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Religious zealotry and the crisis of American democracy

About the author
Khoren Arisian is senior leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. He graduated from Tuffs University at age 21 in 1954. He was director and co-founder of the Ethical Culture School of Adult Education, a member of the Chaplaincy Task Force for the New York Board of Corrections, and a founder of the New York Society’s Prison Reform Task Force.

We cannot understand what is really going on in American politics today without a critical and unblinking examination of its enduring religious basis and the theological presuppositions that support it.

Consider President George W. Bush’s current nominee for the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, Alabama Attorney General William H. Pryor, Jr., who deems it “acceptable to execute the mentally retarded,” replace the Constitution with the Bible, and asserts that “We derive our rights from God and not from government.”

Since God is more elusive than government, the likelihood of outrageously subjective interpretations of God’s will can only run rampant. This has been amply demonstrated in pronouncements by such divinely-inspired political stalwarts as John Ashcroft and Tom DeLay.

The United States government assuredly doesn’t want an Islamic state in Iraq, yet DeLay has openly stated that God has assigned him to promote “a biblical worldview” as a guide to his political actions as House Majority Leader. Meanwhile, John Ashcroft tells us that “we have no King but Jesus” and Commerce Secretary Don Evans reveals to us that God told George to wage war on Iraq.

The United States as a Republican stronghold

In May 2003, the New York Times revealed that the Republican National Committee is striving for “an Era of Dominance”. This is hardly news anymore, but it is nonetheless disconcerting. The Republican Party is in a buoyant mood since the ‘war on terror’, as it is portentously described, is likely to persist indefinitely (if sporadically) and it is the political force allegedly best equipped to engage with such a challenge. Meanwhile, a sputtering Democratic Party is quickly devolving toward extended minority status.

For the first time in fifty years, Republicans constitute a majority of state legislatures. They dominate all three branches of the federal government. The newspapers declare that the male scions of “boomer” parents are enthusiastically gung-ho about the military establishment, which they virtually equate with the Republican-dominated federal government. Hence, both party and government are deemed to be one: efficient, upright and trustworthy – meriting a high approval rating roughly coinciding with that of the president himself.

At the beginning of June, President Bush signed off on another economically unnecessary tax cut – worth $350 billion – which of course is also a politically pre-emptive act with the 2004 elections being just sixteen months away. Bush also sanctioned an almost trillion dollar increase in the government’s borrowing capacity, thus adding the same amount to the national debt on which interest is to be paid. Deficits, it is reiterated, don’t matter anymore – even though the huge current account and federal deficits might well outlast the war on terror.

Fueling that conflict is the notion of an “axis of evil”, the notorious phrase Bush flung against Iraq, Iran and North Korea in a nationally-televised address in his State of the Union speech of January 2002, four months after the tragedy of 9/11.

A nation born of Puritanism

The first Puritans to arrive on American shores would have approved.

In 1630, Massachusetts’ first Royal Governor, John Winthrop, evoked a lasting biblical image: “We shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people upon us.” These Puritan immigrants from England soon faced an outbreak of “evil” they felt had to be subdued; in 1636 they launched a war against local “devil worshippers” – the Pequot Indians, who resented the Puritans’ intrusion onto their land.

Clearly possessed by Satan, the natives had to be eliminated, and they were. The Indians’ village was set ablaze; hundreds were killed – either shot, drowned, or sold into slavery.

According to the organiser of the Mayflower expedition, William Bradford, this constituted “a sweet sacrifice to God”. Evildoers, in short, must be either summarily punished or killed. Both would come to pass in Salem in 1692 when fanatical judges saw to it that nineteen innocent people were hanged for being possessed by the Devil.

The most Hebraic of the original Protestant sects, the early Puritans, were extraordinary control freaks; they believed that church and state, though separate, should be closely associated and led by the same type of people in either case.

The Puritans’ wars against Native Americans spawned frightful delusions throughout New England. The Puritans’ theology of choice was Calvinism – the elect few predestined by God to success and wealth versus the many predestined to perdition, misery and hell on earth; everyone in effect lived in a state of unrelieved anxiety that consequently instigated a kind of nervous activism. Beginning with the infamous Salem witch-trials of the 1690s, we’ve had periodic political witch-hunts ever since.

As recently as the 1970s, the Reverend Jerry Falwell publicly concluded that “Satan has mobilised its forces to destroy America”. Born-again religious fervour started once more to rise, and it has been doing so ever since.

Demonising the opposition

Wars propagate an “us vs. them” mentality. Bush’s proclamation on 20 September included his statement that you are either with “us” or with “the terrorists of the world”. No wonder Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor off-handedly commented at the time, “We’re likely to experience more restrictions on personal freedom than has ever been the case in our country.” Did O’Connor suspect or know something the rest of us did not?

No wonder Ralph Waldo Emerson once remarked, in a letter to Thomas Carlyle in the 1830s, about the emerging American character: “We are a little wild here.” Indeed we are. Welcome to Redneck America.

To be “born again” is an evangelical legacy of the Puritan tradition; to be born again is to be an adamant “true believer” such as that described by author Eric Hoffer. All of which is reminiscent of those secular true believers, the Jacobins of the French Revolution.

When Jacobin leader Maxim Robespierre hijacked the people’s revolution in their name, he corrupted it totally, ushering in a prolonged period of massacres and slaughter – an early symptom of what Alexis de Tocqueville would later term, with his usual uncanny prescience, “a virus of a new and unknown kind”. In western culture, this would morph into genocidal inclination – evil committed in the name of an insane nationalism, ethnic cleansing, or ideology, or (as is increasingly the case these days) in the name of some intolerant, absolutist religious fundamentalism.

The French revolutionaries were not unlike the English Puritans in one respect. In their mad zeal, they rendered themselves incapable of conceiving the validity of a loyal opposition. None who thought otherwise could be their equal; therefore those who disagreed with them were deemed traitors who had to be eliminated. One could only be absolutely for the Jacobins or totally against them. This atmosphere prepared the ground for their Reign of Terror in 1793-1794 during which thousands were executed.

Is anything more fatal to humanity than “either/or” thinking? If all who disagree with you are – by definition – irredeemable traitors, then no real democracy is possible! Such a state of affairs, by extension to our own day and time, is what ultimately concerns me about those on the religious and political right. They typically present themselves as knowing, better than anyone else in the world what America as a nation needs to do, impetuously brushing aside questions from those who differ with them in the slightest.

Time to renew democracy

The original Puritan settlers of this country in the 1620s were true believers: not radicals, but revolutionaries who proved to be religious and political killers, among other less lethal attributes. Today’s religious right are in effect their doctrinal descendants.

It was in the name of a fervent nationalism that the French revolutionaries finally declared war on all of Europe’s great powers. After years of Napoleon’s spectacular victories, France nonetheless collapsed from its imperial reach.

It is in the name of national security, a euphemism for nationalism, that the present administration in Washington is preparing for war without end – in our name, and supposedly for our own protection. Our consent is absent, except for that which the Bushites manufacture. Shall we be so naïve as to trust the ethics of their intentions? Yet, it is not their intentions that are at issue, but the likely fatal consequences of the actions that these holy warriors – most of whom have never been in battle – have in mind.

The American imperium, in Gore Vidal’s view, was born the day the National Security Act was enacted in 1947. But here are the words of James Madison, perhaps the most farseeing of the founders of what we nostalgically refer to as the American Republic, over a century and a half before. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1788 as the Constitution was nearing completion, he wrote: “There may be a certain degree of danger that a succession of artful and ambitious rulers, may by gradual and well–timed advances, finally erect an independent Government on the subversion of liberty.”

I believe we are moving toward that end at a fast rate. What was essentially a political vision of presidential dominance under Richard Nixon became quasi-religious with Ronald Reagan, and has now, insistently, become evangelically fundamentalist with the current administration in Washington. This situation cannot be tolerated much longer. People in America cannot simply remain worried and/or somnolent until unpleasant things somehow blow over, allowing us to “return to normal” – an understandable but naïve hope.

Now, therefore, is a time to think anew, strategise anew, and act anew on behalf of the entire spectrum of the democratic prospect. We cannot afford to behave like the good Germans of the Third Reich.

This article is based on a panel presentation at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, 28 May 2003.


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