Saturday, February 20, 2016

Religion, secularism and the complications of the American tradition of religious freedom

In my recent post Mark Twain's white suit and Andrew Jackson 02/16/2016, I cited Tracy Fessenden's book Culture and Redemption: Religion, The Secular, and American Literature (2007).

Her book is a collection of essays divided into two sections. The four chapters in the first part are more thematically tied together with the idea that the development of the American notion of freedom of religion well into the 19th century largely took the form of the privileging of a non-sectarian Protestant Christian narrative. The second is a more diverse set of essays on literary topics, including the one that deals with Mark Twain's white suit.

I was especially intrigued by her elaboration of Puritan texts equating the "savage Indians" with "Catholicism." Puritan views lumped women with Indians as part of Nature, a condition above which white European Protestants had risen, though obviously white European Protestant women weren't put on quite so low a level as the other humans regarded as part of degraded, unregenerate Nature. Or at least true Protestants like themselves. Dissenters from their true way were quickly lumped in with the other wretched inferiors who were part of Nature: Indians, Catholics, women. The Puritan era is one of Fessenden's specialties. She is a co-editor of The Puritan Origins of American Sex: Religion, Sexuality, and National Identity in American Literature (2001).

But Protestantism was plagued from the start by its own schismatic tendencies. Fessenden in a footnote (p. 245) quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson from 1844: "[T]he Catholic religion respects masses of men and ages. ... The Catholic church is ethnical [sic], and in every way superior. It is in harmony with Nature, which loves the race and ruins the individual. The Protestant has his pew, which of course is only the first step to a church for every individual citizen - a church apiece." (my emphasis)

So in terms of the secular government's attitudes toward establishment and protection of the Christian religion, Papist and heathen Indians came in practice to be regarded as far more threatening to the True Faith than dissenting Protestant sects.

Fessenden writes about the great appeal of captive narratives, stories of whites who lived among the Indians. This is a fascinating shadow side of white-dominated American history, a reminder that some whites were forced into a relation with natives peoples in which they were regarded to treat them as humans like themselves. At least at some level, for some length of time. In some cases, such whites decided they preferred the company of the "savages" to that of the civilized whites.

The following passage gives a glimpse of Fassenden's nuanced treatment of the complexity of these trends and their evolution over time:

Bur if the view of Indians as deficient Christians - and of wayward Protestant Christians as Indians [in an earlier Puritan view] - made Indians the inverse of the Puritan ideal, it also permitted the Puritans' gradual recasting of Indians not as the image of the unregenerate Puritan interior but instead as the external periphery of an increasingly incommensurable otherness, against which different varieties of Protestant Christianity could then be subtly consolidated. After 1679, the civil and spiritual reforms of the Puritans were directed less toward individual regeneration than toward securing ministerial leadership and civil order among the new outlying towns and "unwalled villages" of the expanding white frontier. Because Puritans failed to credit Indians with a distinctive interiority, the Indian became a blank slate for Puritan projections of spiritual deficiency, first by being made into emblems of unregenerate Puritans, and then subtly and increasingly as tools of enemy Catholics. The "conversion" of lndians from weak Puritans to vigorous papists was facilitated by the literal removing or subduing of autonomous tribes from southern New England, which meant that the resistant Indians with whom Puritans came into contact after King Philip's War were those who had been "Romanized" in their association with French colonists to the north. "There is a Danger lest your Neighbors be made Captives," warned Cotton Mather in 1707; "If they become Captives, they fall into the hands of Papists. The Papists will use more than ordinary Pains to Debauch them." Indian captivity had earlier provided Mather the occasion to exhort his congregants to examine their spiritual fragility, their own incipient Indianness in the absence of full conversion. As Tara Fitzpatrick argues, however, the threat of captivity to "papists" now enabled Mather to emphasize less the vulnerability of the Puritan community than its theological strengths, its elevation of faith over works and the gracious workings of the Word over the meretricious agency of the sacraments [associated especially with the "Papists"]. (my emphasis in bold; p. 30)
She concludes that by the end of the eighteenth century, with the image of Indians as the Other, bolstered by and identified with the image of the Papist Other, "the Puritans' recasting of the otherness of Indians as a spiritual difference of kind rather than degree enabled the proliferating sects of white New England Protestants to remain united as solid and worthy heirs of the Reformation against the miscegenate corruption represented to [Increase] Mather as the 'half Indianized French ... half Frenchified Indians." (p. 31) The Puritans were particularly focused on the "Papist" threat because of the close proximity of Catholic French settlements.

Fassenden is careful to look at the periods she examines as what they are, events taking place in particular temporal and geographic contexts and is careful against generalizing those experiences beyond the evidence she cites. But she does argue that the broad trend in the United States well into the 19th century tended to regard "freedom of religion" in schools and public institutions as a nonsectarian support of Protestant religiosity. She doesn't stress the legal and Constitutional evolution in the United States. But it is important to remember that the freedom of religion enshrined in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the federal Constitution was generally understood as applying only to the federal government, not to the states. It wasn't until the 14th Amendment extended the protections of the Bill of Rights fully to the states as well, that the pre-Civil War state-level approach to religious liberty was superseded by the protections of the federal Constitution.

As she does note, "Just prior to the Revolution, religious establishment was the rule in nine of the thirteen colonies. Soon after, New York's state constitution of 1777 abolished establishment, South Carolina's in 1778 for the first time require it, and other states proceeded unevenly to codify their relationship to established churches."

Her third chapter looks at local rounds in the "Bible wars," in the nineteenth century over religious education in public schools. The influx of Irish Catholic immigrants into northern cities added nativist and ethnic elements to Protestant anti-Catholicism. Use of the King James Bible in public school education became a flashpoint with Catholics:

In Massachusetts, whose 1780 Constitution had stipulated that "public protestant teachers" would be supported to foster the "piety, education, and morality" on which civil government must "essentially depend," an 1827 law gave school committees power over textbooks "provided also that said committee shall never direct any school books to be purchased or used in any of the schools under their superintendence, which are calculated to favor any particular religious sect or tenet. " Sectarian objections that the public schools made no provision for specifically religious teachings were answered by interdenominational Protestant assurances that the content of instruction would be broadly Christian. At the center of the curriculum was the King James Bible. As the educational reformer Horace Mann insisted, the public school "welcomes the Bible, and therefore welcomes all the doctrines which the Bible really contains .... [I]t listens to these doctrines so reverently, that ... it will not suffer any rash mortal to thrust in his interpolations of their meanings, or overlay the text with any of the 'many inventions' which the heart of man has sought out" - a policy that rendered the annotated Douay Bible used by Catholics unacceptable, even as it enshrined the edition (the King James Bible) whose dedication referred to the pope as the "man of Sinne„ and whose preface refuted the legitimacy of the Catholic Church. As head of the Massachusetts School Committee, Mann vetoed as inappropriately sectarian a book then in wide use, The Child at Home, which was staunchly Calvinist in matters of sin and final judgment, but he made the Bible into the principle of tolerance itself: "In every course of studies, all the practical and preceptive parts of the Gospel should ... [be] sacredly included .... In no school should the Bible ... [be] opened to reveal the sword of ... polemic, but to unloose the dove of peace." [my emphasis in bold; pp. 66-7
The real-life conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in the US cannot be cleanly separated into religious, ethnic/cultural and political elements. But there was a political element. And whatever their various motivations, American Protestants were not wrong when they viewed the Catholic Church as largely an opponent of free, republican institutions Fessenden writes about the aftermath of the failed democratic revolutions of 1848 in Europe:

[I]n 1853 [in Cincinnati], violence was again narrowly averted when the visiting Archbishop Gaetano Bedini of Rome was burned in effigy by a crnwd of two thousand Protestant marchers, who advertised on placards their intention to burn the residence of Archbishop Purcell, where Bedini was staying. As Peter D'Agostino observes, Bedini's American visit "crystallized Catholic loyalty to the symbols of papal Rome" in the wake of Pius IX's triumphant return from exile after the fall of the independent Roman Republic in April 1849. Before coming to America, Bedini had been assigned by the Vatican to oversee the defeat of the liberal rebellion in Spain, an involvement that earned him the nickname of the "Bloody Butcher of Bologna" among the rebellion's supporters at home. While Catholic immigrants saw in the pope's hurniliation and exile a mirror of their own experiences of alienation in an often hostile new land, American Protestants (among them Margaret Fuller, William Lloyd Garrison, and Horace Greeley) vigorously hailed the rebellion that would have secularized the Papal States and destroyed the Vatican's temporal power. ("So deeply rooted in every American heart is the love of liberty," declared the American consul Nicholas Brown in Rome, that Americans would "at once hail with joy the independence of the Roman Republic." ) As a symbol of the Roman Republic's defeat, Bedini's visit to Cincinnati revitalized Catholics' spiritual allegiance to the "Eternal City" and gave urgency to the Protestant project of portraying as dangerously un-American those whose more deeply imagined community lay beyond national and temporal borders. [my emphasis; p. 75]
She defined the outlines of the Protestant-Catholic conflict in the mid-19th century this way in "The Other Woman's Sphere," her own essay in The Puritan Origins of America Sex:

The arrival of more than three million Catholic immigrants in the middle decades of the nineteenth century reconfigured urban spaces and magnified existing tensions among races, classes, and regions. Skilied craftspeople viewed the immigrants as fodder for industrialists, while factory owners saw them as shiftless and unprofitable. Immigrants threatened industrial and domestic laborers by accepting even the lowest-paying jobs, which until then only free black men and women had been called on to fill. To slave owners, Catholic immigrants were instinctive abolitionists who were unwilling to compete with slave labor; Protestant abolitionists who saw Catholicism as inherently despotic, meanwhile, considered them natural allies of the slave power. Tue seemingly monolithic structure of Catholicism cast the splintering of Protestant congregations and the arrival of new religious bodies into relief, while Catholicism's celibate vocations appeared to threaten both the family and the workplace as bulwarks of Protestant power. [my emphasis, p. 171]
Giovanni Maris Mastai-Ferretti served from 1846-1878 as Pope Pius IX. When the College of Cardinals selected him as Pope, "Liberal Europe applauded his election." (Richard McBrien, Lives of the Popes, 1997) But the shock of the revolutions of 1848 and that in Italy in particular shocked the previously liberal-minded Pope into becoming "one of "the more reactionary popes of history," as McBrien writes. Hans Küng writes in Das Christentum (1995) that after French and Austrian troops restored Pius IX in the Vatican, he became "an unreconstructed opponent of all free ('liberal') political, intellectual and theological currents." Küng claims that Pius' thinking "was not clouded by intellectual doubt" but instead was "marked by psychopathic features." (my translation) McBrien lists some of his later dubious accomplishments: "He called the First Vatican Council (1869-70), which defined papal primacy and papal infallibility; he defined the Immaculate Conception of Mary; and he published the 'Syllabus of Errors,' which condemned the major developments of the modern world."

Fessenden in Culture and Redemption sensibly does not attempt to draw direct lines between the history she recounts of the limits of earlier American conception of freedom of religion as the tolerance and public support of nonsectarian Protestantism, and the present-day disputes over freedom of religion and religious establishment in the United States.

But her account does give us some insight into the religious and rhetorical traditions on which today's Christian Dominionists draw in trying to define freedom of religion as freedom for Christians to use state institutions to impose their religion - most often a version of fundamentalist Protestant Christianity - on everyone else. And as the right to discriminate in public businesses and accommodations against people using Christianity as the justification. She notes, "Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini suggest that the Christian right develops its political and cultural power 'both by
drawing on its connection to the Christian aspect (itself supported by mainline Protestantism) of hegemonic Christian secularism and by claiming to be oppressed by the same secularism.'"(p. 214) She also suggests, tentatively and in parentheses, "Secularists, meanwhile, might be said to draw on the secular aspect of hegemonic Christian secularism while claiming to be oppressed by its Christian aspect."

In a concluding chapter written after the Presidential election of 2004, Fessenden describes her book as "calling even the progressive elements of a secularized Protestant culture to account" and as putting "hard questions to cherished liberal narratives about, for example, the separation of church and state, the value of literacy, or the privatization of religious faith." But she also expressed concern that in the post-9/11 "war on terror" and its Islamophobic baggage, "the hegemonic power of appeals to a Protestant consensus in American public life remains, it would seem, as strong than ever: what William Hutchison identifies as the nineteenth-century dynamic of '[religious] pluralism as selective tolerance' ..."

What she means about troubling "liberal narratives" on the topic is that she objects to any easy explanation of the history of religious tolerance in America doesn't reflect historical realities, especially when our foreign policy or our occasional exercise in nation-building tires to apply simplistic models based on an idealized version of the American experience:

[T]he model we seek to export in the name of American values, one that attempts to ensure religious freedom and eradicate conflict by confining religion to a privatized sphere, does not even describe the dynamics of our own history. Worse still, it hides the violence and coercion that have attended the formation of American democratic space in the guise of the neutrality and universality of the secular. Academics tend to dismiss challenges to this narrative as the retrogressive voices of religionists who clamor for an ever greater share of public power. And not without evidence. Even so, however, our own embrace of a simplified narrative of secularization-as-progress is in part what allows this template to operate as the norm for bringing American values to a benighted world. [my emphasis]
And she makes this important observation about the endless scolding of the religion of Islam generally for allegedly never having had its own Reformation:

[I]n the post-September 11 calls from politicians and pundits for a "Reformation" in Islam, an Islam that would conform to Western expectations of acceptable religion: should we be surprised if such appeals are no longer made by the side of a moderate Muslim leader produced for the occasion, and all forms of Islam are now suspect for not looking enough like post-Reformation Christianity? [emphasis in original]
And she notes how this not-Protestant-enough criticism of Islam is used by advocates of war against Islamic countries as propaganda:

In the same way that a familiar liberal narrative of Islam - "the Reformation of Islam will arrive as an inevitable byproduct of modernization" - is made to yield up to its more violent and triumphalist counterpart - "Islam will ever remain incompatible with the West's secularized Protestant values" - so also do two versions of U.S. imperialism become mutually supporting and difficult to untangle. In the first, a liberal interventionist narrative sees the United States as uniquely able to redress, even if reluctantly, the failure of backward states and cultures to enter fully into modernity. The United States acts in its own interests and in the interests of those oppressed by the failed states in which they reside, this story runs, when it uses whatever means necessary to bring the blessings of religious liberty, economic freedom, and representative government to those parts of the world that would otherwise remain breeding grounds for violence, human rights abuses, and terrorism. This narrative's calming appeal to freedom, democracy, and their inevitable sway migrates also to its more hawkish counterpart, which urges perpetual aggressions against all those who oppose our universal values and who "hate" the freedoms we hold so dear - witness the hypocrisy of our guarantee of "religious freedoms" to those Muslims violently detained at Guantänamo Bay, without due process and apparently indefinitely.
In an observation that sheds some light on the incongruous ecumenical alliance in Islamophobia between Christian fundamentalists and some self-professed atheists:

However starkly continuing dispatches from the "culture wars" may portray an America divided into a conservative Christian faction hostile to the secular and a dogmatic secularism at odds with religion, it must be noted that the category of the West readily accommodates both of these polarized alternatives when the paradigm shifts from the culture wars between Christians and secularists to the "clash of civilizations" between the West and the rest. ... According to either version of this story, the formation of democratic societies requires that "irrational" religious behavior be banished to the private sphere, on the Protestant model, as a way of containing otherwise intractable and potentially violent conflict between contending worldviews. This is the model to which warnings of a "clash of civilizations" continue to appeal, even if secularists looking out from the Westsee theocratic assaults on modernity where religionists see godless assaults on the cherished values of Western civilization. lt is also the model that Western projects of nation building have traditionally sought to install around the globe. [my emphasis]

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