Category Archives: Religion

“An Institution Sanctioned by God” Southern Religious Support of Slavery

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Here is another excerpt from one of my Civil War texts dealing with the role of the Christian faith in justifying Southern Slavery. Once again it is not an easy subject to deal with for many people. Most American Christians of any denomination, Northern or Southern, would prefer that our often less than stellar practice of our faith didn’t exist, or be relegated to the deepest part of the dustbin of history. If they would stay that wouldn’t be a bad thing, but those attitudes, prejudices, and actions seem to always find a way back into current practice, if not in this case against African Americans, with the group du jour. Most of the time now it seems to involve immigrants, both legal and illegal, Muslims, and LGBTQ people. As the evangelical Anglican theologian Alistair McGrath writes: “the arguments used by the pro-slavery lobby represent a fascinating illustration and condemnation of how the Bible may be used to support a notion by reading the text within a rigid interpretive framework that forces predetermined conclusions to the text.”

So have a great day

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The noted South Carolina Baptist minister, the Reverend Richard Furman wrote: “The right of holding slaves is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.”  [1]

Like other people who supported the institution of slavery in the Americas before them, Southerners turned to the Christian faith to buttress their cause. Catholic and Protestant churches of England, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal all provided their theological and ecclesiastical blessing to slavery and the slave trade. When a Catholic priest wrote his superiors asking if the slave trade and all of its components were legal according to Canon Law he received this answer:

“Your Reverence writes me that you would like to know whether the Negroes who are sent to your parts have been legally captured. To this I reply that I think your Reverence should have no scruples on this point, because this is a matter which has been questioned by the Board of Conscience in Lisbon, and all its members are learned and conscientious men. Nor did the bishops who were in Sao Thome, Cape Verde, and here in Loando – all learned and virtuous men – find fault with it. We have been here ourselves for forty years and there have been among us very learned Fathers…never did they consider the trade as illicit. Therefore we and the Fathers of Brazil buy these slaves for our service without any scruple….” [2]

In the American colonies, the Church of England accommodated itself to the plantation system by adapting itself to the ways of the plantation owners and slave traders. This began in 1619 when planters in Virginia and Maryland began to bring in slaves due to their “growing success by growing and exporting tobacco.” [3] To escape the ancient Christian prohibition on believers owning other believers most plantation owners refused to all their slaves to be baptized. However, to allow for some slaves to be baptized a law was passed in 1667 “declaring that baptism did not change a slave’s condition – another indication of the degree to which established religion was willing to bend to the interests of the powerful.”  [4] It is interesting to note that this uniquely American Anglican idea that baptism did not change the nature of a person, was also used by the Nazis in regard to Jews who had converted to Christianity.

In light of the threat posed to slavery by the emerging abolitionist movement, slaveholders were forced to shift their defense of slavery away from it being simply a necessary evil to a positive good. The institution of slavery became “in both secular and religious discourse, the central component of the mission God had designed for the South.” [5] Like in the North where theology was at the heart of many abolitionist arguments, in the South theology was used to enshrine and defend the institution of slavery. British Evangelical-Anglican theologian Alister McGrath notes how “the arguments used by the pro-slavery lobby represent a fascinating illustration and condemnation of how the Bible may be used to support a notion by reading the text within a rigid interpretive framework that forces predetermined conclusions to the text.” [6]

Southern religion was a key component of something bigger than itself and played a role in the development of an ideology much more entrenched in the Southern culture than the abolitionist cause did in the North.  This was in large part due to the same Second Great Awakening that brought abolitionism to the fore in the North. “Between 1801 when he Great Revival swept the region and 1831 when the slavery debate began, southern evangelicals achieved cultural dominance in the region. Looking back over the first thirty years of the century, they concluded that God had converted and blessed their region.” [7] The Southern political and religious ideology enshrined slavery as a key component of all areas of life. It was a complete worldview, a system of values, culture, religion and economics, or to use the more modern German term “Weltanschauung.” The Confederate worldview was the Cause. As Emory Thomas wrote in his book The Confederate Nation:

“it was the result of the secular transubstantiation in which the common elements of Southern life became sanctified in the Southern mind. The South’s ideological cause was more than the sum of its parts, more than the material circumstances and conditions from which it sprang. In the Confederate South the cause was ultimately an affair of the viscera….Questions about the Southern way of life became moral questions, and compromises of Southern life style would become concession of virtue and righteousness.” [8]

Despite the dissent of some, the “dominant position in the South was strongly pro-slavery, and the Bible was used to defend this entrenched position.” [9] This was tied to a strongly Calvinistic theology which saw slavery in context with the spread of the evangelical Protestant faith that had swept through the South as slavery spread. For many, if not most Southern ministers “the very spread of evangelical religion and slave labor in the South was a sign of God’s divine favor. Ministers did not focus on defending slavery in the abstract but rather championed Christian slaveholding as it was practiced in the American South. Though conceding that some forms of slavery might be evil, Southern slavery was not.” [10]

The former Governor of South Carolina, John Henry Hammond, led the religiously based counter argument to the abolitionists. Hammond’s arguments included biblical justification of blacks being biologically inferior to whites and slavery being supported in the Old Testament where the “Hebrews often practiced slavery” and in the New Testament where “Christ never denounced servitude.”  [11] Hammond warned:

“Without white masters’ paternalistic protection, biologically inferior blacks, loving sleep above all and “sensual excitements of all kinds when awake” would first snooze, then wander, then plunder, then murder, then be exterminated and reenslaved.” [12]

Others in the South, including politicians, pundits and preachers were preaching “that slavery was an institution sanctioned by God, and that even blacks profited from it, for they had been snatched out of pagan and uncivilized Africa and been given the advantages of the gospel.” [13] The basic understanding was that slavery existed because “God had providential purposes for slavery.” [14]

At the heart of the pro-slavery theological arguments was in the conviction of most Southern preachers of human sinfulness. “Many Southern clergymen found divine sanction for racial subordination in the “truth” that blacks were cursed as “Sons of Ham” and justified bondage by citing Biblical examples.” [15] But simply citing scripture to justify the reality of a system of which they reaped the benefit, is just part of the story. The real issue was far greater than that. The theology that justified slavery also, in the minds of many Christians in the north justified what they considered “the hedonistic aspects of the Southern life style.” [16] This was something that abolitionist preachers continually emphasized, criticizing the greed, sloth and lust inherent in the culture of slavery and plantation life, and was an accusation of which Southern slaveholders, especially evangelicals took umbrage, for in their understanding good men could own slaves. Their defense was rooted in their theology. The hyper-individualistic language of Southern evangelicalism gave “new life to the claim that good men could hold slaves. Slaveholding was a traditional mark of success, and a moral defense of slavery was implicit wherever Americans who considered themselves good Christians held slaves.” [17] The hedonism and fundamentalism that existed in the Southern soul, was the “same conservative faith which inspired John Brown to violence in an attempt to abolish slavery…” [18]

Slave owners frequently expressed hostility to independent black churches and conducted violence against them, and “attacks on clandestine prayer meetings were not arbitrary. They reflected the assumption (as one Mississippi slave put it) “that when colored people were praying [by themselves] it was against them.” [19] But some Southern blacks accepted the basic tenets of slave owner-planter sponsored Christianity. Frederick Douglass later wrote “many good, religious colored people who were under the delusion that God required them to submit to slavery and wear their chains with weakness and humility.” [20]

The political and cultural rift began to affect entire church denominations. The heart of the matter went directly to theology, in this case the interpretation of the Bible in American churches.  The American Protestant and Evangelical understanding was rooted in the key theological principle of the Protestant Reformation, that of Sola Scripura, which became an intellectual trap for northerners and southerners of various theological stripes. Southerners believed that they held a “special fidelity to the Bible and relations with God. Southerners thought abolitionists either did not understand the Bible or did not know God’s will, and suspected them of perverting both.”  [21]The problem was then, as it is now that:

 “Americans favored a commonsense understanding of the Bible that ripped passages out of context and applied them to all people at all times. Sola scriptura both set and limited terms for discussing slavery and gave apologists for the institution great advantages. The patriarchs of the Old Testament had owned slaves, Mosaic Law upheld slavery, Jesus had not condemned slavery, and the apostles had advised slaves to obey their masters – these points summed up and closed the case for many southerners and no small number of northerners.” [22]

In the early decades of the nineteenth century there existed a certain confusion and ambivalence to slavery in most denominations. The Presbyterians exemplified this when in 1818 the “General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, while opposing slavery against the law of God, also went on record as opposing abolition, and deposed a minister for advocating abolition.” [23] There were arguments by some American Christians including some Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians and others to offer alternative ways to “interpreting and applying scripture to the slavery question,  but none were convincing or influential enough to force debate”  [24] out of the hands of literalists.

However the real schisms between the Northern and Southern branches of the major denominations which began to emerge in the mid to late 1830s continued to grow with the actual breakups of the major denominations coming in the 1840s. The first denomination to split was the Methodist church. This occurred in 1844 when “the Methodist General Conference condemned the bishop of Georgia for holding slaves, the church split and the following year saw the birth of the Methodist Episcopal Church.” [25] Not all Methodists in the South agreed with this split and a few Methodist abolitionists in the South “broke away from mainline Methodism to form the Free Methodist Church.” [26]

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The Baptists were next, when the Foreign Mission Board “refused to commission a candidate who had been recommended by the Georgia Baptist Convention, on the ground that he owned slaves” [27] resulting in the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Baptist split is interesting because until the early 1800s there existed a fairly strong anti-slavery movement in states such as Kentucky, while in 1790 the General Committee of Virginia “adopted a statement calling slavery “a violent deprivation of the rights of nature, and inconsistent with a republican government; and therefore [we] recommend it to our brethren to make use of every legal measure, to extirpate the horrid evil from the land.”  [28]

However, in many parts of the Deep South there existed no such sentiment and in South Carolina, noted Baptist preachers including “Richard Furman, Peter Bainbridge, and Edmund Botsford were among the larger slaveholders.” [29] Furman wrote a defense of slavery in 1822 where he made the argument that “the right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures by precept and example.” [30]  After a number of slave uprisings, including the Nat Turner Revolt in Virginia, pro-slavery voices “tended to silence any remaining antislavery voices in the South.” [31]

These voices grew more ever more strident and in 1835 the Charleston Association “adopted a militant defense of slavery, sternly chastising abolitionists as “mistaken philanthropists, and denuded and mischievous fanatics.”  [32] Those who met in Augusta Georgia to found the new Southern Baptist Convention indicated that “the division was “painful” but necessary because” our brethren have pressed upon every inch of our privileges and our sacred rights.”  [33] Since the Baptist split was brought about by the refusal of the Triennial Convention to appoint slaveholders as foreign missionaries the new convention emphasized the theological nature of their decision:

“Our objects, then, are the extension of the Messiah’s kingdom, and the glory of God. Not disunion with any of his people; not the upholding of any form of civil rights; but God’s glory, and Messiah’s increasing reign; in the promotion of which, we find no necessity for relinquishing any of our civil rights. We will never interfere with what is Caesar’s. We will not compromit what is God’s.” [34]

Of course, to the Baptists who met at Augusta, “what was Caesar’s” was obviously the institution of slavery.

The last denomination to officially split was the Presbyterians in 1861 who, “reflecting the division of the nation, the Southern presbyteries withdrew from the Presbyterian Church and founded their own denomination.” [35] The split in the Presbyterian Church had been obvious for years despite their outward unity. Princeton’s eminent Charles Hodge tried to be a peacemaker in the denomination warning of the dangers of disunion. He wrote, “If we are to be plunged into the horrors of civil war and servile insurrections, no tongue can tell how the cause of the Redeemer must suffer throughout our whole land.” [36] But like many conservatives of his time Hodge was misguided in thinking that moderates could prevail and that a sentimental attachment to the Union would prevent secession and war.

Some Southern pastors and theologians were at the forefront of battling their northern counterparts for the theological high ground that defined just whose side God was on. James Henley Thornwell presented the conflict between northern evangelical abolitionists and southern evangelical defenders of slavery in Manichean terms, a battle between Christianity and Atheism, and he believed that abolitionists attacked religion itself.

Robert Lewis Dabney, a southern Presbyterian pastor who later served as Chief of Staff to Stonewall Jackson in the Valley Campaign and at Seven Pines and who remained a defender of slavery long after the war was over wrote that:

“we must go before the nation with the Bible as the text and ‘Thus saith the Lord’ as the answer….we know that on the Bible argument the abolition party will be driven to reveal their true infidel tendencies. The Bible being bound to stand on our side, they have to come out and array themselves against the Bible. And then the whole body of sincere believers at the North will have to array themselves, though unwillingly, on our side. They will prefer the Bible to abolitionism.” [37]

Southern churches and church leaders were among the most enthusiastic voices for disunion and secession. They labeled their Northern critics, even fellow evangelicals in the abolition movement as “atheists, infidels, communists, free-lovers, Bible-haters, and anti-Christian levelers.”  [38] The preachers who had called for separation from their own national denominations years before the war now “summoned their congregations to leave the foul Union and then to cleanse their world.” [39] Thomas R.R. Cobb, a Georgia lawyer, an outspoken advocate of slavery and secession who was killed at the Battle of Fredericksburg, wrote proudly that Secession “has been accomplished mainly by the churches.” [40]

The Reverend William Leacock of Christ Church, New Orleans declared in his Thanksgiving sermon of 1860: “Our enemies…have “defamed” our characters, “lacerated” our feelings, “invaded “our rights, “stolen” our property, and let “murderers…loose upon us, stimulated by weak or designing or infidel preachers. With “the deepest and blackest malice,” they have “proscribed” us “as unworthy members… of the society of men and accursed before God.”  Unless we sink to “craven” beginning that they “not disturb us,…nothing is now left us but secession.” [41]

The fact that so many Protestant ministers, intellectuals, and theologians, not only Southerners, but men like “Princeton’s venerable theologian Charles B. Hodge – supported the institution of slavery on biblical grounds, often dismissing abolitionists as liberal progressives who did not take the Bible seriously” leaves a troubling question over those who claim to oppose issues on supposedly Biblical grounds. There were many such men in the North who spoke out for it and against Christian Abolitionists “in order to protect and promote interests concomitant to slavery, namely biblical traditionalism, and social and theological authority.” [42] The Northern clerical defenders of slavery perceived the spread of abolitionist preaching as a threat, not just to slavery “but also to the very principle of social and ecclesiastical hierarchy.” [43] Alistair McGrath asks a very important question for modern Christians who might be tempted to support a position for the same reasons today, “Might not the same mistakes be made all over again, this time over another issue?” [44]

Notes

[1] Furman, Richard Exposition of the Views of Baptists, Relative to the Coloured Population in the United States May 28th 1823, In Communication the Governor of South Carolina, Second Edition A.E. Miller, Charleston SC 1838 retrieved from http://faceweb.furman.edu/~benson/docs/rcd-fmn1.htm 15 July 2016

[2] Ibid. Zinn A People’s History of the United States pp.29-30

[3] Ibid. Gonzalez The History of Christianity Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day Harper p.219

[4] Ibid. Gonzalez The History of Christianity Volume 2: pp.219-220

[5] Gallagher, Gary W. The Confederate War: How Popular Will, Nationalism and Military Strategy Could not Stave Off Defeat Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London 1999 p.67

[6] Ibid. McGrath Christianity’s Dangerous Idea p.324

[7] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.69

[8] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation 1861-1865 p.4

[9] Ibid. McGrath Christianity’s Dangerous Idea p.324

[10] Ibid. Varon Disunion! p.109

[11] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One p.29

[12] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One p.29

[13] Ibid. Gonzalez The History of Christianity Volume 2: p.251

[14] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.54

[15] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.22

[16] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.22

[17] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.30

[18] Ibid. Thomas The Confederate Nation p.22

[19] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.116

[20] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.116

[21] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom p.60

[22] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples  p.14

[23] Ibid. Gonzalez The History of Christianity Volume 2 p.251

[24] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples  p.14

[25] Ibid. Gonzalez The History of Christianity Volume 2 p.251

[26] Ibid. McGrath Christianity’s Dangerous Idea p.324

[27] Ibid. Gonzalez The History of Christianity Volume 2 p.251

[28] Ibid. McBeth The Baptist Heritage p.383

[29] Ibid. McBeth The Baptist Heritage p.384

[30] Ibid. McBeth The Baptist Heritage p.384

[31] Ibid. McBeth The Baptist Heritage p.384

[32] Ibid. McBeth The Baptist Heritage p.384

[33] Shurden, Walter B Not a Silent People: The Controversies that Have Shaped Southern Baptists Broadman Press, Nashville TN 1972 p.58

[34] Ibid. Shurden Not a Silent People p.58

[35] Ibid. Gonzalez The History of Christianity Volume 2 p.251

[36] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples p.13

[37] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples  p.14

[38] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom  p.97

[39] Freehling, William. The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2007 p.460

[40] Ibid. Rable God’s Almost Chosen Peoples  p.39

[41] Ibid. Freehling  The Road to Disunion Volume II p.462

[42] Ibid. Daly When Slavery Was Called Freedom  p.38

[43] Ibid. Varon Disunion! P.108

[44] Ibid. McGrath Christianity’s Dangerous Idea p.324

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“To Gain Exclusive Control over the Franchise…” The Goal of the Christian Right

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Atticus Finch, the hero of the book and film To Kill a Mockingbird said: 

“Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of (another)… There are just some kind of men who – who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.”

I think that most people like to believe that religion is a benign or positive influence in the world. As much as I want to believe the positive aspects I have to admit based on the historical and sociological evidence that this is not so, especially during unsettled times of great change. We live in such an era and when it comes to identity, God is the ultimate trump card.

If one wonders why the most fanatical individuals and groups on earth are tied to religions, whether it is the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Hezbollah, Orthodox Jews, radical Hindus and Buddhists as well as militant Christians. Of course all of these groups have different goals, and some are less violent than the others, but their overall thoughts and philosophy are quite similar: they desire to impose their religious authority on others using the means of the state or if they cannot gain control of government, through terror.

Robert Heinlein wrote:

“Almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so.”

Heinlein, the author of the classic Starship Troopers was absolutely correct. Just look at any place in any time where any religion, sect or cult has gained control of a government. They are not loving, they are not forgiving and they use the police power of the state to persecute any individual or group that is judged to be in error, or even worse has the gall to question their authority. Samuel Huntington wrote in his book The Clash of Civilizations:

“Whatever universalist goals they may have, religions give people identity by positing a basic distinction between believers and non-believers, between a superior in-group and a different and inferior out-group.”

That distinction is on display all over the world and in our own country when conservative Christians write laws that allow them the right to discriminate against other people based solely on their religious beliefs and to secure themselves the preeminent position in society. Gary North, one of the most eloquent expositors of the Christian Dominionist movement and a long time adviser to Ron and Rand Paul and other conservative Christian politicians wrote:

“The long-term goal of Christians in politics should be to gain exclusive control over the franchise. Those who refuse to submit publicly to the eternal sanctions of God by submitting to His Church’s public marks of the covenant–baptism and holy communion–must be denied citizenship, just as they were in ancient Israel.”

Huntington was right, you see the true believers, those who follow their religion without question and believe that it is superior to all others also believe that their religion entitles them to be atop the food chain, others who don’t believe like them be damned both in this life and the next. That is the certitude of the true believer, especially the religious one. Secular or atheistic fanatics could care less about the next life, for this life is all that they have. But the religious “true believers” are not only interested in destroying someone in this life, but ensuring that in the next that they suffer for eternity, unless they believe in the annihilation of the soul after death, which really spoils the whole Dante’s Inferno perspective of the damned in the afterlife.

The great American philosopher, Eric Hoffer wrote:

“The impression somehow prevails that the true believer, particularly the religious individual, is a humble person. The truth is the surrendering and humbling of the self breed pride and arrogance. The true believer is apt to see himself as one of the chosen, the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a prince disguised in meekness, who is destined to inherit the earth and the kingdom of heaven too. He who is not of his faith is evil; he who will not listen will perish.”

That is why they, the religious true believers of any faith are capable of such great evil, and why such people can murder innocents in the most brutal manner simply because they do not believe correctly. Sadly it seems that conservative American Christians will get their chance to do their worst under the Presidency of Donald Trump unless they are fought at every turn and people of all faiths protest so strongly that President Trump is forced to disown them and their tactics.

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Do as We Say to Trump, Not as We Did to Obama: Conservative Christian Sanctimony on Display

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It is the end of the Holiday season, or should I better say in the post-war on Christmas world of Donald Trump, the Christmas season. I find that this season is perhaps the most sanctimonious time of the year: this is especially true for many politically driven conservative Christians who when not fighting the imaginary “war on Christmas,” attacking Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton, condemning Gays to Hell, or urging that Muslims be banned from the country, all the while urging military action to destroy Muslims wherever they live around the world, insist that their opponents who criticize President Elect Trump to shut up.

What I am talking about is the plethora of self-proclaimed Christian preachers, pundits, politicians, and even regular people who are insisting that Donald Trump’s opponents stop criticizing him and instead support and pray for him. Now don’t get me wrong, I will pray for the soon to be President for the good of the country, and of course as a military officer I will do my duty as is stated in my oath of office. Really, I don’t want the man to screw up, if he screws up we’re all screwed. That being said I’m very concerned so many things that he has said and done in the past and that he appears not to have changed one iota since his election. I am worried, but I do hope and pray for the best.

But that being said let me get back the blatant sanctimonious hypocrisy of Christians who demand that their opponent’s, who criticize Trump abide by a code that they never did from day one of the Obama Presidency. In fact every one of these people were incredibly disrespectfully and intolerant of President Obama, and I dare say mostly because he is black. They declared him illegitimate on day one, and the day of his inauguration their Congressional leaders declared their intent to make his a failed presidency. The surge in blatantly racist remarks was unbelievable to me because I falsely believed that we had become a better country in terms of race relations. These attacks, comments, and libelous statements by these Christians have continued even until today. Now, these same people have the nerve to criticize people who criticize Trump for things that actually do matter to the country.

pslam-109-obama

Of all of Barak Obama’s opponents, politically consumed conservative Christians have been the most reprehensible in their conduct. Now they demand others do something that they never did, or intended to do. Many even urged others to pray imprecatory psalms calling on God to bring about President Obama and his family’s deaths. They say to stop criticizing, be respectful, pray for and support Donald Trump, while never for a moment doing the same to President Obama. That bothers me, because it’s the classic do as I say, not as I do attitude that is killing the Christian church in this country. I’m sorry folks, Donald Trump will not stop the fact that people are fleeing the church in record numbers and that the fastest growing religious identification is the “nones,” or those who want nothing of organized religion; in fact his presidency may increase that as conservative Christians try to use his administration to impose their beliefs on others.

So stop the hypocritical sanctimony. It’s still a free country, at least for a while.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

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The One Truly Essential Wall: Separation of Church and State

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I don’t know about you but I am sick and tired of people, no matter what their religious belief in this country who use the Constitutionally protections extended to religious freedom in manners that the founders of our country never would have imagined. The fact that those basic religious freedoms are not in danger in any way is irrelevant to true believers.  In their insecurity such people need to create new laws specifically crafted to allow them to discriminate against others based on their religious beliefs.

Sadly, and I say this as a Christian, the vast majority of people doing this are people that claim to be Christians and in a few weeks they will have the chance to use not only state and local governments to do their bidding but the Federal Government and quite possibly the Supreme Court. It is a situation that those who founded our country fought against, and even addressed the matter in the Constitution and in their correspondence.

Thomas Jefferson was first among these men. In his wonderful letter to the Virginia Baptist Association in 1808, in a letter the echoed his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of of 1802 in which he referred that the legislature in enacting the dual provisions of religious liberty in the Constitution had built up “a wall of separation between Church and State” noted:

“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 to support themselves and force their views of other faiths, or no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Morever, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people, and leads to corruption in religion itself. Erecting the “wall of separation between church and state,” therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.” 

You see my friends, Jefferson and the other courageous men who so carefully crafted this wall of separation had real experience with the abuses by church-state and the incestuous clergy who used state power to prop up themselves and their churches and to persecution those that refused to submit to their control. Likewise there were religious groups in the recently independent former colonies like the Baptists who in Virginia and other states, as well as the Quakers in Massachusetts who were victims of such persecution, and they were determined not to let it happen here through the marriage of church and state.

In fact Jefferson was absolutely convinced that no specific God or religion be established: not only in the Constitution of the United States, but in his own home state, the Commonwealth of Virginia. There Jefferson authored the Virginia a religious liberty bill which was passed, but which met with considerable opposition from faithful Christians. Reflecting on that legislation Jefferson wrote this in 1821:

“[When] the [Virginia] bill for the establishment of religious freedom…was finally passed,…a singular proposition proved that it’s protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.” The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend within the mantle of its protection the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahamoten, the Hindoo and the infidel of every denomination.”

Sadly, Jefferson’s words are twisted, rejected and even despised by the authors of the Religious Liberty Restoration Acts being enacted in state houses around the country.  President-Elect Trump, whose actual understanding of Constitutional liberties is minimal, has promised to sign into law a bill called First Amendment Defense Act. Not only are the state legislatures enacting laws meant only to provide Christians the  protection and the police power of the state to discriminate against any person, or group based on religious belief, something that so so-called First Amendment Defense Act will do at the Federal level. I believe that he will sign it based on the preachers he has speaking or praying at his inaugural, all of who are proponents of enhancing the rights of Christians to discriminate based solely on their religious beliefs, and to limit the civil rights of those they oppose. Call it theocracy, something better suited to Tehran or Riyahd than the United States.

Our founders, especially Jefferson and Madison who have found that incomprehensible, but then they would certainly not be surprised because they had seen it and lived under it during the English Administration of the colonies. They also understood human nature very well.

Thus I think that we should applaud Thomas Jefferson and like Christopher Hitchens exclaim “Mr. Jefferson. BUILD UP THAT WALL!” 

However that wall is being torn down by the descendants of Christians who longed to be free from the coercion and evil wrought by the marriage of church and state, a marriage which Jefferson so wisely noted harmed the church as much as the state.

I have spent the better part of my adult life as a military chaplain defending and protecting the rights of others to their free exercise of religion on whether or not I agreed with them. I held and still hold that to be a sacred duty of my commission and office. I can also state that even most people who did not agree with regarding my beliefs respected me and still consult me because first they knew that I cared about them and secondly that they knew that I would do all within my power to protect their freedom the exercise their religion, or to have no religion and not to be penalized for it.

But that being said I have found that I am increasingly isolated by the fervent religionists who have highjacked the understanding of religious freedom to mean theirs and only theirs and who use the battering ram of the legislature to destroy Mr. Jefferson’s “Wall.” Sadly they are to blind to see that their actions are a two-edged sword which once precedence has been established can be turned on them with a vengeance. I and other chaplains who come from more moderate or liberal traditions that have long embraced both the Social Gospel, the Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, and LGBTQ Rights movements have been long shunned by many of our conservative or fundamentalist colleagues. I have no doubt that in the coming administration that this will become more common and that we may find ourselves punished for speaking our beliefs. Old guys like me will probably be okay and just retire, but but the young progressive chaplains will have a difficult time.

One of my favorite television series of all times is Boston Legal. My favorite character in the show is the lawyer played by James Spader, one Alan Shore. In the episode Whose God is it Anyway  Spader’s character is defending a friend form charges or religious discrimination in the workplace, and his character, Alan Shore delivers this remarkable closing, which because of the unrelenting actions of many of my Christian Brothers and Sisters in putting their rights and privileges as Christians over those of other citizens. That my friends is profoundly dangerous.

By doing so they through their intense hubris not only harm others as they attempt to control them by the police power of the state but damage their own credibility and the religious liberty of Americans yet to be born. It is no wonder that this generation of American Christianity is shedding members at a rate never seen in this country before, and driving those who they might want to bring to faith away. But I digress…

There is a bit of dialogue in that episode of Boston Legal that I wish I had thought of and said years ago. I am certain that if  Jefferson, Madison and so many of our founders would agree with if they had lived to see the depths of dishonesty of Christian individuals, businesses and legislatures have sunk in their abuse of others through their unremitting pursuit of their religious freedom. That is not just at home where they enact laws allowing them to discriminate, but through their apocalyptic machinations to bring the world to war killing billions of people just so Jesus will come back. Though they would deny it, their ultimate goals, albeit in the name of a different  God, are little different than that the Islamic State, Al Qaida, the Iranian Mullahs or Hezbollah. That my friends should scare the living shit out of any rational person.

So here is that closing:

“I don’t know about you but I’m getting a little tired of the religious freedom thing. When did religion get such a good name anyway. Be it the Crusades, the reformation genocides, the troubles in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, mass slaughters in the name of Allah, the obligatory reciprocal retributions. Hundreds of millions have died in religious conflicts. Hitler did his business in the name of his creator. Religious extremism, it’s our greatest threat today, a holy jihad. If we’re not ready to strip religion of its sacred cow status, how about we at least scale back on the Constitutional dogma exalting it as all get out….

Everyone should get to believe in his God, pray to his God, worship his God of course. But to impose him on others, to victimize others in his name?  The founding fathers set out to prevent persecution, not license it…

At a certain point we have to say “enough with this freedom of religion crap. Yuck, yuck, yuck. I know, I’ll get letters….” 

To that I can only say “Amen!”

So with that I bid you a good day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Time to Stand Against Hatred

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Over the past five years or so I have found myself becoming an activist. I am a straight ally of the LGBTQ community and I am becoming even more of one now with the surge of violence and threats directed at LGBTQ people and others in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. In quite a few of these incidents the perpetrators cite Trump’s victory for their actions. A young man I know was had his life threatened in his workplace recently and due to the circumstances I helped link him up with people who could help. My friend who is leading this effort told me that incidents like this are happening all over the country and that many of the people being harassed, assaulted, or having their homes, cars, or other property vandalized, are younger people who don’t fully understand their legal rights. This is not just happening to LGBTQ people, but other minorities and women. The hatred of the perpetrators is immense and is not going away anytime soon and it is not limited to fringe groups of professional anti-Gay protesters like Westboro Baptist Church (pictured above). 

Last year I took the time to re-read the late Randy Shilts’ book about the beginning of the AIDS crisis, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. As I did so I was struck by a single sentence “Prejudice makes prisoners of both the hated and the hater.”

In the book, Shilts, a journalist and author, discussed the impact of hatred on people. The part of the book I was reading was about the release from prison of Dan White, the San Francisco city councilman who murdered the legendary Gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone on January 7th 1984.

Shilts reflected on how reciprocal hatred between White, his militant-anti-Gay supporters, and the Gay community harmed the whole community, and the response to the AIDS epidemic. The Gay community was angry, and rightly so, about how White who had killed Milk and Moscone in cold blood based was acquitted of the First Degree Murder charge on the ludicrous defense diminished capacity based on White’s being consumption of Hostess Twinkies. That anger was compounded by how many Gays felt about the AIDS epidemic, which at the time the cause was still unknown, and which most government agencies were ignoring.  When White was released, angry Gays protested, some even calling for White’s death. White was out of prison but he was a prisoner of his actions, he killed himself a number of months later.

Shilts wrote, “Prejudice makes prisoners of both the hated and the hater.” In regard to White, Shilts echoed the words of Thornton Wilder who wrote, “There is no need for me to curse you -the murderer survives the victim only to learn that it was himself that he longed to be rid of. Hatred is self-hatred.”

At the time neither the Gay community, nor their opponents, especially conservative Christians could get around the hate. Many people, including men like Gary Bauer, a current leader of the Christian Right who was then an adviser to Ronald Reagan, believed that believed AIDS was God’s judgment upon Gays and fought against public health measures and research. A number of President Elect Trump’s cabinet nominees are stridently anti-Gay and have supported policies of overt discrimination against the LGBTQ people, and one, Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos, a very conservative Evangelical Christian, off contact with her brother in the 1990s when he came out as Gay and revealed that he had AIDS. 

Sadly, despite all the advances in civil rights that the Gay community has fought for and earned, there are still those who hate them just for being different.

When I read Shilts’s words I was struck with just how timeless they were. While Shilts was discussing the experience of the Gay community in 1984, the lesson can be applied in almost every instance where there is anger about real or perceived injustice; as well as in times like today when societies are deeply divided along political, ideological, racial, or religious lines.

As the numbers of hate crimes directed at LGBTQ people mount, we are beginning to realize that his words are truly timeless. It is time for people, including straight people and Christians to speak up for the civil and human rights of people in the LGBTQ community. If we don’t we will be as guilty as those did not speak up so many other times in history when minorities were persecuted and even killed because they were different or viewed as less than human. It is time to stand. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Lure of Trump’s Cross of Gold

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

In the post-election euphoria of the prosperity preachers who very Donald Trump as a political savior, and the President Elect’s stacking of his cabinet with billionaires of the first order, most of whom have no experience in the cabinet positions or are opposed to the missions of the departments they are to head one wonders what the 80% plus of self-identified Evangelical of Conservative Christians were thinking. But then, the answer is not that hard to find. For decades many of these people have been taught by their leaders that government policies that actually protect and benefit them are evil, and that God himself is basically a survival of the fittest Social Darwinist, that is basically the Gospel that they have been taught for decades. I used to be a clergyman in a denomination where many people believed and practiced such a faith.

So let me ask if you remember when conservative Christian politicians and preachers actually supported working people? I am not kidding, there was a time when some did exactly that and did so in the highest reaches of their political parties. Unlike today’s preachers they were not just lobbying for more tax cuts for the most wealthy, and extolling the job “creators” over the the people whose labor actually produces products, instead they spoke boldly on behalf of regular people. Sadly today all of the major political figures as well as most of the minor ones who claim to be “conservative Christians” have more in common with the greedy Robber Barons than one of the most celebrated conservative Christian politicians who has ever lived.

William Jennings Bryan was one of the most influential politicians of his era. Bryan served as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, he was a Senator and three time Presidential Candidate. He was also a very conservative Fundamentalist Christian perhaps most famous, or perhaps infamous now as one of the prosecuting attorneys at the Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925. In fact I can find that Bryan’s handling of that case played to the basest religious and social hatred of his day and though he thought that he was defending “Biblical” values  ended up making Christians look but small minded, intolerant and hateful. The movie Inherit the Wind, though a fictional account of that trial, shows how decent Christians can become consumed with hatred in the name of righteousness.  It is a sad thing that Bryan is most remembered for the Scopes Trial than when he bucked the political system of both the Republican and Democratic parties to speak up for workers and small businessmen. Personally I cannot imagine Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Marco Rubio or any other supposedly Christian political leader, especially the President Elect doing what Bryan did.

Whether one agrees on Bryan’s fundamentalist religious doctrine regarding the creation of the earth or the manner of how God created the earth,  one has to admit that of pre-Great Depression politicians he was quite amazing. Especially in how he saw through the Godlessness of unbridled capitalism and the devaluation of workers by valued capital over the people that actually produced anything.

As an American and a Christian I have to look at the body of work and life of a man. I don’t have to agree with all that they stood for or did and though I find much fault in Bryan and his supporters in the Scopes Trial I do not throw out the good things that he did and got right.

I think the apex of Bryan’s political thought is encapsulated in his speech at the Democratic National Convention of 1896, what is now called the Cross of Gold Speech.

When one looks at it now it really is timeless. Bryan saw through the charade that was being played out by politicians and the big money Wall Street types that they represented with great verve. It was a speech that one might have heard come from a prophet in the Old Testament.

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I am just going to quote a couple of pertinent sections from the speech to trigger the thought of anyone reading this article. I think that they could be spoken today in light of the way that many conservative Christians both Evangelical and Fundamentalist Protestants, Roman Catholics and those that preach the so called “Prosperity Gospel” have thrown their support behind ideas that are nothing more than unvarnished, crude materialism of the worst kind. In fact I believe that it is nothing more than the “baptism” of such thought by Christians are among the biggest reasons for the massive exodus of people from the churches and the rise of the “Nones,” or those with no religious preference.

Bryan said:

“We say to you that you have made the definition of a business man too limited in its application. The man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as his employer; the attorney in a country town is as much a business man as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis; the merchant at the cross-roads store is as much a business man as the merchant of New York; the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, who begins in spring and toils all summer, and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a business man as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain; the miners who go down a thousand feet into the earth, or climb two thousand feet upon the cliffs, and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured into the channels of trade are as much business men as the few financial magnates who, in a back room, corner the money of the world. We come to speak of this broader class of business men.”

His words are striking in their directness and honesty. They are not only Christian but they are deeply American. He called on his Democratic party, which had been as bad as the Republicans during the age of the unregulated Robber Barons who used the Gold Standard to manipulate the markets and eliminate silver as currency to their benefit to be different:

“Upon which side will the Democratic Party fight; upon the side of “the idle holders of idle capital” or upon the side of “the struggling masses”? That is the question which the party must answer first, and then it must be answered by each individual hereafter. The sympathies of the Democratic Party, as shown by the platform, are on the side of the struggling masses, who have ever been the foundation of the Democratic Party.”

His arguments could be called true Christian populism. Bryan talked about two ideas of diametrically opposed types of government and economics:

“There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them.”

He concluded his speech with this statement.

“Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, the laboring interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

When I hear the unholy trinity of politicians, pundits and preachers who extol the virtue of capital over labor and the worship of wealth as the highest good I wish that there would be some that would remember that the people who actually make things, grow things, fix things and maintain things are not just human capital, but people.

Despite his rigid anti-science beliefs, as well as his often pro-Jim Crow positions, one almost wishes for the day that a man like William Jennings Bryant spoke for Christians rather than seeing Christians throw themselves at the feet of a man who has pulled the wool over their eyes, emasculated them, and will doom them and their churches to irrelevancy as more and more people abandon the the Christian faith.

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Today that unholy trinity is poised to take over every branch of the Federal Government because of the fact that Evangelical and Conservative Christians abandoned all principle to elect a man who despite his words during the campaign has a history of standing against everything that they believe. And after all, it is people that matter and sadly that doesn’t seem to matter to the sycophants who cheer every word of the President Elect even as he and his billionaire cabinet members enact policy after policy that will destroy them.

That is something to think about.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Two Types of Faith: Fiendish Sadistic Cruelty or Mercy and Justice

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The great Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once wrote, “Religion carries two sorts of people in two entirely opposite directions: the mild and gentle people it carries towards mercy and justice; the persecuting people it carries into fiendish sadistic cruelty…” 

As I watch the reaction of many people who call themselves Christians in the wake of Donald Trump’s election I find much truth in Whitehead’s words. I feel that what has posed as Christianity in the United States has been revealed as a sham; a way for religious leaders to enrich themselves and gain power even if it means forsaking the Gospel to do so.

Those who follow my writings know how much I struggle with faith and doubt on a daily basis. I believe, but as the man told Jesus when he asked Jesus to heal his child “I believe, help my unbelief.” I no longer believe in the “absolute truths” that I once believed. Of course to some this makes me a heretic or worse. That being said, I have faith in a God I cannot see. I have faith in a God who clothes himself in human weakness and allows himself to be killed based on the trumped up charges of corrupt and fearful religious leaders. Thus I have a problem with Christians or members of other religions try to use the police power of state to enforce their beliefs on others, something that is about to become reality in our country.

I believe, but my doubts are all too real. Frankly I cringe when I hear religious people speaking with absolute certitude about things that they ultimately cannot prove, and that includes the concept of justice, which cannot always be measured in absolutes. Captain Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) noted in the Star Trek the Next Generation episode Justice: 

“I don’t know how to communicate this, or even if it is possible. But the question of justice has concerned me greatly of late. And I say to any creature who may be listening, there can be no justice so long as laws are absolute. Even life itself is an exercise in exceptions.”

I have found and learned to accept that life as we know it “is an exercise in exceptions.”  We all make them, and the Bible and the history of the church is full of them. So I have a hard time with people who claim an absolute certitude in beliefs that wish to impose on others. Whitehead wrote: “There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.” Unfortunately many true believers fail to understand that fact and whenever they gain political power use it to enforce their half-truths as if they were absolute truth. This behavior is demonstrated throughout history by people who profess every religious creed in the world.

Proving Whitehead’s words, many true believers frequently wrap themselves in the certitude of their faith assuming that they are the custodians of all truth, not recognizing that they are ignorant of their very ignorance.  The true believers espouse doctrines that are unprovable and then build complex doctrinal systems to prove them, systems that then which must be defended, sometimes to the death; and may whatever God you believe in protect you should you cross them.

Eric Hoffer wrote: “A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”

Henri Nouwen wrote, “Theological formation is the gradual and often painful discovery of God’s incomprehensibility. You can be competent in many things, but you cannot be competent in God.”

No one can be competent in God, and that those who claim to be are either hopelessly deluded, or worse, are evil men masquerading as good. Those that speak of absolutes and want to use the Bible or any other religious text as some sort of rule book that they alone can interpret need to ask themselves this question, “When has justice ever been as simple as a rulebook?” 

Sadly too many people, Christians, Moslems, Jews, Hindus, and others apply their own misconceptions and prejudices to their scriptures and use them as a weapon of temporal and divine judgement on all who they oppose. However, as history, life and even our scriptures testify, that none of us can absolutely claim to know the absolutes of God. As Captain Picard noted “life itself is an exercise in exceptions.” 

It takes true wisdom to know when and how to make these exceptions, wisdom based on reason, grace and mercy. Justice, is to apply the law in fairness and equity, knowing that even our best attempts can be misguided. If instead of reason we appeal to emotion, hatred, prejudice or vengeance and clothe them in the language of righteousness, what we call justice can be more evil than any evil it is supposed to correct, no matter what our motivation. Whitehead noted something that people of faith should remember and practice: “Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science. Its principles may be eternal, but the expression of those principles requires continual development.”

The temporal power of the Christians who have thrown away the Gospel to use the election of Donald Trump to to further their temporal agenda of gaining earthly power completely miss the essence of faith, and the concept of justice. They have shown themselves to be little different from the theocrats that they condemn in the Islamic world, but then the mirror can be a difficult thing to look at.

But we see it all too often, religious people and others misusing faith or ideology to condemn those they do not understand or with whom they disagree. When such people gain power they tend to expand that power into the realm of theocratic absolutism and despotism. As Captain Jean Luc Picard noted in the Start Trek Next Generation episode The Drumhead:

“We think we’ve come so far. Torture of heretics, burning of witches it’s all ancient history. Then – before you can blink an eye – suddenly it threatens to start all over again.”

That day is already here and it will become much worse before it gets better, especially since there will be little to restrain them unless the man that they sold their souls to support in order to increase their power turns on them; and that is always a possibility with Donald Trump.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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