RELIGION AND GOVERNMENT ARE INTERTWINED
(THE LONG AND REPRESSIVE RECORD OF CONSERVATIVE CHRISTIANITY IN AMERICA)
By Trevor, Brandon, and Jeffrey
"Congress shall make now law respecting an establishment of religion for prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
The Religion Clause of the First Amendment
Nothing amazes me more than when religious fanatics and historical revisionists claim that the United States Constitution does not endorse the concept of church-state separation. Almost invariably this foolish argument stems from the fact that the Constitution does not mention the term "separation of church and state" per se. But what the fanatics and revisionists fail to mention is the fact that our First Amendment doesn't need to use the term at all because it is in and of itself a definition of the term.
We have the first phrase, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." This means that the government does not have the right nor the power to establish an official American church; that we will not be forced to attend nor support religious institutions which we may find objectionable, or which may be hostile to our own beliefs.
And we have the phrase "nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof," which means that we have the right to join, attend, or support whatever religious institutions that we see fit.
Taken together the two phrases form a single, unified statement, the two phrases embracing, enhancing, and supporting one another. But now we have the Radical Christian Right, which truly believes that the Founding Fathers wanted to create a Christian Republic (a difficult proposition to support when you consider the fact that many of the Framers were products of the American Enlightenment, bona fide Deists who were often critical of Eighteenth Century Christianity). In their obsessive effort to create an American theocracy, Radical Right Wing Christians have embraced a chillingly schizophrenic reading of the First Amendment Religion Clause.
Instead of reading it as a single, unified statement, they divide the clause in half and set the two phrases at war with one another. They claim that their right to practice their religion is being violated because they are not allowed to establish their religion.That of course raises an important question. Why is it so important that we prevent the Radical Christian Right from establishing its religion?
The answer is obvious.
Historically speaking, on those occasions when this country has acted on "literal" interpretations of the (King James) Bible, this country has enacted brutal, repressive policies which have done little to advance the cause of freedom, but which have made America a harsher and more repressed place in which to live. On the other hand, when America has acted on a liberal, inspired interpretation of the text, be it Protestant or Catholic, we have taken positive steps forward as a society while actively promoting the causes of democracy and freedom.Consider the following examples.
*The Bible is a decidedly anti-woman book if accepted from a literal point of view. In Timothy 2:11 we read: "Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over man but to be in silence. Nevertheless she will be saved in child bearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness with self control." From a literal point of view the message is obvious. Women are second class citizens. They need to be controlled. Their only purposes in life are to serve men and to produce children for the state. That may be the practice in fascist dictatorships and radical, right wing Islamic states like Saudi Arabia and Iran, bit it is not the practice here, in the United States. Here, we had a thing called the Suffragette movement which resulted in the Nineteenth Amendment: "The right of the citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." And who, you might ask, provided the opposition to the Nineteenth Amendment and to subsequent efforts for women's rights? You guessed it! The Radical Christian Right of the era, which argued that giving women the right to vote would be an affront to God; that women's rights would violate a literal interpretation of the Bible and lead to social chaos. Well, friends and neighbors, the Nineteenth Amendment was proposed on June 4, 1919, and finally ratified on August 18, 1920. That was 75 years ago and the last we knew America went on to become the world's only super power. In other words, we adopted a more progressive, inspired interpretation of the Bible (there are after all examples of strong, independent women in the Bible); we decided, as a people that women were intelligent, thinking beings whose ideas would prove useful to society, and the causes of freedom and democracy were again advanced.
*During the Nineteenth Century Southern Conservative Christians used the Bible, specifically Exodus 20:10 and the whole of Exodus Chapter 21, to justify the brutal practice of slavery. Meanwhile, in the North, abolitionist Christians, liberal Republicans (yes, they actually did exist!), took an inspired look at the overall message of the Bible and decided that slavery was wrong, that the Bible actually condemned slavery and promoted freedom. Unfortunately, the slave-whipping South was a slow learner and the above mentioned passages, coupled with the hackneyed Civil War cry of "states rights," were used to justify everything from Jim Crow laws to public beatings, to mass lynching, as the conservative, south did everything in its power to prevent blacks from obtaining their civil rights. But as the result of liberal interpretations of the Bible we went through a civil rights movement in the 1960s and America became a better place for it.
*A "literal" interpretation of the Bible reveals that the most common forms of government were monarchies, theocracies, empires, and military dictatorships. You might say that constitutional democracies and representative republics were a little under-represented in the holy text. This of course, was not lost on the despotic European Monarchs in subsequent eras who claimed that they ruled by divine right. Our Founding Fathers, however, operated under the principle that the right to govern stems from the people: the end result being a revolution against an imperialistic mother country and the establishment of American democracy. The fact a literal interpretation of the Bible does not endorse our form of government may or may not have occurred to the Radical Christian Right, but considering their attitude towards those who differ with the do we really want to try something else? That, by the way was a rhetorical question. No answer is required.
*Leviticus 20.6 tells us: "And the person who turns after mediums and familiar spirits, to prostitute himself with them, I will set My face against that person and cut him off from his people." Deuteronomy 18. 1-12 tells us: "There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices witchcraft, or soothsayers, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritualist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination unto the Lord." Verses such as those were taken literally by Seventeenth Century American Puritans, and the end result was a series of witch hunts throughout Puritan New England, the most infamous of which were the Salem Witch Hunts in 1692 ,which began as a few isolated accusations and quickly expanded into a form of mass hysteria, resulting in the executions of 19 innocent people.
Need we say more?
You only need basic reason to understand that it is both wrong and barbaric to execute people who refuse to conform to the beliefs of the religious majority.The historical record is very clear on this. Whenever religious reactionaries have found themselves at the center of a debate over social issues, they have almost invariably been on the side which promoted repression, violence, or even outright slaughter. Whenever religions progressives have triumphed over their troglodytic counterparts, America has become a freer and better place to live.
What the Radical Christian Right fails to understand (or actually does understand and is scared to death by the possible ramifications) is the fact that Church State Separation is the means by which we guarantee both, non-establishment of and freedom of religion.
As a direct result, America is one of the most religious nations on the face of the earth. We have Protestantism, Catholicism, Mormonism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, American Indian Spirituality, New Age Religion, Taoism, ad infinitum. And that is what has the Radical Christian Right chewing the proverbial carpet. It isn't so much that they believe in freedom of religion. As we have already seen, the Radical Christian Right has a major issue when it comes to the idea of spreading liberty to greater numbers of people. No. It is more to the point that Radical Right Wing Christians believe in freedom of religion for themselves.
In other words, they want to right to establish their religion, to impose their beliefs on others. Once again, Radical Right Christianity has placed itself on the wrong side of the issue.
In many ways the Radical Christian right is a throw back to the bad old days of Seventeenth Century New England. Contrary to popular belief our Puritan ancestors did not come here to promote freedom of conscience. Far from it. We are all familiar with the worn out fairytale that we learned in elementary school: how the poor, repressed Puritans came here to escape religious persecution in Europe. That may be true, but only to a certain degree.
Granted, the Puritans were occasionally persecuted, but we also need to remember that they themselves were often the agents of persecution.Puritan England, under the virtual dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell, was not a pleasant place to live if you were an Anglican, or god help you, a Catholic, the latter of which saw their cathedrals either desecrated or burned to the ground. And the Puritans didn't behave all that well when they came to the New World. The American people seem to have forgotten that our Colonial ancestors were more interested in creating a sterile, repressive New Jerusalem than they were in guaranteeing freedom of conscience.
Like the Radical Christian Right of today, the only liberty that early American Calvinism recognized was the right to impose its dictates on others.Witches weren't the only victims.Baptists were forced to practice their beliefs in secret. Why? Because of Puritan persecution--as if you needed to be told. Example. In 1651 an elderly blind man wrote to Baptist friends in Rhode Island, requesting that they pay him a visit. Responding, were a certain John Crandal and the Reverends John Clark and Obadiah Holmes. During the course of their visit they were arrested at their host's home and dragged off to a Puritan church for mandatory, pubic worship. When they refused (talk about brave) they were arrested for holding a private meeting, disturbing public worship, and re-baptizing one or more persons. The sentence, like all Puritan sentences, was a harsh one: heavy fines or flogging by default. Clark and Crandal were lucky; friends paid their fines for them. Holmes, however, was flogged 30 times. Sympathetic spectators who dared to offer compassionate words of support were also fined.Quakers fared no better. The Massachusetts Cart and Whip Laws decreed that a Quaker be "stripped from the middle upwards and be tied to a cart's tail and whipped through the town." The victim was then taken to the next town where he was whipped again. This continued from town to town until the victimized Quaker had been removed from Massachusetts.
Puritan social life was no better. Repressive Blue Laws discouraged loud singing, exuberant laughter, drinking, gambling, dancing, while prescribing severe restrictions on social etiquette and sexual morality. So of course, they were prone to closet drinking, compulsive gambling ( i.e. horse racing), and premarital sex (according to surviving documents from the period, nearly a third of Puritan children were conceived out of wedlock, assuming a child born within sex months of marriage had been so conceived).
Why, it's enough to make you wonder: Does theocracy really create moral behavior or just a glut of hidden immoral behavior with the extra ingredients of savagery and hypocrisy tossed in for good measure?
The religious freedom (and other liberties) that we enjoy today are not only a product of the American Revolution and the ratification of the American Constitution. They are also a result of a rebellion against the oppressive orthodoxy of Early American Puritanism. Roger Williams founded Providence, Rhode Island as a safe haven for Baptists, endorsing freedom of conscience and church-state separation on the grounds that church-state separation would protect religion. Likewise William Penn founded Pennsylvania as a refuge for persecuted Quakers. Later, in the final quarter of the Eighteenth Century, many of the Founding Fathers (Jefferson, Paine etc) would openly criticize Christianity for its lack of rationality. In other words, as we step away from conservative Christianity, we create more freedom, tolerance, and diversity--truly American qualities which the Radical Christian Right condemns on a regular basis.
In many ways the Radical Christian Right still resembles Early American Puritanism--but with a twist. In the Seventeenth Century Pecksniffian Puritans would barge into the homes of religious dissidents and drag those dissidents off to a Puritan Church for compulsory worship Today, in a slight variation on the same, totalitarian theme, the Radical Christian Right wants to use the power of the state and federal governments to drag their Puritanical beliefs to the unfortunate, unsuspecting dissident.And that is neither Christian nor American. That is just plain, old-fashioned tyranny.
Or dare we say it?
The Intent of Our Founding Fathers