The sacred documents of the American founding can be viewed in two aspects: theoretical and practical. We could also say realistic and idealistic.
They are quite intelligible and even intelligent when they go about putting theory into practice, moving from ideals to systems. The problem is that the ideals themselves are unintelligent, the theory unintelligible. But nonsense can seem intelligible if you’ve already taken it on faith as Gospel truth, for at that point no critical eye is necessary. It just needs to sound good or to appeal to one’s prejudice. This is the nature of ideology. The ideas that compose an ideology are almost always incoherent when taken as a whole and analyzed, but in an immediate sense they are so simple that they seem to ‘speak for themselves’, or in the words of the Declaration, they are always ‘self-evident’, and so they provide convenient fodder for propagandists.
The basic error of the Enlightenment and its ideological children (rationalism, humanism, liberalism) is the preference for theory over and above the facts of concrete experience, and a tendency to try and ‘impose’ theory on a reality that does not pay homage to clever ideas. Man himself is one such ‘fact of concrete experience’ and half the time he does not even pay homage to his own lofty ideals. Idealists always end up being hypocrites, and an idealistic society cannot avoid betraying itself. Slavery is an interesting example. From the time of the Founders until Lincoln and the Civil War, the cant about all men being ‘created equal’ and ‘endowed with rights’ was accepted as commonsense and even held with sincere conviction while at the very same time the native population was herded around like cattle and accorded no dignity whatsoever, and the institution of black slavery for a long time did not warrant a second thought.
The United States and its treatment of blacks, Asians, Catholics, and native peoples throughout its history should serve as proof that to adopt an ideal in theory can actually prevent it from being put into practice. The idea of ‘equality,’ being written into the constitution but not actualized except for a particular group, very likely allowed that privileged group to carry on for generations in the face of barbaric inequality. High thinking blinds us to dark realities. This is because the ideal, accepted in theory, gives those who benefit from it the feeling that it actually exists, and so the job is done. Any objective observer can tell us that America, prophet of freedom and liberty, has not often been the first out of the gate when it comes to the actual implementation of its own gospel, and in some perverse way, this appears to be due to the very fact of its devotion, as if these convictions create their own blindspots. It works the same way in religion: those who make a grand show of worshipping the ideals of the Gospel often have a very confused and immature way of putting them into practice.