In his thoughtful essay, “What the Pilgrims really sought,” in USA TODAY (November 23, 2009), Michael Medved tells us what is at the heart of American religiosity: uncompromising Puritan theocracy.
While I am not a Puritan myself, I trace my origins to their American Mecca, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (my family hasn’t lived in Israel since the Neo-Assyrians conquered the place in 740 BCE), and feel an affinity with them. Yet even I have to admit that they were anything but religiously liberal. They tried to make their colony Judenfrei (free of Jews); beat, whipped, and hung Quakers; and burned witches at the stake; and until the 1960s forced retailers to close their stores on Sunday (they abandoned this practice when they realized the faithful were driving to Connecticut to shop). Religious tolerance went down hill from there, with other colonies establishing their own religions and taxing everyone to pay for them.
In fact, if not for the necessity to band together to kill the British in the name of independence, we would probably be about killing one another in the name of God.
Religion didn’t unite the colonists, it divided them. It was the abuse of Catholics by Protestants in the Continental Army that forced George Washington to demand religious tolerance. Freedom of Religion was imposed on the people of the United States not derived from them. In fact, as Mr. Medved shows, the intent of the First Amendment was to protect the right of states to establish their own religions by forcing the federal government to be religiously neutral.
My only quibble with Mr. Medved’s fine essay is his statement that Thanksgiving celebrates religious coexistence. I don’t see that at all.
The first Thanksgiving in Virginia in 1619 gave thanks to God for the people’s safe passage over the Atlantic. The more famous Pilgrim ceremony two years latter thanked God for a good harvest. There is no American holiday of religious coexistence. And I’m pretty sure we could never have one.
Religions coexist in the United States by default. The United States is a secular state not because its people want it that way, but because they are too religiously divided to impose on religion on the country as a whole. True, I believe that put to a vote, most Americans would amend the Constitution to affirm that we are a Christian nation, but as soon as we do so, we would split into warring camps to determine who is the true Christian and what is the true Christianity.
At that point the country will come to the brink of collapse, giving rise to a fundamentalist charismatic leader who will promise to save us by imposing a theocratic oligarchy on the nation that will preserve the two great powers in America: church and corporation.
So this Thursday when I sit down to eat, plan my strategy for avoiding death at the hands of Black Friday Christmas shoppers at Wal-Mart, and visit my Native American brothers and sisters offering to buy their land for beads and handing out a few disease-infected blankets, I will make time to thank God for being so confusing as to split humanity into an ever increasing number of competing religions and thereby making it almost impossible for any one of them to dominate the rest. Oh, and I will clean my rifle just in case I am wrong.