!


"THIS is what we dreamed of when we put our names to that parchment, pledging 'our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor,' for our Revolutionary conviction that  'ALL men are created equal.' 


And I believe Baba Yetu, who gave us life and liberty, would cheer.



[i] https://


[ii] Boyd, Julian P., Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, et al, eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950-.


[iii] Jefferson, Thomas,  Peden, William (Ed.), Notes on the State of Virginia, Institute of Early American History and Culture (Williamsburg, Va.) (1954)


[iv] Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, dated September 12, 1821.

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