Mondoweiss founder Philip Weiss has been insisting on the revolutionary significance of the Egyptian events for the entire world, but he finds himself turning, I think inevitably, to explicitly messianic rather than merely political language:
Let Egypt be a light unto the nations. Let us climb down from suspicion of other races. Let us imagine a peaceful transition to democracy in Egypt’s neighbors too.
It’s not merely ironic that he had Israel very much in mind with that statement. When I pointed out and affirmed Weiss’s messianism, he asked whether it was messianic also to bring Obama and America into this context. My further affirmation of the sentiment brought negative reactions from commenters who are, apparently, not used to speaking of the American idea, or of Judaism, in positive terms.
It may seem like an ensuing discussion of the American Founding and its philosophical and religious origins moved a great distance from what’s on our television screens today, but my argument is that they’re all one. My revolutionary messianic thought for this joyous day therefore turns naturally to… John Locke and his influence on what another commenter pointed out was one of the most famous sentences in the English language, the one that begins with “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”
The influence of Locke on that sentence is indelible, but the commenter wanted to credit Locke further, citing authorities, for the “beginning of the modern Western conception of the self.” I tend to be wary of such statements. A “beginning of the modern conception” would be the furthest limit of the prior conception, and the beginning of the prior conception would be whatever preceded that, and so on – which observation is not meant to discount Locke, but rather to give him his deserved place of honor in a much greater tradition and the greatest story ever told. Locke is often associated with a defense of personal property rights, and has even been condemned on that basis, but the twin argument for the absolute moral necessity of freedom of conscience, though seemingly more obscure because, for us, unfashionably theological, is at least as important, and is directly expressed both in the Declaration of 1776 and the Bill of Rights of 1789 (1st Amendment especially), and is kin to the contemporaneous Declaration of the Rights of Man – all in turn the bases for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and for the consensual objectives of Egypt’s “popular coup.”
It’s not trivial in this context that Locke’s thought was grounded in theology – in a logic of salvation: For Locke, without freedom of conscience there is no authentic salvation. A state or religion that denies individual freedom robs people of the most important thing of all – moral redemption that is authentic because freely chosen. This logic is also present, and arguably originates, in prophecy – and can be seen as the proper realm of religion. It fully complies with the Deism – idealized monotheism – popular among the Founders.
It also joins the expressed aspirations of the Egyptians, whose joy we’re today witnessing and sympathetically participating in, to the ideals of the American Revolution – among other revolutions. That it goes back to the sources of monotheism is important not because the sources automatically validate it, or even less because the recognition might boost Jewish pride (almost a contradiction in terms given the status of humility in Judaism), or American patriotism (whose proper object is an idea, not a land or a dead history), but because the prophetic sources of Judaism and Americanism are also the prophetic sources of Christianity and Islam, and make the same logic available, as it is grasped, to all Jews, all Christians, all Muslims, and to all those who, like the first recipients of the prophecy, come into contact with it from non-monotheistic orientations. That also means that all of the religions of the East can be re-articulated in relationship to this dialectic of the free individual and the society of freedom. Even the origins of dialectical materialism and the atheist impulse, and the correction of their application, can be found here. It has nothing to do with, is the necessary contradiction of, any forced acceptance of particular mythology, religious or national, or with any particular image of the divine.