Monday, June 29, 2015

A Confederacy of Deniers

Two weeks ago, an avowed white supremacist named Dylann Roof entered a historic African American church in Charleston, South Carolina and shot nine members dead during Bible study. He told his victims he was doing it because they were black. He said, "You rape our women, and you're taking over the country. And you have to go." He said he wanted to start a race war.

Naturally, Fox News promptly dismissed racism as the cause and spun it as an assault on religion. The Neo-Nazi site Stormfront made the same suggestion. Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum wondered "What other rationale could there be?" besides a hatred of faith? Another presidential aspirant, Jeb Bush, said he did not know what was on the shooter's mind. And yet another GOP hopeful, Rick Perry, thought it must have been drugs.

In the wake of the tragedy, the state lowered most official flags to half mast. All except one: the Confederate battle flag flying in front of the statehouse. By state law, that would take a vote of the legislature with a two thirds majority. It reignited the Confederate flag controversy nation-wide.

Normally, I would approach a story like this historically. It's what I do and I like to think I have a gift for explaining history. Most bloggers go right to the politics because they are predominantly political junkies whereas I am more of a history geek, albeit a particularly political history geek.

I am going to check that habit today because there are a lot of excellent very historically-grounded articles out there on the topic. One is Ta-Nehisi Coates' post "What This Cruel War Was Over." It points out that the South's plantation aristocrats had no problem saying they were seceding over slavery. Trying to emulate Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, each Confederate state wrote their own list of grievances which historians collectively call the Articles of Secession. These documents repeatedly cite their fiery desire to defend slavery. Another important article is Doug Muder's "Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party," which looks at what really motivates the political right. Although it was posted almost a year ago and therefore not about the shooting or the current flag discussion, it remains relevant and explains much.

There are many helpful articles out there, but between these two, you pretty much have the gist of it.

But the political fallout has been particularly interesting to watch thus far. It was both surprising and bracing to witness most of the GOP presidential hopefuls call for the flag to be removed. Granted, some were braver than others, but the general consensus was encouraging. Republican governors throughout the South climbed on the bandwagon. Even Glenn Beck said flying the Confederate flag "makes no sense." Had the GOP evolved beyond using the infamous Southern Strategy of speaking in racist code talk, as some have argued?

Well, not quite. Other Republican pundits circled the wagons to keep the South from bolting from the party. Rush Limbaugh said removing the flag was about "destroying the South" and warned that banning the American flag would be next. The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol also rode to the defense of Dixie's honor. "The Left's 21st century agenda: expunging every trace of respect, recognition or acknowledgment of Americans who fought for the Confederacy."  Bill O'Reilly likewise said that the Confederate battle flag represents bravery to many people - as if the same thing could not be said for the Nazi swastika or any other symbol of oppression that had ever had an army behind it. It was an absurd evasion because a flag, by definition, represents a particular side or cause and not how well people fought for it. And, of course, Ann Coulter trotted out her long discredited argument that liberals are the real racists since Democrats were the party of the Confederacy and Jim Crow - again ignoring that the two major parties had traded regional bases after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Then, Rush Limbaugh made the same argument.

As I wrote in my book, "You cannot be the party of Lincoln after embracing Jefferson Davis." They have long enjoyed having it both ways. Looks like they can't now. Will they be forced to choose? How will it shake out? Will it turn brother against brother? Will Reagan's Eleventh Commandment be broken? Maybe repeatedly? I am hoping for an overt party schism in the GOP, but that probably will not happen. More likely, it will only depress GOP turn out as the candidates disappoint the fringe.

Of course, as far as the electoral college goes, low turn out might not matter. The GOP will still hold most of the South. South Carolina's black population is significant and the shooting might be enough to boost turnout there, but the rest of the South is pretty locked in.

Or I might be wrong and we will be treated to the spectacle of these Tea Party darlings getting called RINOs ("Republicans In Name Only") by their former foot soldiers. One can only hope.

But far more important than this armchair election analysis is the struggle going on in the Republican Party. You can say that the flag is simply a symbolic issue, but symbols are important. The killer, Dylann Roof, certainly thought so. He could not get enough of the Confederate flag, to say nothing of the flags of other white supremacist regimes like white Rhodesia and Apartheid South Africa. Like the Confederacy, white nationalists romanticize these governments as noble lost causes. It is important that conservatives confront the connection and the history with it. Otherwise, the result will be more Dylann Roofs.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

On Roman Baptists & Danbury Catholics

I want to comment on the Charleston, SC shooting and the related Confederate flag controversy, but that will require a longer post. Instead, as a place holder, I am writing a post on the religious right.

Conservatives work very hard to ignore or misconstrue historical documents that contradict them. One that "strict constructionists" cannot honestly grapple with is Thomas Jefferson's famous letter to the Danbury Baptists in which he spoke of the wall of separation between church and state. Jefferson wrote:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.

Conservatives ignore (or don't know about) two highly ironic facts about the exchange's historical context.

First is the fact that Baptists were always all about keeping religion between the individual and God. It is a liberal principle to be sure - which is why Jefferson was agreeing with them - but it is also a bedrock Baptist principle that many Baptists had unfortunately forgotten. It goes back to the origin of their sect. Under Henry VIII, England broke from the Catholic Church in 1534 and formed the Anglican Church. But for many English Protestants, the Anglican Church still had too many leftover Catholic trappings so they formed their own splinter sects. Since the Anglican Church is a state church, with the English monarch at its head in place of the pope, the English government began stamping out such heresy.

Which brings us to the second ironic fact. The Danbury Baptists were writing to Thomas Jefferson because they feared for their religious freedom. They were then still a minority and they were worried about their rights. In his reply, Jefferson was saying that their belief aligned with his and clarified that this liberal constitutional principle defended their rights. Thus, the Danbury Baptists wrote Thomas Jefferson for two inter-related reasons that conservatives overlook.

Do you object to my using the word liberal? Well, then let me show you a similar exchange of letters between revolutionary era Roman Catholics and George Washington. Just like the Danbury Baptists, these Catholics wrote George Washington with the same concern. Maryland, you may remember, was founded to be a haven for persecuted English Catholics just as Pennsylvania was founded as a haven for Quakers. Washington wrote back, assuring them that rising liberalism would protect their rights:

As mankind become[s] more liberal they will be more apt to allow, that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the Community are equally entitled to the protection of civil Government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality.

Conservatives say that the establishment clause was only meant to protect religion from government - not to protect government from religion. Basically, they argue that the wall of separation has a one-way door in it. It is an absurd argument because once any religion gets a hold of government, the door will open the other way. That is both obvious and undeniable. As James Madison asked, “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions may establish, with the same ease, any particular sect of Christians in exclusion to all other sects?”

Today, both Catholics and Protestants have been free from persecution for quite some time. In fact, the conservative ones have joined forces to legislate where they think their religions overlap - to the injury of liberal Christians, atheists, and people of other faiths such as Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims. Of course, this ecumenical enterprise does not include feeding the poor, turning the other cheek, or refraining from throwing the first stone. They legislate their morality oblivious to any irony, hypocrisy, or history - all of which are obvious to everyone else. As Ben Franklin remarked, "If we look back into history for the character of present sects in Christianity, we shall find few that have not in their turns been persecutors, and complainers of persecution."  The difference is today they can be both at the same time by claiming that Christians are oppressed in America.

Of course, big tent conservative Christianity is nothing new. It has tried to subvert secularism in America from day one. Thomas Jefferson illustrated this in his Autobiography where he discussed the passage of Virginia’s Act for Religious Freedom:

Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting “Jesus Christ,” so that it would read “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo [sic] and Infidel of every denomination.

-  Thomas Jefferson, Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Andrew Adgate Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh (Washington DC: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1905), 1:67.

This is what America was always meant to be and conservatives have often sabotaged and postponed it. Our constitution is full of safeguards designed to protect us from ourselves - from our foolishness, forgetfulness, hypocrisy, and tyrannic tendencies. The establishment clause should be the most obvious safeguard of all.