The United States Has Always Been a Pagan, Socialist Nation, Part II

In Part One I presented an argument that the USA began as a socialist nation. There are already a few people screaming that we are NOT a Socialist nation. No, that’s not what I said. I explained that I was using “socialist” in the classic Enlightenment sense as meaning a society that is governed for the benefit of all its people, not for the benefit of any minority. Of course, at the moment we have drifted far from that ideal. And, BTW, not reading what has been written is what gets freshman an F in most classes. (Still, I do admit that a bit of confusion arises from the aesthetic custom of Capitalizing the major words in a title.)

Here I am using “pagan” also in a classic sense. I certainly do not mean that anyone in the US in 1776 was a Wiccan, Druid, Heathen, or any other current variety of Paganism—as far as I know. What I mean is much closer to what the Romans meant by “paganus”: a rural person who was not very concerned about the official pantheon in Rome. The Greeks had a similar term for their country folk. People also use the term “pagan” to mean a hedonist. That applies. Pagans of any sort are not likely to be Puritans. The theological myth created by Margaret Murray, that witches were leftover pagans who refused to convert to the official religion of Christianity, provides a link to our modern situation.

As I said, ours was a social and cultural revolution, not a merely political one. One of its goals was to achieve religious freedom, for which political freedom was a prerequisite. The situation the colonists faced was that, so long as the colonies were part of the British Empire, the Church of England was the “established” church. That is, it was the official religion of the Empire, it operated with governmental authority, and its members had rights and privileges denied to everyone else. For example, only CE members could attend Oxford or Cambridge. The Catholics who could afford to had to send their kids to France to get a college education. Catholics could not attend college in England until 1820.

Jefferson was not directly involved in the writing or signing of the Constitution, because he was at that time the ambassador to France. However, when he returned, he resumed his work as a political philosopher by being the primary author of the Bill of Rights. Many of the rights enumerated in those ten amendments were direct responses to the British abuses he had listed in the Declaration. The importance of religious freedom is evidenced by the fact that the very first words in the Bill of Rights are “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

People often misunderstand the eighteenth-century vocabulary used here. The sentence does not mean that Congress cannot respect a church or any religion at all, despite what Citizens United for the Separation of Church and State may think. The misinterpretation arises, first, from not realizing that the word “respecting” is here being used as a preposition. The sentence could be reworded as “Congress shall make no law about establishing a religion” without changing its intended meaning.

The second misinterpretation comes from thinking that “an establishment of religion” means “a religious establishment,” that is, a church. No, the meaning here goes back to the fact that the Church of England was the “established church,” that is, the official church and religion of the British Empire. The point is therefore that Congress cannot make any religion be the official church of the United States. Under the Constitution, no church can have rights and privileges that any other church does not have.

Atheists and other rational people would like to argue that churches and religions should therefore not have any rights and privileges at all. No, the Founding Fathers foresaw such a viewpoint. That is why the rest of the sentence reads, “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Congress cannot pass a law that prohibits people from practicing their religion however they see fit to do so—within limits. That is why it is constitutional for people to pray in public at, for example, the inauguration of a President (I find it mildly amusing that augury is no longer practiced at an inauguration), but not to require children to pray in school. Adults can be in a mixed crowd, where some will pray, others choose not to, but all can handle it.  Not so for children. If prayer is required, even merely as a custom, the children who choose not to pray because of their own family background or personal philosophy will be and have been bullied, often cruelly. That is not acceptable. On the other hand, high-school kids who want to have a school club for the members of their faith community have the right to do so, and the anticlericalists who want to forbid them that right are the ones being un-American and unconstitutional.

I have not noticed (since constitutional law is not one of my hobbies) whether anyone has pointed out the connection between the Preamble to the Declaration and the First Amendment, but it is there. Since the Church of England operated with governmental authority, the concept that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed also applies to churches. It was quite clear to the Founding Fathers that faith is not faith unless it is given freely. As is said, “A man convinced against his will / Is of the same opinion still.” Many of Founding Fathers were Deists or otherwise held a very low Christology, but many who signed the Declaration and the Constitution were devout Catholics. At least one was Jewish. The Catholics who founded the two states named for the Blessed Virgin had been driven here by religious persecution also. They were not about to do that to anyone else. Then as now, American Catholics do not necessarily subscribe to the administrative rules of the Church of Rome.  In the US, it is unconstitutional to coerce anyone on matters of faith.

Here, finally, we connect to modern Pagans. Non-Pagans, at least, those who belong to churches whose identities are defined by allegiance to a formal theology,  find it hard to grasp how Pagans with such wildly divergent theologies—Pagans can be polytheists or atheists, duotheists or even monotheists (the Abrahamic religions have no monopoly on monotheism)—can all be members of the same religious movement. But what Pagans share in common is what they share with the Founding Fathers: the belief that all religion must be based on the freely given consent of its members. That opposition to coercion by any central authority, be it Rome, Athens, the medieval church, or the Church of England, is one thread that ties together all varieties of paganism, from the ancient to the modern.

The current political problem motivating this essay is, of course, the desire of the Dominionists (a useful term, since it refers only to their political agenda) to impose a Christian theocracy on these United States. They can’t. Their goal is absolutely unconstitutional. They do say things like “The United States is a Christian nation.” No, it’s not. Never has been. Dominionists can assert that only by being abysmally ignorant of American history. Many of them think they are Christians, of course, often of the variety called Evangelical. I do not think they are Christians at all, given that they are also abysmally ignorant of the actual tenets and history of the faith they profess. Besides, I know Evangelicals, like my friend John Morehead, as well as other varieties of Christians, who are well-educated, liberal, compassionate, and absolutely opposed to use of any sort of coercion in matters of faith. Still, there are “Christians” who believe that anyone who is not a member of their particular church is a pagan. Fine. The rest of us can claim that title proudly.

 

  • KateGladstone

    Re:
    ” … many who signed the Declaration and the Constitution were devout Catholics. At least one was Jewish.”
    Which one was that?

  • Bill Wheaton

    Hayman Solomon was a Jew from Poland, a revolutionary war hero, and contributed a fortune to our cause, dying a pauper. I think he was a member of a delegation, but he didn’t sign it. Charles Carroll was the only Catholic. Predictably he is from South Carolina which was a bastion of religious freedom and refuge from the outset, including those who would escape over the Savannah River from Georgia to get away from Button Gwinett and John Wesley. It was there that the Huguenots fled, home of one of the oldest synagogues, and mosques and Unitarian churches.

    One of the reasons religious freedom is part of the constitution is not so much because of the British and CE, but also because of the massive power wielded by the Puritan and other non-conformist churches in Boston and New England. One of the reasons it took so long to ratify the current constitution was that several of the states didn’t want to add that to their own constitution. It was a real effort. One of those was Mass, and another was NY.

    Some may say we are not socialists in the way that Engels and Marx would have described, but certainly before they came along and put a popular scientific spin on it,, socialism was (and still is) a major part of our politco-economic system from the start. Many of the states entered the Union as Commonwealths, which is at it’s core, socialism. We would do well in America to end our fear of saying the word “socialism” and understand that it will be what will successfully conduct our country through it’s coming troubles.

    • aidanakelly

      Thank you, Bill, for both correcting my errors and ratifying the basic point I was making

      • Bill Wheaton

        Yes indeed. Exciting times!


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