Ironically, or through synchronicity, or merely by coincidence, after I had finished the posts for Wednesday and (at least roughed out) yesterday, God in America was on PBS Tuesday night. With American religion and religious history in my mind, I watched much of it (trying also to keep up on Glee and Raising Hope at the same time). First, I do recommend the series, and I learned a few things. For instance, evangelicals were behind the progressive movements of the nineteenth century: orphanages, public welfare for the poor, even Abolition (for which I had always credited the Transcendentalists, who strongly opposed and sought to end slavery but whose nature-centric, nontheistic rationalism should certainly put off most religious Tighty Righties of the present day). It must have been an unusual era, when the devout creatively practiced the preachings instead of greedily grubbing for themselves.
So I want to credit the nineteenth century evangelicals for actively promoting a genuine Christianity (and to PBS for reminding me to distinguish between evangelicalism, my own heritage, being twice-over a lapsed Methodist, and fundamentalism). Of course, even at that time, two hundred years ago, the United States was not solely Christian, however much some state constitutions and most Protestantsʼ everyday behavior expected the nation was (rather like our contemporary fundamentalists, I suppose). There were Jews in the country since the earliest colonial days. Slaves were not all (or like European Yule-celebrating ancestors, thoroughly) converted, and some if not many practiced, the best they could, their native religions from Africa (and out of that spiritual stress and mix, scholars agree, arose and evolved the complexities of voodoo). And native Americans mostly practiced their longstanding beliefs and rituals (also sometimes influenced by Christianity — which Andrew grads having taken American Lit should recognize from Leslie Marmon Silkoʼs short story “The Man to Send Rain Clouds”). Of course, first and finally, the initial Christians on what would become U.S. turf were the Catholic friars in/out of New Spain — anathemic for those American Protestants (of already so many variable denominations) who had broken from the traditional faith (supposedly monolithic, ignoring Nestorians, Ethiopians and Orthodox, I guess) only a few hundred years earlier and who maintained a horror and aversion toward the church they often dubbed the Whore of Babylon.
Multiplicity of religions marked the nation from the beginning, leading freely to such religiously radical, independent-thinking revolutionaries as Jefferson and Adams, even Washington (to name only an unholy trinity out of the flood of freethinking Founders). But more important to those Framers of the Constitution were the combative and quarrelsome denominations of Protestants (and some Catholics) in which they lived — dissenters and established churchgoers. Thus the quite secular (and, as befits their neoclassic Enlightenment era, rationalistic) founding documents of the nation (which owe so much to agnostic, nearly atheistic Jefferson). I feel confident that those Framers never imagined their document would protect the free religious practices of nonchristians or disbelievers (except perhaps Jefferson), but within four decades from its signing, it already did (remember those Transcendentalists, already apostate by the early 1830s, even as evangelical spiritual rebirth enthused the nationʼs ordinary Protestants). Maybe those intellectual rebels in and around Concord were glossed as elitists by the evangelized frontiersmen, as our Fundies now wish to trash factspeakers dissenting accurately from their pseudohistory, but the comfortably Born Again were about to clash hard with an older religious division.
Immigration has never been a cozy situation for Americans, and leaving aside a national zest for xenophobia, for a long time the problem was clearly religious: the new immigrants were Roman Catholics. (I wonder if all the guntoting, teasucking immigrant bashers today would feel so frantic if incoming Hispanics were all Protestants or Mormons?) The Irish began arriving in the early 1800s, then the Italians — all Catholics and all subject to religious discrimination and violence, an abhorred threat to the snug (incompletely) Protestant nation. All in need of the shelter provided under the adamantly secular Constitution and the “free-practice” First Amendment, right along with freethinkers and the irreligious (and although they knew it not, the Catholic-bashers themselves). From those clashes and from others in the twentieth century has come our current legislative “wall of separation” between the state and religion, which Reactionary Religious Rightists seek to tear down for their own radical and novel ends (although they will lyingly pretend, as good conservatives, that it was impossibly “always so” and only altered just recently, just as they pretend that “under God” was originally part of the Pledge of Allegiance and not added at the gunbarrel of conservative antiCommie hysteria in the Fifties, no matter what blackened gaps and tortured rewrites they must impose on actual history).
My ancestors lived this history, on both sides of my family, right back to our Puritanical beginnings. These turmoils and transcendences I have summarized today comprised their lives. And I am sure some of them came down on what I would consider the wrongheaded side of the debates and conflicts (yes, you, John Winthrop). In all this mire, I have struggled to find my own way secularly and spiritually, abhorring falsehood and pretense, trying to discover a few crumbs of truth here and there. I explored my own religious history already and so wonʼt rehash it here. Besides, itʼs time to close this all out at last. I find itʼs hard to be a poor wayfaring stranger in this dark world of woe, chafed by the savage spotlights and overamped loudspeakers of fascist so-called Christians blinding themselves and too many others about what is actually out here beyond the razor-wire compounds of their faith-based concentration camps, where wellfunded stormtroops of doctrinal repression march unceasing. A new dawn would feel refreshing after the fetid black night of the soul their endless agonized wailing has imposed on the nation and the world.
Yikes! I penned almost a fifteen hundred words yesterday morning just in comments on Thursdayʼs post. With that I am far over doubling my net verbiage for today.
The Picasso performance was last night. As I am scheduling this post almost twenty hours ahead, I havenʼt actually performed yet, but Iʼll try to remember to write on how it went soon.