In October 2010 I composed a series of little essays on religious freedom. As I have come to increasingly value the Jeffersonian ideal of each person combating his own religious bedevilments within the confines of his or her own heart and conscience (and not willfully imposing said prejudices upon others or society), I thought I would collect those thoughts on a single page here below. However, you might enjoy the commentary debates that those posts inspired— here and here.
As my Facebook friends could realize, I finally got around to taking the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life quiz on general religious knowledge. When they gave it as a survey/poll, Pew returned an apparently surprising result that not only did most Americans not exactly pass the really pretty easy and superficial set of fifteen questions, but those who deemed themselves devoutly religious usually did worse than the nonbelievers, atheists and agnostics. Naturally, I scored a solid 100%. My religious alienation remains evident.
I say “apparently surprising,” because the poll results made news, particularly the poor showings by folks who deemed themselves true believers. The explanation that atheists and agnostics at least took religion seriously enough to make a clear, conscious decision about it (rather than just mindlessly swallowing your parentsʼ faith) has some merit. After all, an atheist should have studied and considered the multiplicity of faiths before breasting the majority tide (currently popular and historical) of fervent belief. And too many (believers) seem to find thinking too much (sometimes at all) about their beliefs evidently hurts somehow. But I think religious chauvinism may best explain the poor showing by the devout.
The Colbert Report approached the subject from the same angle. (Sorry, I couldnʼt find the segment using the inept labeling at Comedy Central.) Reporting on the Pew survey, Stephen snarked that as a Christian he didnʼt know why he should recognize Ramadan as the Hindu god of something-or-other (or a similar but better joke). The point being that good Christians donʼt need to know about them other religions; we got all the truth we need right here under our hats. And we donʼt need to understand our own religion all that well either — you just gotta be Saved, brother. (After all, too much knowledge makes you wonder why various denominations ever split, or how other beliefs persist in the face of your personal salvation, and you might have to consider all that historical bloodshed in the name of Divine Love. Better just to presume youʼve got it all Right and let it go at that.) If I am Right and Saved, donʼt trouble me with information…
On the other hand, an old friend (briefly) noted, just as I was writing the paragraph above, in response to my Facebook post on the poll, that thereʼs a vast difference between “knowledge of facts, etc. and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Lacking the celebrated personal relationship (however briefly I might have been Saved by the AoG magician back in eighth or ninth grade, having made my trek to the front of the audience for hands-on salvation and all), I cannot accurately comment on that experience, only from the experience of that “relationship” nastily reflected back from too many Utter Believers at poor sinners like me. And the rest of the world at large. But I did note that my skepticism (and/or accuracy in answers to the quiz) offered an unintended offense, for which I do apologize. Alternatively, I have always felt that our spiritual struggles or somnolence belong to each of us, alone, and it is the acquisitive and assertive proselytizing by and against othersʼ faiths that has caused so much ill throughout history. (I did note the easy rejection of facts for what must be a matter of faith, as well.)
Partly these reflections arise from my recent religious encounter at my uncleʼs funeral. Nothing like getting right into the midst of religious experience to wonder what you might be missing, or they clouding and neglecting. As with my friend, I did not feel an exclusionary Righteousness (what the pastor termed “judging”), but a welcoming sincerity of belief. I feel confident that particular church is probably pretty evangelical/fundamentalist in its beliefs, but if they really mean the “avoiding judging” thing, I have no issues to argue with them, no bones to pick. In fact, from my Biblical reading, thatʼs what Christians should be — tolerant, compassionate, loving. Could we imagine a Fundamentalism that embodied the actual teachings of that crucified Galilean — like Matthew 22: 37-40 (New International Version) 37 Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Thanks, BibleGateway, a not even liberal Bible resource on the internet.) Of course, all you have to do is check such explanatory sites as this (although I do appreciate the answers to the narrowminded oneʼs issue) to find the querulous selfrighteous nitpicking redefinitions of the pretty clear statements in Matthew. Distinguishing believers from the rest of us heathens, indeed! Talk about artificial and selfserving distinctions…
Unfortunately, if you consider the altogether radical restrictions of “neighbor” raised above, and as politics and news stories have made obvious, keeping oneʼs faithful principles from extremist, judgmental and belligerent brawling in the world must be very difficult, apparently impossible for some really selfRighteous. Pro-life murderers (and uncharged, still active poncy pimps scavenging for more anti-abortional assassins). Heartless picketers savaging homosexuals, (a “Christian” hate group, now thereʼs an oxymoron) who prance provocatively and impenitently at fallen (straight) soldiersʼ funerals. All in the name of faith. All judging and attacking instead of loving…
Such aggression instead of solicitude and compassion troubles me. And puts me off. That puffed Right behavior is merely thorough-going selfRighteous chauvinism in full attack mode against everyone but oneʼs own Saved Elect, including brother and sister believers who happen not to strive so blindly or wildly. (Some of the worst Righteous bile is spewed at Christians of more moderate views, strangely. The apparent principle must be “exactly like us or dead.”)
I frequently wonder at the kind of mind (even soul) that must cling to a rock-solid, dead-certain set of irrational principles (if principles isnʼt too decent a term for extremist rigidity) at all costs, including violence to others who appear to threaten the comfy security of the believer. The current wildness of the Rightists in the U.S. and Muslim hatemongering jihadists worldwide leaves me jaw-dropped at our human abilities to deceive and blind ourselves. Most vividly of late is the Christine OʼDonnell debate gaffe (or masterly thrust and skewering of her opponent, if you are yourself an initated Rightist) about the First Amendment. If you watch the video, she clearly accepts the laughter at her denial of separation of church and state (terminology which, as she wished to assert, is not verbatim in the Amendment, true) as supporting her and undermining Coons. She sadly but goofily was wrong about the laughs, but Coons, not being a blinkered Rightized fundamentalist, didnʼt get her intended point about the exact words not being in the Constitution, accepting instead the valid and majority-held nearly 250 years of history and legislation that have defined the establishment clause to erect just that Jeffersonian wall of separation between religion and government. She didnʼt understand that her denial of separation made her appear a fool to the general public. She believed from her eight days of Rightist Constitutional training that Coons was the fool for expressing the key clause of the Amendment in the terms of “separation of church and state.” What we had there was a classic failure to communicate.
OʼDonnellʼs mindframe was so set in her rigidly Rightist terminology that she had forgotten or neglected that a larger history had not excluded separation from the Amendmentʼs nonestablishment of religion clause. I have found recently that in the narrow alterworld of Fundamentalist Christian Rightism, from which OʼDonnell spoke, the Amendmentʼs fairly straightforward statement has been sculpted tortuously to mean that Christianity is the foundation of the government of the United States (the goal these Fundies do want with their calls for established and required school prayer and all). And the establishment clause means that their presumed basic Christian foundation for the country should never be undermined.
Seem like a stretch into fantasyland to you? It did (still does) to me. Our dissenting, Deistic (not quite the good oldtime Christians the Right wants to paint them), freethinking, agnostic, revisionistic (think of Jeffersonʼs cut-and-paste collection of Bible quotes), frequently Unitarian founders would be startled, I am sure. Only an easy skim through the politico-religious biographies of the founders turns up the, to be gently mild about it, uniqueness of their possible personal connections to any established Christian religion(s). And, of course, contemporary Fundamentalism arises only just over a hundred years ago, chronologically far outside the scope of the original Patriotsʼ comprehension. But the Fundamentalist Right has whole tipsy tiers of rationalization to make it so. The statement “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” is contorted savagely to mean things that I find it difficult to follow. But weʼre going to try, in all fairmindedness, because I have experienced an eye-opening excursion, via the Internet, into the strange waters of seflRighteous selfjustification — from which I am going to utilize some of the most reasonable and least bilious sources.
Before exploring the issues I have recently learned about (you can tell how weakly nonFundie I am by that remark — actually bothering to acquire information beyond my own personal experience and prejudices), I would like to turn your attention to a very enlightening (although perhaps partisan, perhaps not) article in Newsweek, last week, on Rightist Constitutional Fundamentalism. Having the ideas I am exploring here drifting and throbbing through my consciousness for years, for me the reporter put some things into clarity and perspective. Some mindsets seem to need a document of absolute truth (the Bible, the Quʼran or the Constitution, for instance) on which almost thoughtlessly to rely, or they canʼt handle the real world. Unfortunately, it seems most of such fundamentalist believers also pick and choose what to notice/remember/use as weapons of attack from said document. (For instance, spouting uncontextualized Old Testamentary regulations on homosexuality with no regard for Christʼs actual message of brotherly love. Or so-called “Constitutionalists” who refuse to comply fully with the Census, citing only the documentʼs precise text on the required procedure, as if the final clause of Section 8, granting Congressional powers — “To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof” — did not exist.) Even as the rocks that comprise the earth are forever shifting and drifting (viz. geological tectonics), our abilities simply to read are a sandy mire of consciousness and inter/contextuality (viz. literary criticism, which began, by the way, in Western civilization as efforts to clearly read and understand the Bible — and one of my heroes, Benedict Spinoza, was crucial in making some important advances therein). Selective emphasis from a text is not new nor particular to fundamentalist points of view; it is the uncertain and varying essential nature of the reading process, sorry to say, fundie friends. But I can discuss lit crit another time.
In order to propound the sorrowfully mistaken notion that the founders of this nation were establishing, deliberately and knowingly, a Christian nation, our contemporary fundamentalists have derived an interesting set of arbitrary (but for them very useful) distinctions. They begin by distinguishing between doctrinal religion and denominational religion (terms absolutely unknown to our Founders, who might have recognized “established religion” versus “personal conscience” — terms which donʼt help the contemporary extremistsʼ argument). The simplest discussion I found for this fundamentalist, Rightist argument is here, which tries to assert that first, somehow (perhaps through the effects historical migration from Europe into the colonial New World) Christianity is gifted with special status among religions (because it is ours/theirs, of course; but also because it was the established, dominant set of beliefs colonists imported from England — regardless of what were to them extremely important, life-shattering denominational differences), and second, that although the Founders clearly stated, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” they didnʼt mean exactly that. Supposedly what the Framers meant was that in this Christian nation (nowhere stated), no one denomination (of Christianity) could be established as the state religion (as the Church of England had been in Great Britain). But Christianity somehow is the religion of the nation…
The arguers feel supported by various moves the government (federal and states) has made that do impose an almost Christian God on the State. Check the list on the bottom of this page. Or any of the other pro-Christian-nation sites I have referenced above (there is a strong tendency to quote from each other). Those points would be better taken if documented and correlated against strong religious ferment to push that agenda into government historically. Also needing some evidence is their “90 to 95 percentage of them were practicing, Trinitarian Christians,” a position I flat out discredit. Although many of the Founders and Framers were ordinarily Christian for everyday social purposes, the beliefs that filled their hearts and consciences were often anything but staidly traditional (as linked above).
Problematically for our Christian-American religious zealots, the Constitution is a religiously neutral document, nowhere referencing God, Jesus or Christianity (except in the matter of the date of adoption, about which much nonsense, like the two links, has been generated but which merely translates into English the Latin Anno domini, A.D. — the only calendrical numeration system, predating the contemporary religiously neutral CE and BCE, available to the Framers and one that even nonbelieving I use, thus clearly no evidence of any Founder religious intent of any kind). The U.S. Constitution online discusses the complex matter here. The Framersʼ choice of words was most careful, deliberate and neutral. Indeed, historically, there was considerable outcry against the Constitution in the days of adoption because it was “Godless,” to some fervently faithful hyperChristians of the day (pretty much sinking the whole impossible Founders-as-Fundamentalist-Bible-Thumpers argument right there). As endlessly many sources, online sites and legal precedents insist, the Constitution (unamended) itself prohibits any religious qualifications in the government — “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” (Article VI). That pretty much clinches the gargling demise of the Christian-Nation ridiculosity. And the First Amendment erases the doubts about a theocratic foundation for the United States: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
The statement is clear. Our federal government can in no legislative way establish any religion, nor may it interfere with the free practice of any religion. My extremist fundamental friends are free to practice their religion… without interfering (particularly legislatively) with anyoneʼs elseʼs practice or nonpractice, beliefs or nonbeliefs. That seems a straightforward and American way to behave. Perhaps, missionary zeal on the parts of some Christians (and those of some other religions and some atheists as well) may cause problems in this simple ideal, as may nonstandard religious practices like the consumption of peyote or ganja. My (imaginary) evangelically fundamental neighbor may not like the exclusion of her dearly held Creationist myth from high school biology, but an American public school is a public, therefore governed, trust, and religion may not be established there; she may sue in the courts for the privilege to insert her beliefs there (and fail again to change the course of law in the land). These situations and multitudinous, unimagined others are why the Constitution insists that Congress and the Judiciary will be empowered to make legislation and decisions to enact and refine the founding document (which is just what has happened ever since 1787/1791 — sometimes to my satisfaction and sometimes not). Just as Congress cannot interfere in the free practice of religion, there is absolutely no established religion for the nation, and Congress and the courts are permitted to make this principle work in real life hereafter. Thatʼs a Constitutional (amended) fact.
The Fundies donʼt like that. It means they donʼt get their way: to make this nation into a theocratic Christian state. Too bad. Ours is not a religious nation but a worldly (yep, secular) state. Many Americans donʼt appreciate all the “under God” and “in God we trust” and “so help me God” items that religious extremists enjoy and have inserted into our governmental and judicial practices since 1791 (mostly just over fifty years ago), simply because zealots have insisted at the ripe and proper historical moment and legislators and justices have meekly caved to the political pressure. But the Constitution remains, clear and adamant, against theocratic intrusions on the nation (or at least on the government, and likewise government intrusions on the varied religious or irreligious). Rightists may quail at the phrase, “separation of (or between) church and state,” but it is the simplest explanation of the exclusion clause I (or our federal courts) have heard or seen (thanks, TJ).
If youʼre a “Constitutional Fundamentalist,” then, you stand firmly and proudly for the principle of no government-established religion whatsoever and everyoneʼs right to practice freely his or her diverse religion(s) or lack thereof. To take any other position on religion in America is a contradiction, fundie zealots, and a Lie.
So the nation is definitively not Christian. But it is equally, definitively not antiChristian (or anitMuslim or antiBuddhist or antiWhatever-Religion-You-Like, for that matter). Fundamentalists may feel threatened by the bogus threat of secularism, toward which the Framing Fathers did seem to tilt the country in the foundational documents (to my relief), but they and all religious folk of whatever faiths or conscience are guaranteed the right to their free practice of their religion(s), regardless how humanistic, how secular, how agnostic or atheistic (or Rastafarian or Pastafarian or Muslim or whatever) the nation becomes. Itʼs guaranteed in the Constitution. And thatʼs a fact for folks of all faiths (and none).
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.
* Please click the links. There you will find massive amounts of information, good and bad, from both ends of this argumentative spectrum, to weigh and ponder for yourself. Of course the Rigid Rightists wouldnʼt care for the notion of a spectrum these days; for them the realm of discussion is reduced to only a bipolar, conflicting segregation into the (extreme, unbending, blindly) Right versus the godless secular humanist/atheistic “libs.” And thatʼs a Lie of the First Magnitude.
And then, after closing, the most evil bit of selfRighteous activist warfare that my research uncovered is this wicked bit of video intolerance, deeming any unSaved Others as Nazis because, according to Rightist Revisionism, Adolph Hitler (a Tighty Righty fascist, if there ever was one, by the way — talk about glibly and blindly rewriting history to suit oneself!) was the first to use the exact phrase “separation of church and state.” (Which he didnʼt, but itʼs an established Rightist position, and the incestuous unimaginative carboncopying of notions by other Rightists is tediously well documented and easy to prove for yourself.) To the contrary, Jefferson clearly had a few hundred years on the evil, one-testicled, mustached dictator, and Jeffersonʼs letter to the Danbury Baptists (“separation between church and state”) comes much closer to the key phrase than any translation of Hitlerʼs remark(s) I have found.
©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.