Friday, October 22, 2010

Church and State

The following was published today in the print and online editions of The Oregonian:

The history behind the separation of church and state

By Laura Jane Gifford

The recent denial by Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell of a constitutionally enshrined separation between church and state is fundamentally flawed. A quick glance at the First Amendment is sufficient to demonstrate that while the specific words "separation of church and state" can't be found in sequence, the concept behind them is unquestionably present.

O'Donnell's selection of this particular issue, however, is especially ironic, given the religious demographics of many in the tea party movement and the history behind the First Amendment's clause preventing establishment of an "official" church.

Early evangelicals were some of the most strident opponents of an established church. In most American colonies, one established church stood at the center of religious and community life, controlled the tempo of religious expression and even levied taxes for its maintenance. In New England, for example, it was the Puritan church; in many Southern states, it was the Church of England. The taxes these churches levied were a mandatory part of life for all citizens living within a colony's boundaries. Even after the American Revolution, established churches remained part of life in several states, dissolving gradually over a series of decades.

In the 1730s, however, a wave of religious fervor struck England and the colonies. The Great Awakening was characterized by fervent preaching, emphasis on the conversion experience of being "born again" and extension of the right to preach and share religious revelation to a broader cross-section of society. Among other things, the Great Awakening dramatically diversified the denominational affiliations of American colonists, as new sects ranging from Baptists to Methodists to Presbyterians added their distinctive forms of expression to the American religious spectrum.

These newly invigorated, fervently devout evangelicals balked at paying taxes to established churches that did not share their theological positions. Indeed, in some parts of the colonies, sects such as the Baptists went so far as to refuse paying church taxes, drawing the disapprobation of colonial elites and sometimes even jail sentences.

Citizens from throughout the American colonies used the language of "freedom" and "liberty" that characterized the Revolutionary movement to anchor their own causes. Some campaigns were more successful than others, and in many cases connections were forged among disparate groups with similar aims. In the case of religious freedom, early evangelicals and Deist elites like Thomas Jefferson could find common ground. Jefferson believed God ceased to be active in the world following creation, but he did not want to see an established church hobbling the rationality of his republican experiment; evangelicals did not want to owe fealty to a national religious establishment that could compromise their deeply held beliefs. The result, of course, was the First Amendment.

Since the nation's founding, myriad religious groups have been able to call upon the First Amendment to legitimate their freedom of expression in the face of considerable oppression. This has been true of Jews and Catholics, Muslims and Hindus -- but also of denominations like the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, of which tea party guru Glenn Beck is a faithful member. Given the long and often violent history of attempts to repress the Mormon faith, it's safe to say that without the First Amendment, Beck would not be safe to express his Mormon beliefs today.

O'Donnell and the rest of the tea party movement would do well to study their history before they make unfounded statements based on false premises about America's religious past.

Laura Jane Gifford is an adjunct instructor at George Fox University and author of "The Center Cannot Hold: The 1960 Presidential Election and the Rise of Modern Conservatism."

Link to the column as it appears in The Oregonian here:

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Life has been busy...

... so meanwhile, here's a nice little diversion. Made me smile; merited inclusion on the first slide of my PowerPoint slides for lecture the other day.

Get Fuzzy

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Here comes the sun

The Obamas are planning to install solar panels on the roof of the White House to serve some of the mansion's electrical needs. Great. This means we've finally returned to the level of common sense we last experienced over thirty years ago, right?

On some levels, yes. Ronald Reagan memorably removed a set of solar panels installed by Jimmy Carter back in 1986, one of many symbolic gestures marking the end of an age of limits for the United States. It was morning in America, folks, and all that sun needed to do was warm our happy American faces as we rolled off down the highway in our petroleum-based vehicles.

However, here's an interesting link -- turns out George W. Bush installed electricity-generating solar panels on the White House grounds, too. As the article points out, Republicans' failure to trumpet this fact may pertain to the propaganda value of associating Obama with the disaster-prone Carter era. It's a sad commentary on our society, however, that solar panels on the White House could be seen as anything but good. What happened to the virtues of independence and self-sufficiency that have been so integral (however ill-practiced in reality) to the history of the United States? The very same virtues that conservative politicians trumpet?

We need a comprehensive return to independence and self-sufficiency in the realm of energy policy, not because we have to "go it alone" in this world -- friends are a good thing, and we would do well to cultivate them more assiduously -- but because it is the morally responsible legacy to leave to our children. American history is littered with the darker implications of seemingly positive attributes. "Independence" and "self-sufficiency" nearly destroyed the Native peoples of North America, to give just one example, but if we can learn from such tragedies, we needn't let them color the meaning such terms could have for the future.

It would do politicians on both ends of the spectrum good to acknowledge the contributions -- and the shortcomings -- of their forebears. Fighting past battles does nothing but poison the possibilities for the future.

Independence and self-sufficiency must be reclaimed, and this time, without the hypocrisy that has colored so much of our past. If a few solar panels on the roof of a certain big white building start us on our way, good. If we can summon the maturity to build upon the legacies of both Bush II and Obama in this regard, so much the better.