Oct 072010

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.

  29 Responses to “Pagans and the New American Theocracy”

  1. Good post. Glad to have you back, Hrafnkell.

  2. Thank you, Eran! I appreciate the welcome. I wish I could have thought of a more cheery subject to write about but too few people appreciate the threat of fundamentalism of the American variety.

  3. Good to see you back in the saddle. You were missed.

  4. I agree with your post, Hrafnkell, apart from a minor historical slip. (Some states had established churches at the time of the Revolution, and the First Amendment establishment clause was worded to make the federal government leave them alone. Those churches have since been disestablished.)

    Violations of the First Amendment religion clauses, against Pagans or anyone else, are usually on the local level, and the victims often can’t affort to mount a court challenge, let alone several levels of appeal. What we need is a Pagan billionaire to fund such challenges so that no zoning board malfeasance, high-school pentagram prohibition, stealth school prayer, etc, goes unchallenged. This would force awareness of the scope of the First Amendment where ignorance of it is most entrenched. Any takers?

    • Yes, they did, Baruch and I should have chosen my words more carefully. However, it was still the First Amendment that made this disestablishment possible as it was later extended beyond the federal government. Thank you for setting the record straight.

      The Religious Right is incredibly wealthy and they use their wealth like a sledge-hammer. As you say, we could use a few rich folks of our own, or perhaps the establishment of some sort of legal defense fund or organization.

      At the very list, we owe it to ourselves and to our fellow citizens to increase awareness of the risks and threats involved and the extent to which they affect all Americans, not just those who are members of religious minorities.

      • Pagan Anti-Defamation League?

        • I like the idea, but not the name. I’d like Pagan/Heathen in there instead of just pagan. It’ll get more support. Also, we can’t have “Pagan Anti-Defamation League” because the acronym PADL will be pronounced “paddle”, and my mind is just too dirty to take that seriously. :)

          How about the Pagan-Heathen Alliance for Equality?

          • Pam, I’m with you on the acronym. That’s a questionable one. As long as no one mistakes the other acronym for a diuretic :)

            • Actually, Pagan-Heathen Alliance for Equality would work well as an acryonym, if you make PH- a F- sound (like PHone) you’d get PHAE (fae/fay). Might draw even more attention. :)

        • We used to have one, though under a slightly different name… It was first known as WADL(Witches’ Anti-Defamation League) and later(so as not to step on the toes of other organizations) was renamed WARD(Witches Against Religious Discrimination). Sadly, WARD disbanded several years ago, and to my knowledge no similar organization has risen to take its place.

          • I’m certain it takes a great deal of effort and commitment to keep a project like that alive and the current economic conditions would certainly not help getting one off the ground now. The whole question makes me wonder how many lawyers out there are Pagans….

          • There was also once an “Aquarian Anti-Defamation League” out there.

            Stories have gone around, that the Jewish Anti-Defamation League has sued other organizations for using those last three words in their group’s names.

            • Interesting, Ananta. I wonder if there is anything to those stories…How about the Pagan Tolerance Association? (PTA)? LOL Oh snap! That’s taken too.

            • Don’t forget we do have the Lady Liberty League! Active, persistent and successful in the courts all across the country. Not to mention taking on some of the federal governments “big dogs” (the VA with the Pentacle Project most recently) and winning.

              While more such groups would be very welcome, let’s not over look the fine work of those currently in operation…

  5. A recent Pew study found that 40% of American Christians reject the concept of “separation of church and state”, while 25% support the idea of establishing Christianity as the state religion in the US. This is from their 2006 report on Pentecostalism, in which they also gathered data on “all Christians” in order to contrast them with Pentecostals. For Pentecostals in the US, 64% reject separation of powers, while 52% want Christianity as the state religion. See page 206 of the full report:

    However, Christianity and Islam are two heads of the same monster. It is a cunning beast, and more than happy to smile with one of it’s mouths in order to get us to focus on the other one.

    Sharia law is a very real threat. The promotion of Sharia is one of the central concerns of Imam Rauf and his Cordoba Initiative. Sharia is now solidly entrenched in every European country with a sizable Muslim population. The more we are told not to worry about Sharia, the more suspicious we should be.

    • I agree that fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam are two heads of the same beast. But there is no evidence at all that Sharia Law is a threat to the United States, recent Republican rhetoric notwithstanding; nor is there any evidence that the Cordoba House promotes Sharia Law. People are perfectly capable of living according to Mosaic or Sharia Law without promoting it for all.

      • Sharia law is not something that people just individually and voluntarily decided to “live according to”. They have courts, with judges. People are arrested, charged, tried, and, if convicted, a sentence is handed down. The maximum penalty under Sharia law is death.

        One of the most important crimes dealt with under Sharia law is the crime of apostasy, that is, leaving Islam. In Malaysia, where the Cordoba Initiative has their other headquarters (besides the one they have in NYC), citizens are HANDED OVER BY THE CIVIL AUTHORITIES to Sharia Courts in the case of suspected apostasy!

        Malaysia also happens to be where the founding meeting of the Sharia Project was held in August of 2008, under the auspices of the Cordoba Initiative.

        • Ooops. That should have been “August of 2006″. Here is a relevant link:

          And here is a link to a London Times article on Sharia Courts in the UK:

        • You make it sound so simple. It is not. Not all Islamic countries live according to Sharia Law. Some Islamic countries are even secular, like Turkey. The Council on Foreign Relations observes that “a 2007 University of Maryland poll (http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/pdf/apr07/START_Apr07_rpt.pdf), more than 60 percent of the populations in Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan, and Indonesia responded that democracy was a good way to govern their respective countries, while at the same time, an average of 71 percent agreed with requiring “strict application of [sharia] law in every Islamic country.”

          To hear Republicans (and you) talk, that latter figure should be approaching 100%. In fact, it is little higher than the figures you referenced for Pentecostals, and the former figure should be closer to 0%.

          CFL also takes not of the following: “some Muslim scholars say that secular government is the best way to observe sharia. “Enforcing a [sharia] through coercive power of the state negates its religious nature, because Muslims would be observing the law of the state and not freely performing their religious obligation as Muslims,” says Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, a professor of law at Emory University and author of a book on the future of sharia.”

          In fact, CFL points out, “In reality, most Muslim countries do not use traditional classical Islamic punishments,” says Ali Mazrui of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies in a Voice of America interview. These punishments remain on the books in some countries but lesser penalties are often considered sufficient.”

          • You might not want to use Turkey as an example. The only reason they don’t have Sharia law is because the military has intervened to hold back the Islamists, who enjoy tremendous popular support.

            Islamists in the Muslim world generally support democracy — precisely because they enjoy so much popular support. On the other hand, autocrats in the Islamic world tend to far more liberal than the people they govern.

            For example, in Bahrain there has been a gradual process of democratization over the last decade. What has been the result? Islamic fundamentalist parties compete to outdo one another with proposing ever more extreme legislation, such as their new law against witchcraft and sorcery!

            One of the dark lessons of recent European history is that totalitarian ideologies can gain wide acceptance among “the masses”.

    • In America however Christofascism is by far the greater threat simply because there are far more Christians than Muslims here and they wield far more influence on all levels.

      • That’s it in a nutshell, tricksterson.

      • Granted. However, I don’t think we should – or need to – turn our backs on one creeping totalitarianism in order to face another. We should keep an eye on both the Christians and the Muslims, and try to avoid being caught in the middle, if possible.

  6. I love this piece. I would like to memorize it, so when I’m eighty (and living in a free and equal America) I can tell it to my grandchildren. It will be like scarey story time. Once upon a time there were these conservative Christians…(insert scarey noises here).
    No really, there is rewriting of history going on, very similar to desecrating temples in the past. Just erase it, then we will act like it doesn’t exist, put our own deity up, or demonize it. I was told recently by family members that the way history has been written is false, and that the textbooks have been re-written, so kids at school now are being taught false history. So now I’m on guard, because they are playing with historical fact, and putting in its place what sounds good to them, what they think happened, or just blatently changing the facts based on their own agenda. One example is Suffrage. Certain ‘elements’ are claiming women always had the right to vote. That is straight up without a doubt re-writing what happened. Another is that the forefathers were Christian. I think an interesting blog topic/article would be ‘Everything the Conservatives are Re-writing’ or ‘Conservative take on History.’ I’ve noticed they have a really hard time with logic. I think they are so use to hearing things in Sermon form that they don’t know that just because it sounds awesome and true, doesn’t mean it is. I think they are so used to hearing things stated in Biblical metaphor and linking totally unrelated things, that it is easy for them to fail to connect real cause and effect, and they are easy to ’round-up’ that way. Yes, I mean like cows.
    So my grandchildren…they will be hearing this piece, possibly at their home-school, where they will be taught math, the goings on of the Aesir, history (what really happened to the best of my knowledge), nature, english, runes, animal totems, and much more. :-)
    Yes, we need to learn our history.

    • Melanie, thank you. I think the main point the conservative Christians are missing in all the talk about our Founding Fathers was that even the Christians among them (James Madison, for example) thought church-state separation essential. The 18th century’s Evangelicals, though they thought Jefferson was an “infidel” agreed with him on this point. There doesn’t have to be a “deist” vs. “Christian” argument because pretty much all of them thought a wall of separation was a good idea. Re-writing history to make them all Christians won’t change that.

      I agree with the suffrage issue to that extent that the 19th Amendment should not have been necessary. Women should have had the right to vote all along. But demonstrably, they did not. And there is a whole publishing house – Regnery – putting out glossy volumes of re-written history – “The Politically Incorrect Guide to…” series. By comparison, we have the Progressive Book Club which offers good books, don’t get me wrong, but without the focus of the conservative versions.

      My son will be home schooling as well, under the auspices of a state pilot program, but where I will be in a position to take issue from historical revisionism should it become necessary.

      May Thor ward your own efforts.

      • You know if we could get the money to start our own parochial schools or at least some kind of joint home-schooling program (like a rotation or something) that would be a great way to make sure our kids don’t get swept up in the mess. Maybe if we can get the means to build Hofs that would be a great way to use them when not holding a blot or a sumbel.

        • I have to do more research on this.
          I’ve visited a Muslim charter school. They had it located at their mosque. I know they didn’t have any money. They were making sure their kids were not abused at public school and that they could still speak Arabic.
          I would like something like that for my daughter. I’m working on it.