THE Fourth of July is a time for Americans to celebrate the genius of the Founding Fathers, who adopted the Declaration of Independence 235 years ago Monday and later crafted the Constitution and governed the young United States.
But too much of the public discussion of the Founding Fathers these days does them less honor than they deserve.
Voters are getting used to hearing politicians invoke the words and deeds of the men in the powdered wigs to support this or that present-day policy. Sometimes, these are made-up words and deeds, or are only vaguely relevant to the issue at hand. Often, the other side fires back with an equally dubious quotation or anecdote.
Listeners are left confused about what the Founding Fathers actually stood for.
This isn't only about the recent cases of politicians trying to rewrite history: former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin making it sound as if Paul Revere rode to deliver a gun-rights message to the British, and Rep. Michele Bachmann's doubly disputable claim that John Quincy Adams was a Founding Father who fought to end slavery.
This isn't only about oversimplification: Tea Party conservatives pulling out the phrases that emphasize the principle of economic liberty, while liberals reach for evidence Thomas Jefferson and Co. stood for socialism.
And this isn't only about divisive religious overtones: Claims the Founding Fathers intended public life to be completely divorced from faith. Claims they intended the United States to be a "Christian" nation. Reverence for the words of the first American leaders as if they were handed down from God.
This is about the disservice done when great men are reduced to political mascots.
The Founding Fathers were not deities, but neither should they be dragged through the mud of modern politics by sound-bite artists who seem to be trying to shut down debate instead of elevate it.
Their genius was the way they turned grand social philosophy into a functioning system of government. They achieved it through hard compromise of a sort unfamiliar to today's elected officials.
Neither the process nor the results were altogether pretty. In the most familiar case, to win southern states' support, the Constitution protected slavery.
We must be mindful of the complexity of the Founding Fathers' task, and the good and bad examples they set for future generations of leaders, lest we reduce their work to bumper-sticker slogans.
Let's honor those first American idols the right way as we mark the birthday of the nation that is the enduring monument to their brilliance.
A Los Angeles Daily News editorial. To read more editorials from the Daily News, go to www.dailynews.com/opinions.