Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The New Know-Nothings

Back in the early 1850s, there was a third-party movement, officially known as the American Party, but more commonly referred to as the Know-Nothings, supposedly because its secretive nature required its members, if asked about it, to reply "I know nothing." At a time when the explosively divisive issue of slavery was coming to dominate American politics, the Know-Nothings saw a different threat to the republic: Catholic immigrants.

I have been reminded of the Know-Nothings in recent weeks because of the manufactured controversy over a Muslim community center in downtown Manhattan in the vicinity of the World Trade Center site. The irrational hysteria, the overblown rhetoric, the rank demagoguery we have been subjected to in recent weeks resembles nothings so much as this historical shame called the Know-Nothing Party.

According to historian Michael F. Holt, the Know-Nothings believed that a "Catholic conspiracy or papal plot ... sought to subvert America's republican institutions and steal control of government from the hands of native-born Protestants." The Catholic Church, in the words of one Know-Nothing, meant "to plant its flag of tyranny, persecution, and oppression among us." Know-Nothings proposed that only native-born Protestants be allowed to hold political office, that immigration be severely restricted, that the naturalization process take 21 years, and that immigrants be denied voting rights (including the imposition of a literacy test).

Ultimately, the Know-Nothings insisted that Catholics could not be good Americans. Catholics belonged to a religion that was hostile to democracy, they cried, that was controlled by a foreign despot (the pope was still a temporal leader of a substantial state at the time) to whom Catholics owed their true allegiance. No matter what they said, they were not to be trusted. They might pretend to be good Americans, but they were out to destroy the country.

More than a 150 years later, with two-thirds of the Supreme Court (6 of 9 justices) being Catholic, this hysteria about the threat of Catholicism seems utterly absurd, as indeed it was. But it is no more ridiculous than the rhetoric about Islam being spread by some Republicans in this current ginned-up controversy.

As we approach the ninth anniversary of 9/11, one of the sadder developments of the last two years has been the increasing demonization of Islam as a religion. It was not always so. In the aftermath of those attacks, George W. Bush, to his lasting credit, took great pains to distinguish between the terrorists who inflicted the horrors of that day and the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world who rejected what those radicals did in the name of their religion.

Just six days later, with the rescuers still searching for the dead and missing, Bush went to the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C. (That center, by the way, is a mere two miles from the White House, a possible target of United Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania). Bush said: "America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect."

Even more importantly, he denounced any possible intimidation of American Muslims: "Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don't represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior." This was real leadership--not pandering to people's basest emotions, but insisting that they live up to their highest principles. It was the best moment of his presidency.

Six days after the attacks, you could have understood if the anger and emotion got the better of some people. You would think that nearly nine years later, we would be closer, not farther, from the ideals Bush preached (and practiced) that day, but it is not so. Instead, demagogues have seized upon the proposed Islamic center in New York as an opportunity to equate Islam with Al Qaeda, and tar all Muslims with that terrorist brush.

Leading the national charge have been two faux populists looking to ride anger to political success, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich. Palin's tweets on the subject, like the woman herself, are too lacking in substance to warrant serious attention. But Gingrich, precisely because he should know better, is even worse. Gingrich's statement on the subject seems plucked directly from the Know-Nothing playbook: "America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization." Change "Islamist" to "Catholic" and that statement is indistinguishable from the Know-Nothing platform. "Sadly, too many of our elites are willing apologists for those who would destroy them if they could. No mosque. No self-deception. No surrender." Gingrich simply asserts that allowing a mosque anywhere near the World Trade Center site is a surrender to terrorism, he makes no distinction between American Muslims and Islamist radicals. His sneering indictment of "elites" echoes a Know-Nothing tract by nativist Thomas Whitney, A Defence of American Policy, in which he slams both established parties, the Whigs and the Democrats, as being led by "political leaders who have yielded to the pretensions and demands" of the "Romish Church."

But Gingrich goes even further. To the best of my knowledge, the Know-Nothings never suggested that Catholics be denied permits to build churches. Gingrich, even as he farcically struts like a music hall parody of Churchill, is the one who is engaged in surrender. He surrenders America's tradition of religious freedom without hesitation: "There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia." In short, the United States should lower itself to the intolerant level of the Saudis. This is what passes for "toughness" in his twisted world view. For Americans to do as Gingrich proposes would be the real surrender. That would be a victory for the hateful men who flew the planes into the towers.

Contrast Gingrich's frightened, narrow-minded rhetoric with the calm, confident words of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, speaking yesterday after the Islamic center passed its final bureaucratic hurdle: "Whatever you think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the debate has been a basic question: Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here." (Bloomberg's speech is well-worth reading in its entirety, here.)

It is Bloomberg who is demonstrating determination and grit, insisting that we as Americans remain true to our best selves: "We would betray our values and play into our enemies' hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else." The path taken by Palin and Gingrich is the lazy one: talking tough, but doing the easy thing. They may gain some short-term political advantage by having done so, but I am confident that the verdict of history will be as severe for them as it is for the Know-Nothings of the 1850s.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Internal Unification of Church and State

This past Tuesday, the Spartanburg Herald-Journal ran a nice piece on a local man, Frank Dillard, who passed away on July 4. I did not know the man, but from everything in the article he seems to have been a good and decent one.

But one of the tributes to him, by his son-in-law and Republican candidate for U.S. Congress from South Carolina's 4th District Trey Gowdy, stopped me in my tracks. Gowdy said: "He was a man of incredibly deep spiritual faith.... What I mean is that he lived it. He wasn't one to sermonize. He just lived it. And to die on a Sunday, that just happened to be July Fourth--I don't think he would've scripted it any differently."

I have no doubt that Gowdy's words were heartfelt, sincere, and accurate. What struck me was the reference to July 4. Unless the words quoted are out of context, it seems that Gowdy was saying that dying on July 4 is perfect timing for someone of deep spiritual faith.

I expect that the overwhelming majority of the people who read those words had no problem with them at all, but the reference struck me as a complete non sequitur. Perhaps it is due to my upbringing in the Catholic Church, with its focus on a universal Church that transcends nationality, but this kind of fusion of the sacred and the patriotic seems utterly inappropriate to me. It represents the other, internal, variety of the unification of church and state.

Generally, when liberals cite the separation of church and state, they are talking about keeping religion out of government action, or preventing government support of any religion. But the idea, one of the central concepts of the Enlightenment, is also meant to prevent government interference with religion. Both parts are equally important.

But today's advocates of the "Christian nation" idea are confident that they can ignore the latter aspect, since Christians as a whole are a majority in the United States. (No single Christian denomination, however, can make that claim: Catholics are the largest group, with four times the membership of the nearest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptists.) They do not envision the possibility of an American government dominated by a non-Christian faith, and so see no threat to their faith from a unity of church and state (though I can't help but wonder how Southern Baptists would feel about a government that reflected Catholic teachings; after all, Catholics are the largest group!).

As a result, we see the idea of the unity of church and state carried not only into the public sphere in the form of advocacy of government being guided by religious ideas, but internally into the consciousness of the individual believer. The product is a fusion of what should be distinct identities (citizen and believer), such as in Gowdy's tribute: a purely secular national holiday becomes the appropriate day for the passing of a deeply spiritual man.

This overlap isn't entirely new or unheard of, of course. The very word "holiday" derives from "holy day," but we use it generically to mean any politically designated day off, the vast majority of which are now nationalistic (July 4, Presidents Day, Memorial Day, etc.) rather than sacred.

But this tendency to politicize the sacred and sacralize the political seems to be growing in America, and is particularly common among Tea Party activists. In a fine article in The New Republic, John B. Judis traces the historical precedents of the Tea Party and notes that in "speeches, Tea Partiers cite articles and amendments from the Constitution the same way that clerics cite Biblical verses." This connection is no accident. There is undeniably a kind of fundamentalist doctrine of inerrancy at work in the Tea Party mentality toward the Constitution and the founders. Last Sunday in the New York Times, Frank Rich discussed the bizarre Republican use of Thurgood Marshall to attack Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, and noted that GOP Chair Michael Steele "attacked her for writing approvingly of a speech Marshall had given calling the original text of the Constitution 'defective'--a restrained adjective, actually, for a document that countenanced slavery." Once you make this connection between the Bible and the Constitution as sacred texts, however, it makes a certain strange sense (as does the Tea Party's retrograde desire to repeal the 17th amendment--the founders got it right).

It shouldn't need saying, but evidently it does: to sacralize the political is to diminish the sacred. The Constitution, for all its worth, is not sacred. It is the work of flawed men. It contains unprincipled compromise (the decision to count a slave as three-fifths of a person for purposes of representation showed neither section in a good light: the so-called free states did not want to count slaves as people at all, while the slave states--who treated them as property in every other respect--wanted them counted as full people). It contains within itself an admission of its own flawed nature: the amendment process. If it were perfect, there would be no need for any change. The men who wrote it knew that was not so. Unlike Glenn Beck, they knew they were no demigods. Their humility prevented them from claiming anything more than that their efforts in writing the Constitution aimed at creating not a perfect, but a "more perfect" Union. But when you equate the country with religion, when political principles become articles of faith, then a system of government becomes not the product of the reason of man but the will of God, and must be treated as such.

This internal unification leads to a pernicious and dangerous blurring of the line between love of country and love of God. In 1789, the same year the Constitution went into effect, Richard Price, Unitarian minister, friend of Benjamin Franklin, and English supporter of the American Revolution, noted that not only are they not synonymous, they are at the very least in tension with one another. He observes: "It is very remarkable that the founder of our religion has not once mentioned this duty [to love one's country], or given us any recommendation of it." Quite the opposite: "Our Lord and his Apostles have done better. They have recommended that UNIVERSAL BENEVOLENCE which is an unspeakably nobler principle than any partial affections. They have laid such stress on loving all men, even our enemies." In short, true Christianity demands far more than country does, and sometimes demands the opposite of what the country does.

This lazy equation of "American" with "Christian" does damage to both politics and religion. Even for those who question the value of Jefferson's "wall of separation" in our politics, it is wise to maintain that inner wall between one's identities as citizen and believer. It should be enough to say that a man of faith died on the day of worship.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Fourth of July

I love the Fourth of July.

Not just because of fireworks (though who doesn't love a good fireworks display?). And not just because of cookouts (and, since you can throw a veggie burger on the grill too, who doesn't love a good cookout?). And not just because it gives me a reason to play two of my favorite songs, Bruce Springsteen's "Fourth of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" and Dave Alvin's "Fourth of July" (though, seriously, this would be reason enough).

I love the Fourth because of the Declaration of Independence.

It began sometime in my childhood. At some point, on some vacation, at some historical site, my parents bought me a facsimile of the Declaration. It probably tells you all you need to know about me that I thought this was a great souvenir. It was hard, brittle, yellowed paper that crackled when you handled it. For some time I thought all official documents were thus. So when, in the fifth grade, my classmates called upon me to write a peace treaty ending the Great Spitball War between Group 2 and Group 3 (a foreshadowing that I would one day study diplomatic history?), I insisted on taking the piece of paper, coloring it with a yellow crayon, and then crumpling it up in a ball and flattening it out so that, at least to my eye, it looked like my copy of the Declaration. Then it was official.

Later, I eventually stopped wondering why there were so many "f"s where there should clearly be "s"s, and thought more about its content. Just about every American is familiar with the most famous passage about the self-evident truths. But there is a lot more to the Declaration. Much of it, the bulk of it really, is essentially an indictment of George III justifying the break. Reading it with an historian’s rather than a patriot’s eye, many of the points don’t really hold up. But my favorite part of the Declaration isn’t one of the well-known lines, or something obscure from the list of charges. It comes at the end, just a simple, short phrase, and it encapsulates for me what is best about the Fourth of July.

When you think about it, July 4 isn’t really the most natural date for the nation’s birth. There are other turning points we could have chosen, for example, the outbreak of hostilities. Using that criterion, April 19, 1775, the date of the battles of Lexington and Concord, would be a better choice. Perhaps February 6, 1778, the date a great power, France, recognized American independence and entered an alliance with the U.S. that would help win the war, would be fitting. Legally one could argue that April 9, 1784, the date Britain recognized independence with its acceptance of the Treaty of Paris, was the true independence day.

But we didn’t chose the date of a battle, or the recognition of a great power, or the acceptance of the mother country. We chose the date of a declaration. What does July 4, 1776 mark, after all? A decision. An intention. Not a change in fact, but a change of mind. Looked at coldly, purely as a matter of fact, the Declaration is an absurdity. The colonies declared that they were independent, but they clearly were not. The colonies were still ruled by royal governors appointed by the King, and were occupied by tens of thousands of British soldiers. But the declaration nonetheless boldly states, in the words of a resolution first proposed by Richard Henry Lee nearly a month earlier, that “these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.”

And it’s that phrase that I love: “and of Right ought to be.” The Declaration is not one of fact. It is one of what “of Right ought to be.” This country was founded with its eyes on the Right. Those men who signed the declaration were not always right. About some things, many of them, in many ways, were tragically wrong. But they knew the importance of what ought to be. And they knew that the most important date was not the one when men took up arms, but when they decided to do what was right. When it has been at its worst, this country has settled passively for what is, or what cynics said has always been and thus must always be. When it has been at its best, it has remembered to keep its eyes on what "of Right ought to be."

Have a wonderful Fourth of July, and sometime between the cookout and the fireworks, think a little about what of Right ought to be. And then work to make it a reality. That’s what the Fourth, and being an American, means to me.