When asked whether schoolchildren should be taught in Spanish as well as in English, a former governor of Texas famously replied that if English was good enough for Jesus, it was good enough for anyone. Logical errors aside, this statement revealed something important to me. How could anyone make such a remark? It struck me that at the root of this sentiment about English and Jesus was a deep provincialism: an overwhelming emphasis on the here and now. Surrounded by other English-speaking Christians, the governor projected these “natural” qualities through all time and space. Jesus, despite living before the invention of English, became an English-speaker. Everyone around the world, despite practicing other religions, naturally became followers of Jesus.
I am not writing this because some governor in the 1920s was pigheaded, but because provincial thinking remains rampant today. It results in our minds privileging the present above varied pasts and possible futures. We forget that what is was not always so, and thus stop believing that anything different is feasible. Take our presidential system (please!). Over time this quite arbitrary mélange of institutions and procedures has come to seem fixed, unified, and somehow “normal.” Any change one might propose to improve the system seems utopian. We forget that our political institutions have already undergone significant changes over the past two centuries. The history of democratic governance is not fixed, but rather, believe it or not, overflowing with alternatives, deviations, recombinations, and mixed systems. Elements of presidential and parliamentary systems can and should be combined in novel ways. The only thing stopping us from institutional experimentation is the idea that these two systems are only interchangeable as indivisible packages of natural institutions. But history shows that this just isn’t so.
In fact, history tells a story of endless change to the political and religious institutions we hold sacred. Religious people today fight tooth and nail to defend traditions found nowhere in the original forms of their religions. Christianity is one such story of constant change: endless reinterpretation of the Bible and God-given values, the appropriation of unrelated political and social systems like capitalism and feminism, and the continual splitting and restructuring of sects. The American Christianity of today, with its support of democracy, capitalism, and human rights, would seem outright heresy to Christians hundreds of years ago.
There is as much support in the Bible for communism as there is for capitalism. The only reason that seems like a radical statement is that American Christians have naturalized the here and now, in which Christianity and capitalism go hand in hand. Mormonism is a perfect example of this provincial thinking. Wanting to blend American nationalism with Christianity more completely, the Mormon faith re-imagines Jesus as some kind of early American explorer. Then, with no self-consciousness at all, Mormons proselytize this newly invented history as an “eternal truth” for all mankind. The truth is, our eternal truths change.
Fortunately, there is a way forward against the fetishism of today. Our starting point should be to accept as fact that political institutions, religions, and all the structures that control our lives are reshaping themselves in subtle ways all the time. Trying to defend “tradition” is futile when tradition is a recent invention. There is no going backwards in history; nothing ever happens again. Today, we are either caught up in trying to hold on to a past that never was or watching as the chariot of history lurches uncontrollably. We have no choice but to accept change and seize the reigns.
Consider, by way of example, the Hui people of China. The Hui people have a long and rich history of ethnic unity and distinct cultural traditions. Or at least, they think they do. The truth is more instructive. Basically, the Chinese government made up the Hui ethnicity about 60 years ago, throwing together people from a dozen different backgrounds inside and outside China. The Hui exist because the Chinese Communist Party finds it easier to control people by organizing them into manageable chunks. Nevertheless, Hui people, like people all over the world, believe themselves to be truly distinct from others in deep cultural ways. But let’s face facts. The Hui is a relatively arbitrary group today and in a hundred years it will probably be a significantly different arbitrary group. The social structures that govern our lives are similarly flexible and profane.
We must embrace change. If identifying as Hui makes people happy, I think they should do it. But if people wish to change the meaning of Hui and change the Hui lifestyle, absurd notions of “Hui tradition” should not hold them back. Likewise, our institutions should conform to our wishes. We created political and social institutions to serve us. Let’s not worship them when they should worship us. History shows that gods will change their minds, if we ask them to.