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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