When I was a little kid, you didn't refer to the Russians as Communists -- you called them "godless Commies." About that same time, our government added a couple of words to the Pledge of Allegiance -- "...under God." Very few people remember that now -- they think the pledge has always been as it is today. The addition of those words were the result of a campaign by the Catholic Knights of Columbus in a new wave of religiosity that was produced by the Cold War and based on fears of "atheist" Russian aggression. The American population went through a particularly paranoid era, building bomb shelters in the backyard and running their children through "duck and cover" drills that produced an undeniably destructive imprint on the minds of children in the 50s. Duck and cover drills (ridiculously simplistic efforts to shield one's body from a nuclear blast) were practiced as regularly as fire drills in public schools, and we were told that a bomb such as the one unleashed on Hiroshima or Nagasaki was an ever-present threat...I can remember thinking at a very early age that this was an event I would rather not live through.
Facing mortality at so tender a stage in one's growth is serious stuff -- I give that early trauma credit for whipping this nation into compliance toward invading Iraq when Condi Rice threw out the "mushroom cloud" rhetoric on Meet the Press prior to the war. Nobody schooled between 1950 and 1965 in this country could do anything but freeze like a deer in the headlights at such an implication. That message was visceral when you were crouched in a lightless corridor, turned toward the wall with your arms over your head -- godless Commies might try to wipe us out in a white-hot firestorm at any moment. Because the Russians had no God, they could be counted on to do the unthinkable, I was told as a child...in the Soviet, the only God was the state.
What I didn't know then was that in some form or other, that has been the truth about government since the dawn of history. The earliest tribes had medicine (wo)men that had equal influence with leaders, and mutual cooperation soon became a form of governance (this was probably the birth of politics). In later eras, the God that served in most nations was the one favored by the King, Queen, Emperor or General who ruled; there was no list of choices, only the whim of the monarch. Should those players shift, the god worshiped did as well. If you think that caused uprising after uprising on the part of the populous, you'd be wrong -- the Jews were a notable exception, keeping both a low profile and their own traditions, if they could -- but most people were pliant. There was more than one God, and more than one way to worship, and not making the changes required could get you killed in ugly ways.
The churches themselves learned how to flex as well -- they knew they had social power, they simply needed to merge their interests with the leader of moment. There has been, records reveal, a hand-in-glove complicity between religion and government since our earliest memory. The Catholic church, for instance, was the predominate mover and shaker in Europe for almost two millennium and if you examine the history of the various Popes you have to wonder if they ever got any of God's business done, they were so busy influencing the political institutions.
It makes perfect sense. Both church and government stand for ultimate authority, one of the personal, the other of the public -- and that which must be obeyed. When the one blends with the other, there is no recourse left to those who are governed; both their public and their private lives are "ordered" along the lines deemed acceptable to those ruling. With few exceptions, this has been a heavy load on civilization.
The Modern Era, beginning at the end of the 18th century, brought us into a more tolerant timeframe -- the newly birthed United States had established itself as a secular Republic -- and for a couple hundred years it looked as if we might have put all that behind us...but WHOOPS! Here we are again.
If you Google "government and religion" you get over 51 million entries, referenced to illustrate the complexity of this topic. I should clarify that much of this is either about the Federalists and the mega-war of opinion about what they did or did not design for religious practice in the United States, or the Judeo/Christian God and the myriad interpretations of the absolutism of His plan for mankind.
God and government working together provide an emotion-packed double whammy, and in this nation we are newly yoked to a resurgence of Fundamentalist thought. Many citizens are distressed that our government has abandoned secularism to embrace an ever more aggressive theocratic model -- George Bush opened that can of worms with his Faith-Based Initiative that allowed religious organizations to compete for government contracts and grants without a strict separation between their religious activities and social service programs. If this had merely provided additional opportunities for public assistance we might not have the qualms we do today as we discover billions poured into faith-based programs while federal assistance programs are going unfunded. The US of A is apparently getting out of the "helping people" business and is putting such matters into the hands of the Christian church -- specifically the evangelical-based Christian churches. The upshot of all this is that if you're an atheist, a pagan, a Muslim or Buddhist in this country and you need a hand, you're going to get a big dose of Jesus to go with it. The end of sex education and reproductive health services is another thing we can thank the Fundamentalists for, and a disdain of interest in global warming or the peace process in the Middle East.
Before we discuss present day, let's turn the dial back to understand evangelicism in this country.
America has deep roots in Christian evangelicism (a religious movement which identifies a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and sites its purpose to "save souls" by proselytizing for Christianity) that go back to the American Revolution and before. Because this new Protestant movement was almost entirely itinerant, it found favor with some of the Founders -- it was both informal and individualistic, and our forefathers were suspicious of formalized religion, favoring free thought. At that time, preachers mostly rooted in the Baptist schism wanted no part of government either, so the various leaders were sympathetic to one another. The 1730s-1740s gave us a period called The Great Awakening in which a wave of religious fervor swept the country and a bargain was struck between these fundamentalists and the midwives of a new nation -- the separation of church and state. This agreement held for almost two hundred years, until Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority began its ascendancy and politicized its worshippers.
Evangelistic influence seems to come in waves, often prompted by hard times or warring, and the religious sentiments of zealotry often create political opportunities. A fairly fundamental John Brown, for instance, focused on abolitionism and the New Testament, took up the cause against slavery and provoked that first clash that catapulted us into Civil War. In the 20th century, groups of fundamentalist Christians spun away from the mainstream, calling themselves Neo-Evangelists; in their opinion, the Protestant sects that had represented them had begun to move too far from Bible-teaching and fundamental interpretations. That gave rise to a growth in Pentecostalism and what we now call the Religious Right. Under the leadership of people like James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson they became a political force that has shaped our current situation, furthered by the mass hypnosis of 24/7 cable channels that steep one in the highly emotional Fundamental experience.
Michener succeeded in writing an entire history of religion in that book, putting the totality of the God concept on the table in its considerable parts. And why was that a revelation to someone who had never fit in the tight box of traditional religion anyway, who had already discovered Buddhism and the Koran and others of the great religions? Because I had been steeped in the Western notion of God as Authority; I had understood the Judeo-Christian God to be the Whole Enchilada, and now I was being told He might just be another menu choice. Michener had given me the larger conversation. That was the point in which the Profound Questions floated to the top -- like most Americans, I'd been too close to the forest to notice the trees, too steeped in the Christian particulars to understand a God with other intent than supreme Patriarchy. That first broad view of God throughout history pushed me to the question we all eventually ask -- did God create me, or did I create Him (Her, It, Them)?
And another conclusion was apparent. God as "real" or "imagined" mattered not -- God as institution was the perfect foil for "control."
From that long and enlightening read, I also came to appreciate how unique our American model of governance is, and how rare. On these shores, no monarchy superimposed its religion on We, the People, as did, say, the Tudor and Stuart reigns in England that seesawed between the Catholic and Protestant sects for many cruel and deadly decades. Our nation was established on these shores by the Pilgrims, a mix of freethinking adventurers and Puritans fleeing religious persecution, and an earlier and less successful settlement of traders and craftsman at Jamestown. The American persona would incubate for another 150 years before taking its baby steps into independence by way of the Enlightenment -- or its precursor, the Age of Reason. In such a heady atmosphere, the Founders sought to combine a new understanding of science, ethics, logic and aesthetics to inform government. And one of their pet peeves and paranoia's was the illogic of religion.
The Founders did not attempt to do away with the notion of God, to whom they gave a nod (and with very careful language). They understood the people they sought to represent; we have always been religious, fiercely Protestant and obedient to the Patriarchy model of the Judeo/Christian Godhead, but determined to be free to worship as we choose. For good or ill, religion has always been a silent partner with politics. When Jack Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he had to assure a suspicious public that he would not be influenced by his Catholicism, and in his brief tenure, he was not. Nixon, on the other hand was raised in the Quaker tradition, yet apparently he was not informed by his religious faith; we can thank him for long, grinding years of chaos and death in Vietnam. Religion has been a factor in every presidential race, but it has never been the defining factor...until George W. Bush.
Today, Americans are hearing about God, specifically the Old Testament version, in speeches by their president, having God legislated by Fundamentalist representation, and are finding themselves polarized by issues that are clearly church-backed and sponsored. We've been in a dizzying religious spin, and by and large, the public didn't see it coming. We have self-identified ourselves as a secular nation, proud of our diversity and tolerance. Our organizing principals were created by Founders that acknowledged a generic Godhead but considered Its interference in the matters of public administration neither required nor welcomed. That very separation served us well for 225 years, but now it appears to be breached, along with the intent of the First Amendment.
That amendment is simple and concise -- it should also be mentioned that it has not been ratified to include any wiggle room.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...
One of the first challenges to that rule of law, in 1962, saw the Supreme Court banning public prayer and religious reading from schools. I think it's clear that the current backlash of Fundamentalism got the tinder for its fire in that ruling. The court, however, made itself clear in terms of the intent of the Founders, saying that it "is a matter of history that this very practice of establishing governmentally composed prayers for religious services was one of the reasons which caused many of our early colonists to leave England and seek religious freedom in America."
For the Fundamentalists, that was the red flag waved at the bull. There is no question in their mind that America is, as Ronald Reagan (himself religious and one of their favorites) reminded them, a "great shining city on a hill," echoing Matthew 5:14, "Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid."
That mega-war I spoke of earlier, to be found in the Google index, goes on between those churchmen who insist the nation, including the Founders, were Christian and would approve of our new insistence on Christian doctrine blended into government and those who have noted the non-orthodox Deist (belief in the existence of a personal God, with disbelief in Christian teaching, or with a purely rationalistic interpretation of scripture) writings of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Ben Franklin and Tom Paine, and have found no religious language in the writings of George Washington.
Uh oh! No revelations in Revelations is NOT the America of George W. Bush. But it was definitely the common thought of the people who founded this nation. They carefully removed or rewrote any language that sounded overtly religious so as not to muddy the waters of their Grand Experiment. Indeed, they established a clear division between governance and religion in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, and they made the separation between church and state their FIRST priority. This not only protected government from the influence of religion, but protected religion from the interference of government. For instance, in all these years, churches have not been taxed -- a nod to their separate status and authority.
It's interesting that the Deism practiced by many of the Founders is very similar to the New Age religions today -- they eschewed literal interpretations of the Bible and instead found appreciation of the tone of Christianity as applied to practical matters. It was this distancing from the establishment of religion that gave rise to Transcendentalism in the early 19th century, and a new feel for intuition and the natural world; that movement brought us writers like Thoreau and Whitman, who found their inspiration in nature and the nature of man. When Fundamentalists accuse someone of being a secular humanist, it is pointing to that growth of American thought that looked to culture, psychology and natural law to attempt an understanding of humankind. It should be noted that Fundamentalist Christians want that baby thrown out with the bath water.
Truly, it appears that the entirety of the Bush administration -- this odd hiccup in time and space -- has moved us backwards over two hundred years and back toward those conglomerates of power that were a heavy-handed blend of church and state. And the danger of such a condition cannot be overstated. In Fundamentalist religions -- any of them -- there is no democratic application; there is, instead, theocracy. It should be said, however, that the Bush administration's use of religion is more that of a prop, a tool, a voting base, than an actual sharing of power or promoting of in-tact religious ideals. The cynicism of such an embrace is one of the reasons why it will, in my opinion, ultimately fail -- as much in the betrayal of those who expect a fully implemented theocracy to be delivered by God's chosen governance, as in the obvious hypocrisy of those who use this kind of manipulation to achieve their own political ends. And the elephant in this particular living room are the millions of secular citizens, and those of other faiths, that did not sign up for a new theocratic America.
Which, it seems to me, is exactly what the Founders were trying to prevent.
It's also interesting to note that in the last few weeks since the Republicans were soundly beaten in the mid-term elections, the Fundamentalist rhetoric has also seemed to decline, perhaps due to the Right's loss of many in the evangelical movement, who, while socially conservative, do not approve of Bush's policies on the economy, the poor, or his war machine. It would appear that as much as fundamental religion has influenced political leadership in these last years, religious populism may eventually influence a renewal of Constitutionalism. It remains to be seen, however, as the far Right Fundamentalists train their young for war in much the same way Fundamental Islam trains theirs -- their militarism has found its way into the Department of Defense and heavily impacted officer training in the elite military schools. They practice no birth control so they are breeding a new movement of home-schooled Soldiers for Christ. They are expecting the return of Jesus and so pay little heed to anything but the fulfillment of the Revelations prophecies, which requires chaos in the Middle East. They remain organized and political -- and dangerous to democracy in any form. The separation of church and state has never been so imperative to this Republic.
Clearly, as we make our way through the last potent degrees of Pluto in Sagittarius, we are turning over all the rocks in this topic of religious zealotry -- we're making our way through its darkness and its Light, and discovering the price for its abuse. Bush's evangelicism has sounded a Wake Up call for many Americans, and a renewal of the important conversation we've put off for many decades -- who are we as a nation, and what is the footprint with which we wish to enter the 21st century.
We are still deciding.
Oh, by way of footnote -- after the wall fell and we got to know one another on the various sides of the world, we discovered that the godless Commies were just folks who didn't have a choice about religion. Their government told them what they could and could not believe. Which, I think, is the whole point of this essay. God and government are old acquaintances but divisive bedfellows, neither will cede total authority which is why their union perverts both. The respectful distance established between them by the Founding Fathers of this nation provides that each might grow and flourish without compromise, as it was, until the last thirty or so years, and as it shall be again if we are to remain the nation envisioned by our forefathers. ++
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