Our “Pagan” President and our Pagan Democracy

Our “Pagan” President and our Pagan Democracy February 25, 2012

Earlier this month, Professor Anouar Majid, author of “We Are All Moors: Ending Centuries of Crusades against Muslims and Other Minorities”, wrote a guest column for Informed Comment. In this column, Majid noted that “democracy and republicanism arose in pagan, polytheistic cultures, ones whose people could live with many gods.” In Majid’s mind, no culture can truly embrace and enjoy the values of democracy, of representative government, without also embracing the “religious pluralism and cultural diversity” inherent in this political model’s building blocks. The Founding Fathers of the United States, from the beginning, were quite cognizant of the fact that the republic they were building would include protections for a diverse religious pluralism that could even encompass a revived polytheism.

“The exclusion of religious tests is by many thought dangerous and impolitic.They suppose that if there be no religious test required, pagans, deists, and Mahometans might obtain offices among us, and that the senators and representatives might all be pagans. Every person employed by the general and state governments is to take an oath to support the former. Some are desirous to know how and by whom they are to swear, since no religious tests are required-whether they are to swear by Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Proserpine, or Pluto.” – Rev. Henry Abbot, 1788.

For his part, Thomas Jefferson, a key architect of America’s religious freedoms, was proud that our country, in principle, encompassed “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.” In his mind, whether you worshiped twenty gods or no God” mattered little to him. However, for many of the Christian denominations and sects who came to North America seeking to build their own religious utopias, their own “city upon a hill,” this secular pluralistic language was something of a bug, not a feature. A necessary concession to forging peace between warring factions, and protecting their adherents in towns and cities where there were in the minority. By the dawning of the 20th century, a new understanding, a unified “tri-faith” America, was slowly formed. America was a “Judeo-Christian” nation made up of Protestants, Jews, and Catholics, and the post-war/cold war era saw “God” (and patriotic ceremonial deism) inserted into our culture as an inoculation against godless communism.

This Judeo-Christian, “Tri-Faith,” consensus started to break apart once the shared danger of a world war faded from our day-to-day lives, and as our religious diversity slowly increased. Soon, splits over what form our pluralistic nation would take erupted in our courtrooms, and the seeds of future culture war(s) were planted. At the heart was a split over whether American pluralism was an “everyone in the pool” affair, letting the best (and biggest) faiths win in the marketplace of our public squares and government halls, or if Jefferson’s notion of a “separation of Church and State” meant that government should work to keep the areas under its control free from anything that could be seen as an endorsement of a certain religion. Those tensions play out to this day. What does a “National Prayer Breakfast” mean in a country that counts Buddhists, atheists, Hindus, Muslims, and Pagans alongside the Jews, Protestants, and Catholics? Do limitations on Christian hegemony make them a persecuted minority? How should religious materials be distributed at school, should they be distributed at all?

Enter into this back-and-forth our first African American president, Barack Obama. Almost from the beginning some of his opponents played up his foreignness. His unusual name, his Kenyan father, the brief time he spent in Indonesia as a child. Soon, the “birther” conspiracy theories, and the “secret Muslim” conspiracy theories started to play out in the darker corners of the Internet, sadly getting far too much attention in mainstream media outlets. To this day, prominent Christians still make veiled allusions to the possible Muslim/non-Christian nature of our president. In addition to this, because no pernicious slur seems to travel alone, there were insinuations that maybe he was worse than simply being a Muslim, who are at least monotheistic believers in God, maybe he had a “pagan” quality as well.

“[Focus Action’s Tom Minnery] pointed out that in the Bible, God worked through pagan rulers such as Nebuchadnezzar, Darius and Cyrus to accomplish his purposes, and that values voters ought to begin praying for President-elect Obama. “God can use any president for his own purposes,” Minnery said.”

Those comments from 2008, which cast Obama as a “pagan” king to be influenced, seem almost quaint and charming compared to more recent statements. For instance, there was conservative “comedian” Steven Crowder, who “joked” this month that Obama “should go back to burning the taxpayer-funded incense to whatever Pagan, foreign deity he’s worshiping.” Then, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum accused Obama of adhering to a “phony theology.” When pressed on what he meant by that, he elaborated that our president might just be worshiping the Earth.

“…a world view that elevates the earth above man … I was talking about the radical environmentalists. [T]his idea that man is here to serve the earth.”

Washington Times columnist Jeffrey Kuhner doubled down on Santorum’s statements, making explicit what the candidate only hinted at.

“Mr. Santorum’s larger point is that Mr. Obama and his liberal allies have embraced radical environmentalism – a form of neo-paganism. The green movement – exemplified by the hoax of man-made global warming – has degenerated into a pseudo-religion. Environmentalists worship Gaia, Mother Earth, turning it into a secular goddess.”

It’s no longer enough for Obama to branded a secret Muslim, to question his professed Christian faith, he must be a (secular) “neo-pagan,” because then he would be truly beyond the pale for any Christian voter. As influential conservative evangelical Christian, and former presidential candidate, Gary Bauer noted in a recent “thought experiment” for USA Today, voters should  “support policies that align with their values,” except in once instance.

I wouldn’t vote for a pagan, I’d vote for a Catholic or a Jew whose policies reflect the traditional understanding of marriage and defend the sanctity of human life much more readily than I would vote for the man next to me in the pew who doesn’t support those things.”

Of course, Obama is a Christian, just like every other president we’ve ever had (though I suppose you could argue that Jefferson was never a proper Christian, but that’s a different conversation). However, these misguided critics are right in one small aspect: Obama is a “pagan” president, as is every other president elected to the office.

A collection of lucky charms carried by Obama during his presidential run.

Every president, every politician, who takes the oath to uphold our Constitution, are taking an oath that the founders knew would allow for men and women of every faith (or even no faith) to someday take their place among our leadership. They are taking an oath on a document crafted by men who are products of the Enlightenment, whose thinkers looked to ancient pagan thinkers, politicians, and philosophers for wisdom and guidance, unencumbered by the filter of the Christian church. The religious pluralism of the United States of America is a pluralism that had its first breaths in ancient Greece, and later ancient Rome, where a variety of gods, goddesses, cults, sects, and traditions had to live together in a civil society. To return to Professor Majid’s essay, “one can’t imagine the American Republic without the Founding Fathers’ knowledge of Greece and Rome.” Democracy, republicanism, are core pagan inventions, and no matter how Christian the hand who steers the ship of State, those ideals remain lest our institutions crumble.

The reason we haven’t had a theocratic takeover, a Handmaid’s Tale nightmare scenario, is because at a gut level, we as a people understand this. We know that the rhetoric of a “Christian nation” is populist fodder for pews and rallies, a mantra repeated to ease the fears of strange neighbors with strange practices. To enact the religious fever dreams of a Santorum or a Bachmann would mean the end of America itself, because a vital tie to what makes democracies work would be severed. So while some like to demonize our pluralism, they should thank their God for our “pagan” institutions that allow them the luxury of their easy prejudices. Those who damn Obama as a “pagan” should be thankful that the pagans of ages past created the mechanisms to protect their freedoms should all their conspiracy theories prove true.  If the political wishes of certain conservatives are realized and a “real” Christian president is elected in 2012, know that this individual will be just as “pagan” as Obama.

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33 responses to “Our “Pagan” President and our Pagan Democracy”

  1. Considering that traditionally, Christians held that they were holding the world in trust for the return of their God, one might be correct to suspect Mr. Frothymix’s Christian bona fides. The idea of active environmental destruction as auto-da-fe is something that only arose in certain strains of Christianity (and for extra irony, mostly aggressively anti-Catholic strains of Christianity) in the last 15 years.

  2. Well done, Jason. Hecatedemetersdatter is correct: This should be circulated widely. I’ve shared this post on my FB page, the School’s FB page, and several twitter accounts.

  3. I’ve read Handmaid’s Tale. It’s not pretty. Fortunately it does represent an extreme. Extremes make a lot of noise but most of the time they change the overall picture only minimally. I hope that pattern continues.

  4. Damn! I don’t believe in a deity, but I think you articulated the case for an unproblematic, civil “pagan” presidency quite well. Embracing our non-Abrahamic history as an American value is a good idea, IMO.

  5. In addition to all the excellent sources already cited by Jason (well, except for Peter Gay’s which is probably the worst book ever written on the Enlightenment) I would add J.B. Bury’s 1913 classic “A History of Freedom of Thought”, available freely at Project Gutenberg here. Bury was one of the most important historians of Greco-Roman civilization and the author of “A History of the Later Roman Empire”. Especially relevant are his sections on on “The Persecution of Paganism“, “The Persecution of Heresy“, and “The Suppression of Paganism [Under Justinian]“. Bury was a true son of the Enlightenment, and like both Hume and Gibbon before him he drew a sharp contrast between the tolerance and intellectual freedom found in polytheistic societies and the intolerance and persecution found wherever monotheism gains the upper hand.

  6. Great article, Jason. The ancient pagan cultures are the basis for western civilization and how to manage the plurality that is inevitable in human societies. Democracy comes from ancient Greece and the law comes from ancient Rome. The Founding Fathers, especially Jefferson, were educated enough to understand this.

  7. “America was a “Judeo-Christian” nation made up of Protestants, Jews, and Catholics, and the post-war/cold war era saw “God” (and patriotic ceremonial deism) inserted into our culture as an inoculation against godless communism.

    This Judeo-Christian, “Tri-Faith,” consensus started to break apart once the shared danger of a world war faded from our day-to-day lives, and as our religious diversity slowly increased.”

    This timeline is a bit simplistic. We were deep in the Cold War — Joe McCarthy and HUAC riding high, “under God” inserted in the Pledge — when the first cracks started to show in the religious culture. Jehovah’s Witnesses protested school prayer and saluting the Flag (idolatry). Modern Witchcraft became popular in the 1960s while we were fighting in Vietnam, a shooting war premised on the Cold War. In the same epoch the Supreme Court started striking down religious-based restrictions like censorship of obscenity and state regulation of contraception. It was messy (and exhilirating to live through).

  8. Agreed. I would add that the “Muslim” label hasn’t stuck, and so the conservative think tank is playing the “pagan” card. The aspersions with this label are that he is not a “real” Christian; and that Obama is also an active participant with the pagan (ie, read “Satanic”) power that is against all Christians.

  9. As a radical environmentalist and ‘neo-pagan’. I find it offensive to be compared to Obama LOL

  10. It physically causes me headaches trying to figure out how people can not understand that if we completely fuckup the Earth, there won’t be anyone alive, and all their worshiping and lust of money will amount to nothing. I try to stay away from violence but these idiots make me want to hear the TWUNK! sound of a 2×4 bouncing off their skull.

    Doesn’t their doctrine say we’re stewards of the planet, and to tend to it and keep it in good condition? How can Mr.Foamyfudge think that dumping neuro toxins into the air is an OK thing??

  11. Apuleius Platonicus, thank you so much for the Bury links. I’ll add that to my reading list. As Jason points out so well, the Founding Fathers who are being hijacked for supposedly creating “this Christian nation” were in truth children of The Enlightenment and The Age of Reason. If these hijackers increased their own reading lists with an open mind, the world would be a much better place.

  12. As well as adding “under God” to the Pledge, this was also the era in which “In God We Trust” first appeared on our money. A lot of people have the impression that that phrase has always been there, but it’s demonstrably untrue.

  13. Exactly, and when you confront them with their own doctrine, they usually start stuttering and then they get angry. I got a loud and long lecture from a woman the other day for quoting the bible, something she does in every post, and using it to refute her point of view. She said I was not a good Christian (I have not made my religion known to her either way) and that I’d make a good lawyer.

    I think I’ve been insulted twice!

    But when I think of how incredibly responsible humans have been in taking care of our planet, I always go back to something Robin Williams said a couple of decades ago: God – “I gave you a nice planet and you f*cked it up!”

  14. Thanks for a truly well thought out and well written article Jason. So few people remember that the Founding Fathers were children of The Enlightenment and The Age of Reason and used their education about ancient cultures to fight the monarchial system based on the “Divine Right of Kings.”

    Obama is indeed a Christian, by his own declaration – nobody ever questions that Rick Santorum or any other candidate is a Christian based on their own say so. I find little that is “Christ-like” in these candidate’s behavior, while Obama reacts to their daily attacks by smiling and joking about it (turning the other cheek) while trying to get his job done.

    Yet Obama’s enemies keep hammering on the idea that he is anything but Christian despite not 1 shred of proof, not 1 incident of his facing Mecca when praying, not even 1 incident of him “burning incense” (if burning incense makes you a pagan, there are a lot of pot smokers who don’t know they’ve changed religions!)

    If one wants to be against Obama, for the love of all the gods be against him because you don’t agree with his decisions and policies, not because of some crap some hater pulled out of their butt and disseminated over the internet!

    No President has ever had to endure so many personal attacks or such disrespect based on absolutely nothing. These attackers do not even realize that their hatred of him has spilled over into disrespect for his office and is bringing respect for us as a country down (or else they think it’s worth it – an extremist point of view if I ever heard one).

    They should read a few foreign newspapers, most of whom do not understand what the big deal is. And funnily enough, much of the foreign media that is against Obama blame his policies on his extreme Christian views!

  15. The crack about making a good lawyer means she had absolutely no clue as to how to actually rebut your argument. Exactly what, if I may ask, did you quote to her?

  16. Yes, I hate the assumption touted by the religious right that our founding fathers were uneducated backwoods hilljacks.

  17. It was in a discussion regarding the Affordable Care Act. She gave a huge diatribe, which I can’t quote to you as she is now on my “block list” for being abusive, but she had decided that everyone on any “public assistance” – to include seniors on Medicare – was a charlatan and defrauding the government, thereby stealing from her personal pocketbook. She feels no obligation to help her fellow human under any circumstances and is very blunt in saying so, yet claims she follows every word of the bible and strongly demands that everyone else do likewise. So I quoted these to her:

    “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.” Proverbs 21:13

    “He who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth and he who gives gifts to the rich — both come to poverty.” Proverbs 22:16

    “If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother.” Deuteronomy 15:7

    “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.” Deuteronomy 15:11

    And last, but certainly not least, let’s hear a bit from Jesus:
    “Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungered, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” Matthew 25:41-46

    Then I asked her: So which is the Christian? The one who says “The poor need help” or the one who says “Take care of it yourself”?

    I haven’t had a specific discussion with her about stewardship of the Earth, but since she is a vocal supporter of the Keystone XL Pipeline and doesn’t understand why the Deep Horizon spill was “such a big deal,” I doubt she would pay attention to anything even her God would say about taking care of His planet.

  18. Thank you! Perhaps you shouldn’t be insulted by the suggestion you’d make a good lawyer. You researched the relevant texts and organized them in support of your position. All important to lawyering. 😉

  19. I don’t think Abraham Lincoln was a Christian. He was not a churchgoer, he wrote scathing things about Christian ministers, and I don’t think he regarded Jesus as a divine being.

  20. I disagree with “… is a “pagan” president, as is every other president elected to the office.” I’d agree that they all are pluralist, but not all pagan. Today we have a Christian pluralist is office. Maybe one day well have a Jewish pluralist. And one day maybe even a Pagan pluralist.

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