We near again that time of year — our holiest of civic holidays — when we celebrate both our establishment as an independent nation and the principles on which we were founded. At this time, I would like to pay tribute to one of our most intrinsic and obvious ideals: religious intolerance.
From the first days when the storm-tossed Pilgrims landed, bringing the principle of Death to Quakers!, our nation has embarked on a never-ending mission to drive the religious deviants (by which we mean our neighbors) out. To the Indian nations, white settlers said: “Convert or die.” Although we like to think that the British were the greatest of these evangelists, it seems more credible to go with the Spanish on that one. Their forced conversion of the Indians was epic — leading to the overthrow of Santa Fe by rebellious Indians the likes of which the British Colonies never saw.
Once our nation established itself as the child-tyrant of North America, however, the Anglos took forced conversion and religious intolerance to a whole new level. Probably the most egregious displays of Christian bigotry were the Mormon wars of the 19th century. In Missouri in 1838, (and ironically between two Christian sects) the Mormons and Gentiles fought a bloody and brutal campaign. Mormons had begun to move to Missouri en masse in 1831 because it was — believe it or not — the promised land (as revealed by God to Joseph Smith). The sudden influx of thousands of Mormons in just a few short years led to distrust and alarm among the non-Mormons. A political struggle within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints also prompted an increased militarization and intolerance among the differing factions of Mormons. Then, in August 1838, a group of non-Mormons attempted to prevent a group of Mormons from voting in a local election (fearing that their numbers would allow them to gain control of the regional government). A brawl ensued and more violence followed, spreading throughout the region. Ultimately, the Mormons were expelled from Missouri and on October 27th, Governor Liburn Boggs issued a decree calling for their extermination. The state militia — under the control of non-Mormons — played a dominate role in the fighting, and the Mormons were forced west — settling in nearby Illinois.
In 1844, the good citizens of Illinois decided to second that intolerance and violence. The Mormons who settled in Illinois dared to build planned communities, temples, and businesses. They held parades and were active in the Masonic Lodge. Here too, plural marriage became an open principle of the church. As the Mormon community grew in numbers (attracting new settler/converts from Britain), local non-Mormons again began to fear Mormon dominance in local affairs. When Joseph Smith led a militia group to attack a local paper that criticized the church, citizens began demanding the church’s ouster. Smith and others were jailed, and a vigilante mob dragged him from his cell and killed him (while he was a candidate for Presidency of the United States no less). Calls for expulsion grew after that and vigilante mobs went about physically forcing Mormons from their homes. By the end of 1845, the remaining Mormons had began preparations to voluntarily migrate west — leaving their property and communities behind. This time, to Utah!
Finally, in 1857, the U.S. government decided to get in on the action. National leaders sought to socialize the Mormons into acceptable behavior — by force if necessary (incidentally, these were the same people who sought the forced assimilation of Hispanics in the parts of the U.S. that formerly belonged to Spain and who were engaged in a program of exterminating the Indian nations). A third of the U.S. army (which was then admittedly smaller than, say, today) marched into Utah. Suspicious Mormons began attacking settlers traveling west, for fear that they were coming to take over the final refuge the Mormons had found. After years of persecution, the Mormons were mistrustful and embraced vigilante tactics themselves. Ultimately, diplomacy won the day, but the Mormons had to accept the supremacy of a civil government. In particular, the men in Washington — who seem to be always and incessantly harping on family values — took exception to the practice of plural marriages, and Utah was not granted statehood until the church leadership publicly renounced the practice.
So, while we celebrate this Fourth of July and puff up our chests about our enlightened democracy — built on the bedrocks of the separation of church and state and faith in a Christian God, it is good to remember that ideals are something we never tire of selling to the rest of the world, while at home we like to practice good, old fashioned, American-style religious intolerance. Our country always seems to need a religious crusade, for the evangelical horde is always with us. God bless America!