Monday, November 8, 2010

Radicals' View of Religious Orthodoxy as Source of Intolerance

LAST TIME: What Governmental Tolerance is Not

The second common theme of Roger Williams's, Thomas Paine's, Elizabeth Cady Stanton's, W.E.B. Du Bois's, and Vine Deloria Jr.'s activism is that each argued religious orthodoxy (especially Christian orthodoxy) has been a significant source of intolerance throughout American history - just as it had been for many centuries previously in Europe. (The first common theme, again, was that each believed that governmental tolerance is a mandatory feature of America's constitutional democracy.) 

Each admired Jesus Christ the man, and the principles of tolerance, equality, humility and forgiveness he advocated. “[Jesus] was a virtuous and an amiable man,” Thomas Paine explained in The Age of Reason. “The morality that he preached and practiced was of the most benevolent kind.” And, indeed, they admired his stubborn commitment to principle (recognizing, no doubt, some of themselves in Christ’s own life experiences): “[Christ] preached also against the corruptions and avarice of the Jewish priests; and this brought upon him the hatred and vengeance of the whole order of priesthood,” Paine recalled. “The accusation which those priests brought against him was that of sedition and conspiracy against the Roman government, to which the Jews were then subject…. Jesus Christ [likely] had in contemplation the delivery of the Jewish nation from the bondage of the Romans.” And for that, Paine explained, “this virtuous reformer and revolutionist lost his life.” One might accurately say Jesus Christ was himself a radical in his own time.

What Paine and the others objected to were the elaborate superstitions and practices that arose around Christ’s teachings in the many centuries following his death, which variously punished, stigmatized, marginalized or victimized certain individuals or groups. And for daring to challenge the church’s dogma – which has always been accepted essentially verbatim by the vast majority of Americans, with marginal variations depending on the particular Judeo-Christian flavor – all five, to varying degrees, were vilified.

Williams railed against the hypocrisy of religious wars: “The blood of so many hundred thousand souls of Protestants and Papists, spilt in the Wars of present and former Ages, for their respective Consciences, is not required nor accepted by Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace.” In the end, for having “broached and divulged [such] diverse new and dangerous opinions against the authority of magistrates,” Williams was banished to the wilderness (literally) from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Paine said, “I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of,” explaining instead: “My own mind is my own church.” “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish,” he added, “appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.” These are fighting words in a Christian country like America; and in 1888, approaching a century after his death, Paine was still being derided as “that dirty little atheist” by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton too charged that the clergy were responsible for much of society’s ills, especially for women. “I now see more clearly than ever, that the arch enemy to women’s freedom skulks behind the altar,” she ruminated in 1886. “No class of men have such power to pervert the religious sentiments and oppress mankind with gloomy superstitions through life and an undefined dread of the unknown after death.” But Stanton was convinced the clergy did not truly speak for the Almighty, reasoning, “I cannot believe that a God of law and order … could have sanctioned a social principle so calamitous in its consequences as investing in one-half the race the absolute control of all the rights of the other.” To so baldly criticize mainstream Christian orthodoxy at the turn of the twentieth century was too radical even for most women’s rights activists - who distanced themselves from Stanton by issuing a formal censure at the 1896 NAWSA convention, and for decades after her death rendering her persona non grata, even while canonizing her longtime collaborator Susan B. Anthony.

While W.E.B. Du Bois believed the true teachings of Jesus were morally uplifting, he had “no particular affection for the Church. I think its record on the Negro problem has been shameful…. [T]he southern branch of the Church is a moral dead weight and the northern branch … never has had the moral courage to stand against it.” “The church of John Pierpont Morgan,” he stressed, “[is] not the church of Jesus Christ.” “Of course, it is the Churches which are the most discriminatory of all institutions!” The United States government sued Du Bois on trumped-up charges after his turn to the avowedly-atheist Communist nations of China and Russia, and then, as noted above, effectively disowned him in the final year of his life for his communist party membership.

Vine Deloria was blunt in his assessment of Christian orthodoxy’s deleterious effects throughout history: “From pope to pauper, Protestant to Catholic, Constantinople to the United States, the record is filled with atrocities, misunderstandings, persecutions, genocides, and oppressions so numerous as to bring fear into the hearts and minds of non-Christian peoples. Deloria was caustic in his criticism of America and other Western nations’ use of Christian orthodoxy to justify its expansionist goals: “At one time or another slavery, poverty, and treachery were all justified by Christianity as politically moral institutions of the state.” These harsh assessments antagonized many in a mainstream American establishment thoroughly suffused with Christian dogma.

In short, all five of the profiled radicals lived implicitly by Christ’s uncompromising moral values of peace, goodwill, and forgiveness. All spoke their mind about the hypocrisies and abuses perpetuated in Christ’s name – and all, like Christ himself, were punished for speaking truth to power. The lesson? Challenge this most sacred of cows, Christian orthodoxy – and be prepared to pay a heavy price.

NEXT TIME:  Radicals' Stands on Principle, Regardless of Consequences to Themselves