It’s hardly a secret that certain elements in the United States desire to overturn the Constitution and bring America to a theocratic form of government, in the process turning the clock back on the European Enlightenment and re-writing the history of the past thousand years or so.
The process has already begun. The United States dodged a bullet during the Bush administration, when dominionists came closest to controlling the government. It was a near thing and while one would think the election of a left-leaning centrist president would put the brakes on the drift, it has not. The Religious Right is as potent a force as ever.
Though Evangelicals comprise only about 25% of the population, and extremists/fundamentalists only about half that, their influence is all out of proportion with their numbers thanks to their wealth and their positions in government. Eight years of owning an administration did not hurt their cause at all, however much they might complain after the fact.
Today, xenophobia and Islamophobia have become central to the conservative platform. We are told that Sharia Law threatens to overturn our Constitution, but it is not Sharia Law that we are threatened with but Mosaic Law, which to all intents in purposes is identical, save for the name of the god involved, and who will be calling the shots.
For those who are either irreligious or follow spiritual paths other than Christianity, one is as bad as the other, and neither of these essentially Bronze Age law codes has any place in a modern liberal democracy which enshrines ideas of diversity, pluralism, and individual human rights. It must be remembered that the Old Testament enshrines none of these things. The Mosaic Law is not about rights but about obligations and restrictions; it is not inclusive but exclusive.
Where does this drift leave those belonging to alternative religions, minority groups like modern Paganism, which itself is a diverse collection of spiritual paths? Clearly, a theocracy – Christian or Islamic – is not to be desired. Pagan religion was suppressed for many centuries. As late as the 18th century, some American colonies had law codes as repressive as the fifth century Theodosian Code. A prison term awaited anyone who denied the Trinity or the Scriptures.
The American Revolution and the Constitution that was its aftermath, that was the highest development of the European Enlightenment, changed all that. State sponsored religion, that scourge of the Old World, was banished from these shores by liberalism and its victory over the status quo.
So modern conservative Christians want to turn the clock back, and to a period that left Paganism – or any other religion, even other monotheisms – outlawed. Do not forget that in the early days of the colonies both Catholicism and Judaism were outlawed. Do not forget that some of these prejudices remained so ingrained that the United States did not get its first Catholic president until John F. Kennedy in 1961. He remains our only Catholic president.
The religious landscape of America has changed greatly since the 18th century, when most Americans were Protestants of one denomination or another. We have more Catholics (of many varieties) and more Jews and we have Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and others, including Pagans. That this religious diversity did not emerge until state-sponsored religion was banished is no accident and no mystery.
Historian A.H. Armstrong relates for us the legacy of Christian intolerance:
The choice of the way of intolerance by the authorities of Church and empire in the late fourth century has had some very serious and lasting consequences. The last vestiges of its practical effects, in the form of the imposition of at least petty and vexatious disabilities on forms of religion not approved by the local ecclesiastical establishment, lasted in some European countries well into my lifetime. And theoretical approval of this sort of intolerance has often long outlasted the power to apply it in practice. After all, as late as 1945 many approved Roman Catholic theologians in England, and the Roman authorities, objected to a statement on religious freedom very close to Vatican II’s declaration on that subject.
If this is not damning enough, Armstrong goes on to say,
In general, I do not think that any Christian body has ever abandoned the power to persecute and repress while it actually had it. The acceptance of religious tolerance and freedom as good in themselves has normally been the belated, though sometimes sincere and whole-hearted, recognition and acceptance of a fait accompli. This long persistence of Theodosian intolerance in practice and its still longer persistence in theory has certainly been a cause, though not the only cause, of that unique phenomenon of our time, the decline not only of Christianity but all forms of religious belief and the growth of a totally irreligious and unspiritual materialism.
Conservative Christianity has driven people away from traditional religion but it has not forgotten them, and has in the process created a whole new group of non-believers known as atheists who find religion reprehensible. By religion, of course, they mean religion in the Christian sense. But alternative religions – unfairly – share the fallout. Religion in the modern sense has become the problem. In the ancient world, religion was the solution, transcending cultural and ethnic barriers and bringing people of diverse beliefs together. It can be that way again. There is no reason religion has to remain defined solely by one restrictive group of believers.
But only if theocracy is kept at bay. The threat is real. More than a few Republican candidates belief that the Ten Commandments should be legislated into law. They speak openly of bringing prayer back into school, and of making social work the sole domain of Christian groups, which would make all needy Americans victims of unwanted proselytizing, of re-writing school textbooks to bring them in line with conservative ideology, of teaching Christian creationism in our public schools. In ways large and small, all over America, the First Amendment of the Constitution is under attack.
It is essential, I think, for Pagans of all religious minorities in this country, to remember their history, and if they do not know it, to learn it. We have everything to lose and nothing to gain by a rightward turn in matters of religion. We can argue about conservative and liberal politics and until conservative politics became so closely tied up with conservative Christianity, these did not matter so much where the First Amendment is concerned. But until the Republican Party divorces the Religious Right, religious minorities must remain on their guard.