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!
In the early beginning, there was earth, ocean, sun, moon, wind, fire, agriculture, wisdom, natural law, and memory. These were the primal concepts embodied in the Titans who ruled the world. When the Olympians, led by Zeus, overthrew the Titans, the three brothers, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades, divided the world amongst them. Hades took the underworld — the lower level of the earth where souls went after the body died. It was there that the Titaness Memory kept a pool of water at which souls could drink. It would cause them to remember what had happened to them in the world above. Souls who drank from the River Lethe instead would forget their past lives and be reincarnated; however, doing so meant repudiating one’s past life and loved ones. Memory offered souls their only hope to remain connected to their previous lives.
It is Memory, the ancient religious text tells us, that gives kings and poets their abilities to command with authority. It is also from her that the Muses came — born of an affair between Memory and Zeus, king of the gods, against whom she had not fought in the War of the Titans. Their offspring, the Muses, are the nine goddesses who inspire, each in their own field in the arts and sciences. Clio was, of course, the muse of history. Mortals would worship these goddesses at Museums (or mouseions), temples at which the study of the arts and sciences was undertaken. For example, Ptolemy I established a museum dedicated to the study of philosophy in Alexandria, Egypt around the third century BCE. The ancient notion of a museum as an institute or place of study has evolved into the modern day university or research center. Today, though, museums remain civic temples, containing artifacts and sources of learning that preserve our collective memory. Their function tends more towards documentation and preservation of material objects — particularly related to the arts (as opposed to laboratories or libraries).
Political monuments as civic relics date back through the ages, but museums as we know them today (as repositories of material culture and historical study) are a modern phenomenon (from the 18th century). The Age of Enlightenment, with its ideals of status based on merit and democracy, spawned the first public museums. Access to these were initially limited and invitations were often restricted to the upper crust of society. The first museum open to all members of society equally was the Louvre, a gift of the French Revolution. Prior to that, art and artifacts were preserved and shared amongst the wealthy and elite — in palaces and salons, which were only accessible to the aristocracy and their coteries. The democracy and fraternity that drove the founding of the First Republic inspired the French revolutionaries to take the treasures of the aristocracy and make them available to all. The purpose of this was to promote national culture. Thus, nationalism was tied to the promotion of public spaces of learning.
When, however, public spaces serve as temples of memory that promote and preserve our national cultures and identities, they become lightening rods for political and ideological differences. The public historians who manage national museums tread carefully to balance truth with the political will of the people. Thus, in the United States, the (alleged) home of Betsy Ross (Claypoole) serves as a historical site, even though there is no evidence that she sewed the first flag that ever served as a symbol of the United States. National myth sometimes trumps historical accuracy. And, then, there are the times when museums that remind us of the painful truths of our past draw the ire of the disgruntled and marginalized. Last week, just such a one defiled one of our temples — turning a memory pool into a murder scene.
Would that the world did not know such violence. Would that such violence had not caused the shoah we built the museum to remember. Would that the sacred temple had not been so pointlessly and grossly profaned. Now, we have the memory of an attack on a place of remembering. Historians and truth-seekers surely cringe, while the goddess weeps.
Article II Section 1 of the Constitution of the State of Oklahoma sets out the social contract theory behind the political organization here. ”All political power,” it says, “is inherent in the people,” who may alter the contract whenever they require. This statement indicates two things: firstly, our founders lacked sound grammatical skills (where here the word “inherent” is used awkwardly with a passive construction that fails to reflect possession to apply to “power” when the real subject “people” is not used in its proper function in the sentence), and secondly, that the will of the people is unlimited. Luckily for us, the document went on to limn the powers of the state government. Citizens here may be able to alter the terms of the social contract but they can’t secede from the United States (Article I Section 1). Also, they can’t practice polygamy, even though “perfect tolerance of religious sentiment is secured (Article I Section 2).” They can’t collude to teach school in a language other than English (Article XIII Section 5). Nor can they deny government the power to regulate the possession of firearms (Article II Section 26).
All in all, the Oklahoma Constitution contains twenty-eight articles — making it one of the longest social contracts in the world (you read that correctly). You can take that to mean that we like to write everything out, we don’t understand the difference between a constitution and statutes-at-large, or our urge to contract is excessive. Really, do we need Article V Section 62 — yes, 62 — to specifically grant the government the right to establish pensions for school teachers? What I really love is that the copies that are available today contain the section pertaining to the establishment of a liquor law enforcement agency which was later repealed but the part defining the different races (Article 23 Section 11) — by the way, not repealed until 1978 — is no longer included. Yet, the length of the document remains prohibitive for reading despite the omission. There is, by the way, no right to privacy enumerated here, so apparently even this extensive list may not be exhaustive (Article II Section 33). It could go on.
The point I am meandering to is this: the American political habit is to draft a written contract (as opposed to relying upon an implied consent to an unwritten social contract) that establishes the rights of the people individually and as a group, as well as creating a framework for the government. Perhaps the Oklahoma Constitution is an excessive example of this, but it seems normative for the citizens of the United States to want to spell out the rights and powers belonging to us. It isn’t acceptable to set up a government without adding to the document in some way a list of our entitlements — either through amendment or in the body of the text itself. The U.S. Constitution set powerful precedent here, and the enduring commonality in social contract theory in America seems to be a distrust of government that warrants limits on governmental power. There will come a time in the future where humans may no longer approach political organization this way. After all, there was a time when absolute monarchy was the unquestioned predominate theory and it has passed. Nothing, history teaches us, seems to last forever. Contractual republicanism will some day be replaced by another political concept. It appears even now that we are on the cusp of a new understanding of the role of government that emphasizes the power of the State over personal liberty. If we are on the path to a new theory of government, thankfully, it will take some time for it to overcome the impediment of our constitutions. We may lose faith in the tenants of our social contracts, but since they currently bind us, they also protect us from the fascist impulse that has plagued our country since the Cold War began. I’m not a big fan of John Locke, et al., but I will say that I am grateful that the enumeration of rights his ilk inspired in our founders protects me from the whims of a crusading majority. As long as the social contracts remain, there is life in libertarianism.
Limn the power!
Making a connection between religion and government is not a novel idea. It’s not even modern. Comparisons between God and Caesar go way back. Indeed, in the pre-modern age, the government served as both God’s tool and the supreme law of the land. Monarchism and religion went hand-in-hand. The purpose of the Spanish conquest of the New World was to find gold and silver for the crown and spread the gospel. The Spanish Inquisition rolled on into the forced conversion of American Indians. Today’s evangelicals share that same drive. They use the government to force their faith on others — making “In God We Trust” our motto, erecting monuments bearing the Ten Commandments in public spaces, requiring a pledge of allegiance that recognizes a supreme deity. These are just a few examples. Their urge to spread God’s dominion prompts their activism. However, in an age where republicanism reigns and the constitutional mandate is that there must be no official state religion, activism is the only — if paltry — option where kings no longer rule unquestioned with a divine right. Even control of the executive and legislative branches does not assure victory. Thus, the evangelicals find themselves in a battle royale with the judiciary, which alone stands between them and domination where majority rules. Ironically, many of those engaged in this fight claim ideological ancestry from the founding fathers — who, of course, gave us representational government and freedom of conscience.
What then is the political theory that now binds our society together? Clearly, we no longer share the founders’ Lockean notions of mutual support and protection. Time and evolution of thought has brought us to a newer place. Also, the violence of a civil war did much to undo any illusions that the nation could endure where the State is merely our agent. Government is itself our sovereign. The State is God on earth, and in America, political philosophies reflect our religious predilections as well as our view of the social contract.
For those who see God as the benevolent forgiver, the Balm in Gilead, the divine Good Samaritan, government is a source of aid for the people. The social gospel is tied, then, to the welfare state. This is the logic of Christian Socialism and Liberation Theology. Government is the means to exercise our Christian mission to feed the poor and care for the less fortunate.
For those who see God as judge and lawgiver, the angry God in whose hands lie all sinners, Him who will separate the sheep from the goats, the government is that which holds us accountable for our transgressions. Government is the enforcer on earth — punishing us for our errors and even removing the breath of life when the ultimate in violation of the social contract occurs. It also metes out justice, settling disputes amongst citizens and, when necessary, reigning in the exercise of our rights whenever that infringes on those of others.
In practice, government must serve both functions to some degree at least, and the differences between the political affiliations of citizens often fall to which weighs more to the individual (as opposed to any unadulterated view of God/government as one or the other exclusively). However, the failure of Christian Socialism, Liberation Theology, and similar veins of religious liberalism in the U.S. reflects the conservative natures of our churches as well as the domination of government as judge as the religio-political philosophy of the people. Jonathan Edwards is still with us. In as much as we believe in original sin, we embrace a social contract that presumes the degeneracy of human nature. After the robber barons, multiple world wars, and the dawning of a nuclear age, could we conclude differently? It fits, and yet, it reeks of pessimism and hopelessness. It is no ideology reflective of our better natures if our theory of the social contract has become thus: human society is instinctive and necessary, but it is our nature to do evil one to another. Thus, we form a government to punish (rather than reform), purge (rather than include), and exclude (rather than enfold). The State is the means by which we correct and dominate our peers. It is God’s to forgive, and even the Christian nation must not intrude on that divine mission. We are all but citizens in the hands of an angry government.