Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Star-Spangled Church of America

"Excommunication":  an act of official censure severing an individual from a religious community and depriving him/her of the spiritual blessings of membership in such a body.

"Interdict":  an ecclesiastical penalty whereby the population of an entire country is suspended from membership in and denied the services of the established religion (essentially, excommunication of  a group rather than of individuals).

The "(No) Establishment Clause" of the First Amendment:  Congress shall make NO law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.  

I've just been re-reading an old favorite:  Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy.  Asimov is not a great writer--he's not interested in literary nuance--but he's a damned good story-teller.  And I enjoy his "psycho-historical" analysis of the seemingly inexorable forces underlying and propelling human evolution.

Early on in the Trilogy, Asimov's storyline involves the deliberate creation of a bogus religion whose priests are the only individuals having the power to produce and distribute atomic power on the four or five planets ruled by the Foundation. 

Thoroughly inculcated in this religion, the vast majority of the priest-technicians themselves believe unquestioningly in the Galactic Spirit, the Holy Food, the Space Demon, etc. They therefore accomplish their liturgical duties (maintaining atomic power plants) devoutly and meticulously, but without any deep understanding of the actual science involved. Only the high-ranking members of the Foundation--including the High Priest himself--are aware that the entire ecclesiastical edifice is nothing but an ingenious hoax, intended only to maintain control over the "faithful" inhabitants of the worlds dominated by the Foundation.

In the novel, this "government by religion" functions very well, for a very long time.  Indeed, at one point, in order to force rebellious Anacreon into complying with Foundation policy, the High Priest places the entire planet under interdict. And at the stroke of noon, all lights flicker off on the iniquitous planet.  Because, as Asimov drily notes, a religion grounded in physics (rather than metaphysics) actually works.

In 1208, Pope Innocent III--in a nasty mood about King John's refusal to appoint Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury--imposed a similar interdict on all of England.  Innocent, of course, did not actually control the power plants (or, should I say, the windmills) of England, but as the outcome of this confrontation proves, ACTUAL, physical power--in THIS WORLD-- is not necessary, provided control over human imagination about the NEXT WORLD is strong enough.  Thus, the king's barons and subjects, fearing that the loss of "holy food" would condemn them to hell in the afterlife, exerted enough pressure to oblige the sovereign himself to submit, albeit grudgingly, to the pope's will.

In European history, that episode may have been the high water mark for confrontations between religious and temporal powers. In any event, the religious authorities soon thereafter began to understand that conflict with civil authorities was really rather inefficiently messy and that their "spiritual" interests could generally be advanced more bountifully by ALLIANCE with their erstwhile adversaries.

How did this work? Simple.  By "Establishment" and "Establishment Clauses."  I.e., the CEOs and practitioners of a particular religion simply cajoled and fulminated to get a ruler to "establish" their doctrines as the official cult of the state.  This was relatively easy to do when the kings themselves took seriously a threat of excommunication (i.e., no holy food and hence no salvation).  Pope Gregory IX's famous confrontation with Emperor Frederick II is a good example of such religious intimidation.  And so, in the early days, the church may have been the senior partner in these establishment covenants.  But rapidly, the kings girded their loins--this was never a lovey-dovey alliance, after all--and then, the two "establishments" moved forward, expanding their mutual control over a) the physical (external) landscape of conquered lands and b) the psychological (internal) landscape of conquered peoples.

But to what end, you might ask?  It's clear why the temporal leaders wanted to extend their influence:  power means wealth and wealth means...well, more power--dominion, superiority, self-gratification.  Why, though, would the supposedly disinterested (nowadays we might say "non-profit") religious authorities seek to extend their influence?  The conventional answer, of course, is "to ensure salvation to those not yet saved:  'holy food' for more people." A verbal sop to the theoretical altruism of organized religion.

But I think that empirical evidence permits us to doubt that most religious establishments desired outcomes much more altruistic than those sought by their temporal brethren.  The churches, too, wanted land, wealth, dominion, superiority, self-gratification in the HERE AND NOW.  In short, they, too, wanted political power.

And so, conflicts sometimes arose between the two allies, since, in fact, they were BOTH after the same thing:  wealth, power, dominion (i.e., "profit").  And, very occasionally, such conflicts provoked an actual breakup of one alliance and its replacement with another:  we inevitably think of Henry VIII ("Defender of the Faith") and his new covenant with the conveniently-concocted Church of England.

But, in general, as the spiritual powers became less sincerely spiritual and ever more avid for real-world privilege and security, they grew increasingly willing to operate as the ostensible "junior" partners in the enterprise--always present, always pulling strings, but in the background--the eminences grises behind the throne--thereby ensuring that they still received a good chunk of the pie, but at a significantly lesser cost. Cool! The kings and princes had to pay for everything!  

And so, for centuries, "Christendom" was rent by wars that were essentially political in nature, but that were justified and sanctified by established religions.   The last of these--the Thirty Years' War--destroyed so many lives and devastated so much territory that, at its end, most of central Europe lay prostrate.

I suspect that it is the horror of that war, together with the inconclusive bloodletting of the English Civil War (again, a combination religious/political conflict), that led many Enlightenment thinkers to denounce ALL alliances (overt, covert, whatever) between political institutions and religious institutions.  Might such a revulsion have prompted Thomas Jefferson to ponder the advice of Voltaire to crush the "infamy" of established religion?

Unlike Glenn Beck, I cannot pretend to understand exactly what was in the minds of our Founding Fathers.  But one fact is very clear:  for whatever reason, the framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights DID decide to FORBID any alliance between religion and government! Obviously, they feared the possible consequences of a partnership between civil and religious authorities.

In theory, then, since the United States has no established religion, there is NO religious Grand Pooh-Bah who can dictate or share in temporal law-making.  No high-priest or pope or archbishop or ayatollah has the authority to declare our people, our president or our leaders "outlaws" and "unAmerican" by imposing some sort of excommunication or interdict. No one has the constitutional right to switch off our lights.

In theory.

In actual practice, though, I wonder.  I think there's dirty work afoot, and I'm going to try to get to the bottom of it.  That means scraping the very depths of the politico-religious barrel, of course--and it's there that we dredge up the icky remains of that rottenest of rotten apples, Richard Nixon.  

You've heard of him.  He's the self-declared non-crook who dreamed up the Republicans' "Southern Strategy" and managed, by incorporating both explicit and implicit racism into the Republican "ideology," to convert the majority of southern whites from Dixiecratism to Republicanism. Though Nixon's principal strategist, Kevin Phillips, might disagree with me, I'm persuaded that Tricky Dicky also realized that the Republican Party, in order to reinforce its dominion in the South, would have to ALLY itself with the fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity that so often justified such Bible-based racism (not to mention homophobia, antisemitism and anti-feminism).

Thus, Nixon--and his Republican successors--Ronald Reagan, certainly--but most notably, the two Bushes--by pandering to fundamentalists and by ALLYING the temporal power with the religious power of evangelical divines (e.g., Billy Graham)--these latter-day Defenders of the Faith managed to perpetrate an incredible boondoggle on the American people.  Devoutly distracting us with Sunday-School soporifics and patriotic sanctimoniousness, they simply circumvented the First Amendment's No-Establishment Clause.  They just ignored it!  And thereby, in effect, they established a state religion!!!!  The Star-Spangled Church of America!

Oh, I know that the actual wording the Constitution was not altered a tittle. I suppose that's the "beauty" of the scheme. But a constitution is what common consensus (and five judges) say it is. It is a society's "default setting." And alas, as I write this, I believe--I truly do--that thanks to the machinations of the Republicans' cynical strategists, the United States now has a de facto official religion:  fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity.  It's become our default setting, our ESTABLISHED church.

In a sense, then, contemporary Americans CAN be excommunicated (declared ungodly and hence unAmerican), even entire regions can be interdicted (e.g., wicked San Francisco) by the religious authorities and, accordingly, punished by the civil authorities for--well--impiety! Of course, the religious justification, like the Established Church itself, is de facto, shrewdly hidden beneath a veneer of insipid, star-spangled de jure language  

Evidence to support my claim is not lacking.  Gay couples usually can't get married--because the established religion forbids it (*in June 2015, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in all states--but most southern states continue to impede full compliance); Muslims are told they can't build mosques where they wish--because the established religion forbids it; embryonic stem cells cannot be used for scientific research--because the established religion forbids it; Muslim immigrants are harassed and demeaned--because the established religion encourages it; the Pledge of Allegiance requires school children to acknowledge God--because the established religion demands it.  Oh, it's too depressing to go on.

I realize, of course, that the Church of America has not yet fully accomplished what appears to be its ultimate, albeit inchoate, goal:  the de jure overthrow of the First Amendment.  Holdouts exist, fortunately, and continue to give some hope to leftover Jeffersonians.  First-term abortion remains, tenuously, legal--despite the opposition of the C of A.  A few states obstinately allow same-sex marriage and/or forbid capital punishment--despite the opposition of the C of A. (*same-sex marriage is legal as of 2015, by Supreme Court decree, not legislation)

But WHY (in GOD'S NAME) have we ordinary, freedom-loving Americans tolerated this all-too-obvious sabotaging of the First Amendment?  Do we really wish to return to the "good" old days of the Crusades, the Muslim Conquests, the Spanish Reconquista, the Thirty Years' War, the English Civil War? Any decent historian will acknowledge that the alliance of religious authority with political authority has almost always been a means of restricting the authority and autonomy of individual human beings.  

For instance, what if some self-proclaimed High Priest of the Church of America works himself into a veritable old-testament snit about America's supposed abominations (the usual perversions plus, perhaps, gluttony and gambling) and proceeds to place the whole damned country under interdict?  

Will the lights go off in Las Vegas? 

Oh, it DOES seem far-fetched, doesn't it?  Perhaps it's time to stop worrying and be happy.  Tomorrow IS another day, after all.  And tonight, I could go and get myself supersized at MacDonald's.  

With holy food.

No comments:

Post a Comment