Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, yea unto the third and to the fourth generation

December 10th, 2004

It is both triply appropriate and at least triply ironic that this quotation (it’s Exodus 34:7, KJV) should lead off the first posting to this blog. First, because it’s all my father’s fault, rest his soul. (Isn’t everything? <g>) Everything you read here started with him. All of it: with one three-word opening line.

Ben Roth was a classic, do-gooder Jewish lawyer in St. Louis in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, working pro bono all over creation, for Legal Aid, the ACLU, the Health and Hospitals board…you get the picture. At one point he received a lifetime achievement award, or something like that, from the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. When he stood up for his acceptance speech (oh how I wish I had a copy of the whole thing), he opened with the words,

“My fellow conservatives…”

With all those bleeding-heart, knee-jerk liberals in the room, it brought the house down. But then he went on to explain that he was really quite serious. The ACLU, he said, perhaps more than any other American organization, was and is devoted to preserving the values of the founders, as embodied in the Constitution and in the Declaration of Independence. (Though as Gary Wills explains in Lincoln at Gettysburgh: The Words That Remade America, it took Lincoln and the Gettysburgh Address to effectively incorporate the latter into the former, giving the beliefs about equality that are embodied in the Declaration true force of law. More anon on that, in a later post.)

The ACLU is a deeply conservative organization. It is all about protecting the values upon which this nation was founded — liberty, freedom of speech, religion, the press, and assembly — from dangerous radicals like John Ashcroft, the rest of the current Bush administration, and their more fervent supporters.

The people who today call themselves “conservatives” are not just radical attackers of civil liberties. They are opposed to the most fundamental America values, values that are shared by the huge majority of Americans — today and yesterday. Whether it’s preserving the wealth of our environment for our children’s children’s children (now that’s conservative), fiscal prudence (can you say deficit spending? Ten trillion dollars?), world stature and credibility (what world stature and credibility?), or corporate giveaways, the current administration is about as “conservative” as Michael Milken and Attila the Hun. They don’t deserve the moniker, and it’s up to us to take take it away from them.

Because we are the true conservatives.

Which brings us to the second appropriate irony. By opening with this biblical quotation, I am taking the very text that the so-called conservatives claim as theirs and theirs alone, and using it to show how horribly wrong their words and deeds are. Because if their radical trajectory continues, today’s iniquities will be visited upon the third and the fourth generation in a very sad way indeed. Our grandchildren’s grandchildren will be left with a country bankrupt, oppressed, stripped of its wealth and beauty, scorned by the world, and crushed in recompense for the sins of our generation. (Ding dong. China’s calling…)

The “conservatives” have no exclusive claim to the wisdom of the Bible, or to any other wisdom. If we want to take back the mantle as protectors of America’s values, we need a leader who can champion the progressive values embodied in Christianity and every other religion, and trumpet those values like a clarion call, in the very language that the conservatives have co-opted as their own. In the very same way, we need to call on the deeply conservative values of the American people — a conservatism devoted to traditional progressive ideals of equality and fairness — co-opting the very language of conservatism that has been twisted, distorted, and turned on its head by those who claim to be conservatives.

We need to pull their “conservative moral values” rug right out from under them.

Because we are the true conservatives.

The Exodus quotation is approriately ironic in at least one more way. My dad was Jewish by descent, but he had about as much truck with Judaism as he did with any other religion–which weren’t much. (I had four atheist grandparents, so don’t expect to see me running for office any time soon.) But when I turn to see what he has given me, and what I will give to my children, I need look no further than Exodus 34:7. For if anything in this posting rings true for you, it is because my father visited his beliefs, his values — and yes, his iniquities — on his children.

Because he was a true conservative, and he shared it with his son.

So as I said, it’s all my dad’s fault. Everything you’ve just read started with those three words of his. The sins of the fathers shall indeed be visited upon the children, yea, unto the seventh generation. Pity my poor kids…

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