"Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person's life, freedom of religion affects every individual. Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people, and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the "wall of separation between church and state," therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society." -- Thomas Jefferson
What do you do when your faith makes you an Enemy of the State? What can you do when your society enacts religious tests or erects religious barriers to commerce, political office, or even the right to live? What is person to do when those around them begin shooting and stabbing one another over the definition of a word, or the interpretation of a Scripture that means nothing to you, at all? What sort of rights can you possibly have when the Monarch claims a Right to Rule directed by God, and enforced by authority both legal and spiritual, and this implies that neither is responsible to you?
What sort of peace can you expect in a society where Pope and Patriarch, Bishop and Archbishop, sect and sect issue edicts of death upon one another, hire assassins, raise armies, and kill one another under the assumption that the God they both believe said "Thou shall not kill" is willing to make an exception in their case, because faith.
Welcome to the World of Pre-Enlightenment (and sometimes even post-) Europe.
For over a thousand years prior to the foundation of America, the European World from which our culture was born was wracked by warfare and internal strife, much of it revolving around -- when not instigated by -- religion.
Pagan killed Christian, Christian killed Pagan. Orthodox elements killed Catholic, and vice-versa, and both routinely killed those they could tar with the epithet "heretic". The history of the period is full of religiously-sanctioned violence: Christians thrown to lions, Reformation and Counter-Reformation, The Inquisition, The Great Schism, The Crusades, Muslim invasion, The Reconquista, the Suppression of the Albigensians (from whence we get the phrase "kill them all; God will sort them out"), the persecution of the Gnostics, the Oppression of the Pelagians. Burning at the stake, forced conversions, pogroms everywhere, oaths of loyalty, The Tudor Separation, The Spanish Armada, Bloody Mary, Gunpowder Plots, centuries of warfare and oppression between Catholic and Protestant, Jew and Muslims, and everyone against everyone else in the name of God.
These are battles fought by religion in the name of supremacy over another religion or the state, or of the State under the authority of religion against another State or religion.
This was also the historical legacy of the Men who would later become the Founders of this Country.
To us, this is all Ancient History. Not so to them, and not only because they were closer in time to the actual events, or in some cases, only a few generations removed from them, or victims of it. As an example, the people we quaintly refer to as "Pilgrims" were, in fact, enemies of the Stewart Crown of England. What made them enemies of the state was their belief that Man was intended to build a New Eden or a New Jerusalem, and that the best way to begin that endeavor was in jolly old England, itself, overturning the established order, if necessary, always justified by strict interpretation of Scripture.
If you're the King of England, and not very secure in your throne because you're seen as a Scotch usurper who wants to overthrow the previous Tudor arrangement of church and state, anyone threatening to build anything that doesn't include you in it, and assumes it to be the will of God, makes them your enemy.
And so the myth of the "Pilgrim" seeking a land where they may practice their religion freely, is born. Most people don't know what happened between their expulsion from England (and Exile in Holland) and their arrival in Massachusetts, and don't want to know. The story is just fine, as is. Has all the elements: godly people doing God's work, unjustly persecuted by a godless heathen with a crown.
It's also bullshit.
And it's so unique! So quintessentially American! It's also quite false, and was fairly common in Europe. Exile, banishment, political intrigue, assassination and counter-assassination, fears of sects both common and obscure making common cause with the enemies of the State were common themes in Europe c. 400-1790, or so.
Fuck, the history of Britain, from where our founders mostly descended from, was nothing BUT religious intrigue mixed with foreign and domestic politics during the Tudor and Stewart dynasties. One has but to run the list to figure this out, starting with Henry VIII's wishes for a divorce from Rome, Catherine of Aragon's Spanish Catholic heritage, the suppression of the Catholic monasteries, the Pilgrimage of Grace, the martyrdom of Thomas More, The Oath of Succession, the marriages of convenience of Henry, the reprisals against the Church of England under Mary Tudor, the burning of heretics, the Star Chamber, the shaky balance of religious forces while under threat of catholic invasion or papal assassination of Elizabeth I.
Things got no better under the succeeding Stewarts, in terms of violence and potential intrigue, and during these years social mobility was always strictly proscribed; those who belonged to the "right" Church prospered. Those who belonged to "non-Conformist" sects were hunted down, imprisoned, exiled, killed, or kept out of politics or commerce.
The Glorious Revolution of 1640's England was, in effect, a religious civil war, where the English (Protestant) upper crust couldn't abide by James II's policies of religious tolerance (and affinity for Catholic France), and so overthrew him to re-establish the prerogative of the Right Godly to persecute the fuck out of the rest, and retain their primacy of social status. It also reverberated across the Atlantic to the English colonies in America: the Dominion of New England collapsed (as it was based upon a Royal Charter of a now-defeated and exiled King), and the then-Province of Maryland saw it's government overthrown by armed revolt.
For British Catholics its effects were disastrous both socially and politically: Catholics were denied the right to vote and sit in the Westminster Parliament for over a century; they were also denied commissions in the army, and the monarch was forbidden to be Catholic or to marry a Catholic, this latter prohibition remaining in force until 2015. The Revolution led to limited tolerance for Nonconformist Protestants, although it would be some time before they had full political rights. It has been argued, mainly by Whig historians, that James's overthrow began modern English parliamentary democracy: the Bill of Rights 1689 has become one of the most important documents in the political history of Britain and never since has the monarch held absolute power.
And there's more!
Long before there was even a United States of America, even before there was a collection of English colonies in the New World, there were religious dissenters and refugees from Europe living here.
Here in New York City, previously the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, the earliest settlers of the 1620's to 1640's contained among their number several groups of religious expatriates. Prime among them were the Huguenots, French Protestants declared enemies of the state by the French Crown, and victims of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. The village of Huguenot here in my hometown of Staten island serves as a reminder of who they were, and what they fled.
The Moravian Church here is also a testament to the religious turmoil of Europe. Moravians were among the earliest of Protestants, even before Martin Luther, from Bohemia in the Czech Republic. They were routinely and relentlessly persecuted by the fiercely Catholic Hapsburg dynasty, and fled their homelands in all directions, as well.
So, even before anyone had an inkling of an idea of a spark of genius to write a Constitution, religious violence, war, and dissent was already a part of the history of what would become America.
The Founders determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Religion was too much of a divisive force, often a bloody divisive force, and it would not be allowed to divide a newly-created country.
"When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; when it does not support itself and God does not take care to support it so that it's professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, 'tis a sign, I apprehend, of it being a bad one." -- Benjamin Franklin.
Which brings us back to the present day, somewhat.
There are those who don't like this arrangement one little bit, and who would, given half a chance, change it, and return to a time where their faith -- elevated to equality with the secular authority, or better yet, superiority over the secular authority -- was bound up with much of civic life. Primarily, with social and economic status. They would see their version of The Truth made law and persecute the non-Conformists all over again.
We hear it all the time from such people: Bad things happen to America because we have lost the favor of God, they will tell you. The American government -- by allowing fags to live, and abortions to be performed, and ______ to walk around freely, is thwarting the Will of God. Even in matters related to the End of the World, American foreign policy must be made to serve the needs of doomsday prophecy (the Rapture cannot occur, for example, unless the Jews rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, hence, a good deal of support for Israel among the Christians of this country, many of who then believe that having made Armageddon possible, the Jews will not be saved, anyway, which shows you where their Christian Values really lead).
To this sort of mental defective, the Original Sin of America was to NOT establish their brand of religious stupidity as the official state religion. The second was to leave behind, in the First Amendment, a prohibition in law against their faith ever being enshrined as the official state religion.
However, there is one peculiarity to our system of government, and that is that retards are allowed to vote.
And if you cannot get your faith installed as the Prime Directive for Running America by tradition and law, you can do the next, best thing and vote for people just as stupid as you are, establishing, de jure, a Theocracy where one is denied de facto.
And if you've ever wondered how a Roy Moore, Mike Huckabee, a Todd Akin, a Sarah Palin, and a host of lesser political lights, who can't shut the fuck up about God, who babble on in the most astounding ways (see: Todd Akin's definition of "Legitimate Rape" in the context of Abortion) that make you often believe they haven't an idea in their heads that doesn't originate in Scripture, gets to hold a public office, then here is your answer:
There is a reactionary religious movement in this country, and if it cannot have what it wants, it will find another way to create it. In this particular case, through the electoral system. However, since most of this sort of candidate, if not the vast majority of them, are certified mental patients, they typically end up losing very winnable seats for the GOP, mostly because if the robotic form of stupid doesn't frighten a voter, then the thought of putting some guy who can argue whether a rape is "legitimate" or not, or fondle teenyboppers, into a position of authority and responsibility should.
Fortunately, the number of these really committed imbeciles is limited, but they punch far above their weight when it comes to organization, funding, and ability to mobilize candidates and voters, so that in some cases the fire-and-brimstone lunatic manages a nomination or primary victory despite the fact that the rank-and-file republican would rather have nails driven into his balls than to have to pull a lever for this guy.
And to return to something I've just said -- "Fortunately, the number of these really committed imbeciles is limited" -- and you can see the problem. In an America which is continuously being divided into identity groups for political purposes, and showered with government largess (including special protections, privileges and money) when someone needs their votes, this brand of religious fanatic sees themselves as just one more group (divinely inspired, of course!) deserving of a place at the government trough. Much like the lefties they despise as fag-lovers, abortionists and sinners, they, too, have a dream for America, and don't mind undermining the country and the taxpayer in the quest to keep it alive.
Unfortunately for most of us, that "dream" involves the End of the World. America must be set aright, so that the world may be set aright, and then destroyed just at the moment of perfection, so that a few snake-handling, inbred mountain folk can achieve the goal of going to heaven. Much like the jihadis they claim to hate so much.
If you ever wanted to know what some segments of the "Religious Right" were all about, and why they conveniently forget Christ's advice to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's" to involve their prissy white souls in the dirty business of politics, this is why; government will be made to serve the purposes of the Lord, even the destructive ones, just as the Communist believes the instruments of government should serve the collective, and, as always, only for the benefit of the True Believers.
Your Founders understood this. They had seen it with their own eyes, in some cases, they had lived it.
They understood it. Do you?
One of the benefits of the First Amendment, one routinely overlooked by people like I've just described, is that while the Amendment prohibits government from interfering with religion, forcing religion upon the people, or using religion as a "litmus test" in all sorts of ways, it also has another effect, which is probably even more important.
Freedom OF Religion also entails Freedom FROM Religion.
Next time, we'll talk about the people who claim "America is a Christian nation".
Part One can be found HERE.