Theocracy Watch IV: Liberty Defiled

The Fourth of July occurs during this week, the United States of America’s Independence Day. On this day we remember the ideals America was born to uphold, the ideals that generations of patriots have fought and died for: liberty of speech, liberty of belief, and eternal freedom from every form of tyranny over the mind of man.

Sadly, there are still some ungrateful people who reject these wonderful blessings, and live in this land and take advantage of the freedom it offers while plotting how best to overthrow its ideals and turn it into a cold-hearted land of theocracy. Witness the following story, which came to my attention via The Greenbelt:

It seems that a Christian church in Memphis, Tennessee, has erected a distorted, Christianized version of the Statue of Liberty. Rather than a tablet with the inscription “JULY IV MDCCLXXVI”, the date of America’s birth, this version’s tablet bears the Roman numerals I through X, standing for the Ten Commandments. Instead of Lady Liberty’s original seven-pointed crown, representing the seven seas and seven continents, this one wears a crown bearing the name “JEHOVAH”. And instead of the flame of liberty, this version carries a cross. And this vile mockery is huge: 72 feet tall, about half as tall as the real thing. Its backers say it represents “America belonging to God”.

This, to my mind, is far worse than burning the American flag, which the religious right in Congress again recently tried to ban. Burning the flag expresses rejection of America’s ideals, but defiling the Statue of Liberty in this way expresses a desire to twist those ideals, to turn America into a distorted and monstrous perversion of what it was originally founded as. Rather than a land of freedom, its shores gleaming bright with promise to refugees of all backgrounds and beliefs, the Christian right wants to remake America in their own narrow and hateful image, into a place where one religion, one church reigns supreme and rules over the state, and all others are second-class citizens at best. Better would it be for America to vanish from the earth entirely than for the promises of liberty built into it at its inception to become so terribly subverted. In her statue, the true Lady Liberty is crushing the chains of oppression under her feet, but the makers of this statue evidently desire to shackle her in those very same chains.

Of course, while the religious right inveighs against flag burning, they have not spoken a word against this desecration. Their political tactics inevitably revolve around motivating their followers by getting them worked up into an irrational froth of emotion about some trivial issue; but in this case the issue at hand actually reflects their own beliefs. Though most of them are more subtle about saying so, they too want to turn the United States into a right-wing Christian theocracy. They too want to tear the torch of welcome from Liberty’s hands and replace it with a cross. They too want new immigrants to see, rising over our borders, not the light of hope but that terrible iron symbol of bloodshed and intolerance that John Adams himself called an “engine of grief”.

As always, I should make clear the basis of my objection. Although I love my country, I cannot consider this statue a literal desecration, since as an atheist I have no sacred symbols in the religious sense. What truly angers me is not the statue itself, but the beliefs and ideals behind that statue: the malignant desire to see religion and state fused, a perpetually recurring desire of the ignorant which our founding fathers built guarantees against into the Constitution precisely because they were so painfully familiar with its inevitable consequences. This statue stands for that evil idea and so I oppose it, just as I oppose the Bible and Christianity not because I believe there is an actual god with whom I disagree, but because I disagree with the actions carried out by humans who claim to be acting in that god’s name.

Nor am I calling for this statue or others like it to be banned, no matter how offensive it is. America’s very ideals which I love convince me that I cannot do that. However, I can and do deplore the historical ignorance, ungratitude and disrespect for those ideals that would motivate a citizen of the United States to create something like this. Anyone who calls themself an American and who played a part in the making of this idol of slavery should be ashamed.

Fortunately, the true Lady Liberty stands unbowed by such cheap and transparent imitations. No matter how the partisans of theocracy try to obscure and distort them until they are unrecognizable, the ideals of America only shine out all the more clearly from Liberty’s torch, calling true patriots and lovers of freedom to action. We have always defended her against all enemies, and we will defend her still. Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus”, which is engraved on her pedestal, is a piece of verse far more beautiful and moving than anything in the Bible, perpetually reminding us why she was created and for what:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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