Fighting the Tyranny of the Present
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Oct 03, 2006 at 01:27:40 AM EST
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Contemporary Americans of a wide range of religious and political orientations find themselves adrift.  Adrift in the sense that we do not know where we stand in history; American history that is.  Therefore, we too often end-up relying on the latest poll, or trend article in the newspaper for our understanding of our political moment. Polls, although they are mostly snapshots in time, also sometimes do a good job of spotting and describing trends. Sometimes they are wildly misguided or grossly biased. Same goes for trend articles.

The problem many of us face is that we do not know enough about our history as a nation: as contending religious groups, classes, interest groups, and political parties. We don't know enough about the gradual extension of rights to more and more classes of people from the time of the founding.  We don't usually know that the struggles over the nature of religious freedom and separation of church and state are not new in our history, and that there is much to learn from the stories of how these matters were handled and how we got to where we are today. This has signficant implications for those of us who seek to engage the religious right of our time.  

One organization that recognizes the importance of being grounded in a clear-eyed view of history,  is Americans United for Separation of Church and State.  The Houston Chapter of AU, for example, has just announced an essay contest for college students from the Houston area:

"Why I Believe In Separation of Church and State"

  First Prize - $1000

  Second Prize - $500

  Third Prize - $250

It is an excellent model for how to go about this, and includes a fine, short list of contemporary reference books on the subject.

I hope that more organizations will do this kind of thing. And I hope that more people will take the time to read books like those on the reference list, as well as books about the contemporary religious right.

One excellent and very accessible book about the origins of separation of church and state in the U.S. -- came out this year from Random House:  American Gospel:  God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation by Jon Meacham, who is also the managing editor of Newsweek.  It is one among many fine books on early American history that directly or indirectly debunk the claim that the United States was founded as a Christian Nation.

Here is one short excerpt:

A grasp of history is essential for Americans of the center who struggle to decide how much weight to assign a religious consideration in a public matter. To fail to consult the past consigns us to what might be called the tyranny of the present -- the mistaken idea that the crises of our own time are unprecedented and that we have to solve them without experience to guide us.  Subject to such a tyranny, we are more likely to take a narrow or simplistic view, or to let our passions get the better of our reason.  If we know, however, how those who came before us found the ways and means to surmount the difficulties of their age, we stand a far better chance of acting in the moment with perspective and measured judgment.  Light can neither enter into nor emanate from a closed mind.

The intensity with which the religious right attempts to conscript the Founders into their cause indicates the importance the movement ascribes to historical benediction by association with the origins of the republic... The problem with their reading of history is that it is wrong.

Way back in the early 1990s, when I was confronted with the Christian right's assertion that America was founded as a Christian nation, I knew that the assertion was wrong, but I did not feel I had an adequate explanation as to why that was so. I spent a lot of time trying to find a way of answering that question for my own satisfaction, and have come to believe that having a confident, ready answer to that question is a necessity for any one serious about preserving democratic pluralism and constitutional democracy in our time.  If we hope to win the debates and the politics of the present, we cannot allow historical revisionists of the Christian right to capture our past.

The Constitution and the Bill of Rights set in motion the disestablishment of official state churches and defined freedom of conscience and freedom of religion in a new way that was revolutionary in the history of the world. We now have a significant Christian right effort to revise history to claim that there was a different outcome and base their politics in part on whipping up resentment that secular liberals and the Supreme Court have somehow taken this from them, and that they must reclaim or restore this Christian nation that never was.

The battle for our history is well underway, and like on most aspects of the wider war being waged by the Christian Right, few of us are even on the playing field, let alone understand that the game is afoot.

People often ask what can we do about the Christian right? What actions can someone like me take in response?  While there are many things, one concrete thing anyone can do is to read some history, and learn the answer to the question, Was America founded as a Christian nation?  And learn how to give a good answer, and help others to learn it too.

Some months ago, I wrote an essay titled Writing the History of the Future and concluded:

Let us first, not be paralyzed by ignorance and fear. And let us not spread ignorance and fear to others. Let us offer no support and encouragement to those who engage in these practices.  Let's not allow our concerns about threats to  democracy and democratic institutions, to be a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Let's imagine and create movements of hope and strength.  The vast majority of Americans do not want a theocracy, or anything like a theocracy. But in order to reach them, we need to do a much better job of understanding the theocratic factions; persuading people of the nature of the threat to their interests; and organzing effective counter movements.

This is one of the central tasks of our time. How well we carry our this task -- will have everything to do with how the history of the future gets written.

If you are reading this, the odds are good that you are someone who, like one historian wrote of the framers of the constitution, can work "in the bright light of history."  

I invite you to step out into the light.

-- and some of the worst are self-imposed.

We will be better equipped to fight the tyrannies of or age, if we free ourselves from tyrannies of our own making.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Oct 03, 2006 at 01:48:45 AM EST

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