Gods and Generals
Old World/New World disparity can be as different as treasured paintings on a crumbling church wall in Florence, Italy, and bulldozers leveling yet another graffiti-festooned 1970’s-era inner-city project in some big U.S. city. The Old World/New World split this magazine often deals with is one of escape: a spectrum of immigrants—refugees—fleeing religious intolerance and warfare. It is a wonderfully comforting historic image. And, yes, it’s true. But not true enough for us to have escaped history and its discomfiting realism.
Sure, we sort of remember that the initial conquest and settlement in South America had much of the flavor of Old World religious wars. If anything it was worse. Whole populations were judged to be non-human savages, unworthy of salvation, and their civilization corrupt and due to be pulled down. It was no accident that the Inquisition in Peru lingered longer than in Europe—it was needed for continued justification of religious control. Even today, religion plays a dominant role in establishing oligarchies and dictatorships.
But what about El Norte? Better here, of course. Well, yes, for those who escaped from Europe’s persecutions. Not so good for those who differed from the religious viewpoints that grew up in the New World. Quakers may have a modern-day image as religious pacifists (always problematic to me was President Nixon’s Quaker faith!), but back in Colonial days they were seen as a threat and were actually hanged as enemies of the state. And Roger Williams could and did tell a rich story about religious intolerance. The 2008 primary season may have revealed a bit of anti-Mormon bias against candidate Romney, but that was nothing compared to the extermination order issued by the governor of Illinois in the mid-1800s.
I have mulled over this matter for years and come to a few personal conclusions. First, the New World never really removed religious prejudice—simply because human beings easily tend that way, especially if they are religious (as opposed to spiritual and more Godlike in their charity to others). In Colonial times prejudice and persecution were always present—but unlike the Old World, with its petty provinces and closed societies, the New World allowed an easier escape. That escape could be to another colony or to the wilderness itself (sounds a little prophetic said that way, I know).
With the founding of the American Republic—the United States of America—came the First Amendment to its Constitution and a protection for religious expression, and a restraint against state persecution. It worked well, but not perfectly. One would have to be blind to history not to see in the Indian wars and the oft-stated government policy a determination that these were a people of savage, ungodly disposition and religion.
It was in the Civil War that the truly dangerous elements of religious prejudice kicked in. (Oh, come on, you knew by the title that we were headed this way!) I had my history courses and know that there were many contributing elements to that conflict. The South was a more closed Anglo-Saxon (British) ancestry, the North increasingly a mixing pot of cultures. The South was agrarian,the North an increasingly and technologically driven manufacturing base. These factors alone guaranteed a national crisis. But, as we know, the issue of slavery precipitated the split that led to civil war.
Today in a post-civil-rights era, with a Black U.S. president, and mumblings about reparations being the only real unresolved issue from slavery, we forget how it began. We forget that Arab slave traders traded happily in bodies that were pagan and infidel—their faith excused the practice. We might remember that the sugar cane and then cotton fields demanded lots of cheap labor, which slavery supplied. But we tend to forget that the Christian nations of Europe embraced slavery because of religious prejudice formulated in then-contemporary theology. We forget that this theology held that corrupt heathen deserved this fall from power over their own destinies, and that by enslaving them the Christian world might introduce them to a greater moral system.
Of course, such a theology was corrupt. And many rose up to challenge its so-called virtue. Their objection was more than a contributing element to a civil war that had many other facets, as well as political intrigues between the states. As John Brown famously observed, the sins of a wicked nation could be purged only by blood.
The title of this editorial repeats that of a movie on the Civil War. It was an apt title, because religion was front and foremost in the hostilities. It was a “just” war—for both sides—an irony that Abraham Lincoln noted in his second inaugural. The synthesis of this religious conflict is what has given cast to American conflicts since. Amazingly, the religious conflict resolved itself by morphing into a spiritual battle for the country itself. (If you ever want to read a well-researched explanation of this, read Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War, by Harry S. Stout [Viking Press, 2006.]) It removed theological guilt and established a God and country synonym that even today few question.
That is why we should challenge the torture assumptions that lie behind the mistreatment of enemies in the War on Terror that began after 9/11. Human beings and societies of human beings resort rather easily to torture and barbarism in wartime—of that the historical record is clear. The Romans had their crosses—the Tartar horde visited every known indignity on the villages they overran. When the Allies found the German death camps the first reaction was often to slay the guards—later we tried and executed the monsters who dreamed up such a hell. But Geneva Conventions against torture can easily come across as just modern reformulations of codes of conduct for predictable conflicts unless we have absolute moral inhibitions against visiting such mistreatment on anyone, no matter the provocation.
So why was it stated early on that we would not be bound by Geneva Conventions in this war that a secretary of defense said would last our lifetimes? Were we suddenly barbarians? I hope not. I think we instantly executed what some have called American exceptionalism, but is better explained as a merging of theology and national identity. If we are good and on God’s side by virtue of who we are, then the theological other is by definition evil, and opposed to God—and it is our duty to eradicate evil in all forms. Torture thus becomes, as it did during the misguided era of the Inquisition, an act of faith. I do agree with author Mary Stange’s analysis that the torture that followed 9/11 has distinct parallels to religious persecution and tortures of the past. I hold that in moving beyond it we must recognize it for what it was and reaffirm the dignity and rights of all people—not matter whether they are guilty or innocent. It helps little to debate whether torture works, or whether to do so will invite mistreatment of our troops or condemnation by world courts. And it certainly is not helpful to explain it out of existence by semantics—the term “enhanced interrogation” might enrich a tale like 1984, but it morally impoverishes those who insist on it. In fact, in dealing with this I call on our leaders to realize that here, too, we need to keep church and state apart. State actions are not automatically to be sanctified as inherently godly.
In this issue we have the continuing saga of how Alonzo T. Jones, editor of the Liberty precursor, the American Sentinel, battled a groundswell movement to declare the United States a Christian nation and designate Sunday as the day of worship. Seems clear enough now, but at the time it was a hard battle to talk down those who had so conflated what it was to be an American and what it should be to a deeply committed Christian. I hope you enjoy the retelling of those days.
In our contemporary battles over the correct separation of church and state we need a good sense of perspective. A wrong assumption plus an emergency can lead to very dark times indeed. It is improper to use the state to advance a religious viewpoint—good or bad. And such “enhanced” viewpoints, as history shows, nearly always end up badly. Sometimes we need to say, as did one exasperated target of Senator McCarthy’s witch hunt, “Have you no shame, sir? Have you no shame?” When dealing with such a banality of evil, that response alone may break the spell of public deception.
Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."