“But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” -Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782
There is something the modern mind finds disturbing about religious fanaticism, an old hate out of a hoary and atavistic past. And religious fanatics not only belong in the past but they seem to yearn for it. The apocalyptic, hate-filled imagery strikes a discordant note in the 21st century in a nation founded on the principles of the European Enlightenment.
What sane person, after all, wants to revisit those heady days of the Spanish Inquisition?
We were supposed to be past all that. The framers of our Constitution thought we were, way back in 1787. They were looking toward an Enlightened future, not backwards a benighted past.
Unsurprisingly, Europeans look askance at the United States, rife with its Puritan hang-ups and superstitions. After all, the idea of divine right died out a long time ago, when god fled the political scene, only to be resurrected in the New World and in a new century with George W. Bush’s claim that God – not the American people – chose him to lead America. Others agreed, including, disturbingly, an Army general. Then there is the Bush crusade against terrorism, and Republican politicians like Sharron Angle and Michele Bachmann who say God told them to run for office.
YHWH hasn’t been this busy since he conducted the ethnic cleansing of Canaan.
But nobody epitomizes the spirit of the past better than former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin, who campaigns as an average suburban hockey mom, an embodiment of awe-shucks, peanut butter and jelly “real” America.
But Ms. Palin does not have a lot in common with the average hockey mom. The average hockey mom, I will wager, does not attend exorcisms or have blessings against witchcraft placed on them, or believe that a very real war between heaven and hell is raging all around them.
There turns out to be a lot of things about Ms. Palin that seem out of the ordinary. And every once in a while she exposes a little of that part of herself, the part she kept carefully hidden during the 2008 presidential campaign except for an interview with Focus on the Family’s James Dobson in October of that year, which contained a mystifying mention of a group known as “Prayer Warriors.” She seemed to feel she owed them quite a lot.
All this comes down to her belief in spiritual warfare. In that interview, Ms. Palin thanked Prayer Warriors across the nation. While most of the world has abandoned the three-tiered universe as a working model, conservative Christians, feeling modern physics to be a liberal plot and reality to have a liberal bias, have retained that ancient model to better understand the workings of the unseen world – the world of spirits, demons, and yes, of Satan and his nefarious agents.
This in itself may seem bizarre enough to some. But how it relates to a politician who almost stood next-in-line for the presidency is truly frightening, especially given that person’s negative views of the Constitution. It was bad enough that George W. Bush treated it like toilet paper; Ms. Palin seems to think it supports Christian theocracy.
In a speech given to a group called “Women of Joy” in Kentucky in April of 2010, Sarah Palin not only repeated her thanks to “Prayer Warriors” but denied the existence of church-state separation:
I beg you, Women of Joy, to bring light and be involved, loving America and praying for her. Really, it is our solemn duty. Praying for true spiritual awakening to overcome deterioration. That is where God wants us to be. Lest anyone try to convince you that God should be separated from the state, our Founding Fathers, they were believers. And George Washington, he saw faith in God as basic to life.
All this brings to mind the cautions of people like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine; people Republican pundits like to trot out when convenient and pose as good conservative evangelical Christians.
Jefferson, who knew far more about the nature of our system of government than Ms. Palin ever will, wrote to the Danbury Baptists in 1802 that, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their Legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State,” and reiterated his position in 1808: “Erecting the ‘wall of separation between church and state,’ therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.”
James Madison, who authored much of the Constitution (and the first Amendment now under examination) wrote in 1819 of the “total separation of the church from the state” (letter to Robert Walsh). Needless to say, the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence (Jefferson) and the man known as the father of the Constitution, favored a strong separation of Church and State, and understood the first Amendment to guarantee as much.
But perhaps these Prayer Warriors believe they can pray the First Amendment away, just as they believed they could pray-down the price of gas, or pray away health reform, or pray McCain and Palin into the White House in 2008. While their track record is abysmal, the fears inspired by these extremist Christians are horrifying to children of the Enlightenment. Their superstitious belief in demonic presence among individuals they do not approve of is exactly the sort of thing Thomas Paine railed against in his Age of Reason (1795), where he said of Christianity that it is “Too absurd for belief, too impossible to convince, and too inconsistent for practice, it renders the heart torpid, or produces only atheists and fanatics.”
He would seem to have been right, to judge from Sarah Palin’s devotion to exorcisms and protections from witchcraft and witch hunters who chase innocent women out of their villages in Africa (Rev. Thomas Muthee of Kenya, director of the NAR East Africa Spiritual Warfare Network).
This NAR – New Apostolic Reformation – to which Sarah Palin subscribes aims at the complete takeover of the United States and the institution by legislation of Old Testament (Mosaic) Law. For the uninformed and ill-informed alike, Mosaic Law is virtually identical with Sharia Law. The only difference, really, is that one is Jewish and one is Muslim. Neither, strictly speaking, is compatible with a modern liberal democracy.
Obviously, this is a move, and a very open move, against the Constitution which every president (and vice-president) swears to uphold.
How, we might ask, is it possible to aspire to be president while also aspiring to tear down the Constitution? Does Sarah Palin expect us to believe that the men who created the wall of separation intended no such thing?
Sarah Palin likes to quote George Washington as saying that “he saw faith in God as basic to life.” She ignores, or isn’t aware of Washington’s rejoicing in the Enlightenment, that it had banished superstition to the past. In words much more significant than those Ms. Palin likes to quote, our first President wrote,
We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this Land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition … In this enlightened Age and in this Land of equal liberty it is our boast, that a man’s religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining and holding the highest Offices that are known in the United States (letter to the members of the New Church in Baltimore, January 27, 1793).
This is news to religious zealots like Sarah Palin.
George Washington, who presided over the Constitutional Convention that gave birth to the First Amendment’s free exercise clause, may have been a Christian or not, but if a Christian, he was a Christian who believed in that Wall of Separation between Church and State that Ms. Palin despises. As he wrote to assure a Jewish congregation in 1790,
All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it were by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support (letter to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island).
People can believe in spirits and demons or not. They can believe in God or gods if they want. But they absolutely cannot breach the Wall of Separation voted for, agreed upon by deists and Christians alike, and ratified by every state in the Union.
We might have little to fear from treasonous prayers from a group proven ineffectual in swaying deities to their point of view, but the political clout of the proponents of theocracy are not to be downplayed. It is a serious matter when a woman considered for Vice President of the United States believes spiritual warfare to be more viable than conventional warfare, and who allows her moral compass to be set by a witch-hunting pastor.
Our Founding Fathers, Christian and Deist alike, rejoiced in the Enlightenment and in the freedoms it brought from the dark terrors of state-sponsored religion and it’s persecutions and tortures and holy wars. It is a bald-faced example of the most reprehensible dishonesty to pretend today that our Founders would have supported what they had already denounced in their lifetimes as superstitious nonsense.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.