In all of my moral condemnation of the religious right, I realize that I have never taken the time to put their actions in the moral and historical context into which they most accurately fit.
This is not a new and strange phenomenon in our history. It has happened time and time again. A group of religious leaders pick out a group of individuals – individuals who are more than willing to live in peace with their neighbors if given a chance – and identify those others as ‘THEM!’ Then, they rally the people into a political crusade to do away with THEM. Though probably motivated by religious zeal, they are not the least bit deterred from their mission by the fact that uniting the people against THEM tends to also create a situation where those people give great quantities of political power and personal wealth to US – those who are calling for the new Crusade.
It practice, it is no different than what happened in the original Crusades. At that time, THEM were the Muslims who were living in the holy land. That there were heathens and infidels in the holy land was certainly an insult to Christianity and one that must be dealth with. So, a few rousing speeches about the Muslim ‘war on Christianity’ and the people marched off, ready to slaughter whole towns full of Muslims – every man, woman, and child.
We see the same thing happening with each Inquisition of the Middle Ages. This time, THEM were the Jews and Muslims who were only pretending to be Christians in order not to be subject to the laws that made non-Christians second-class citizens. Yet, these inquisitions also targeted other Christians – those Christians who doubted the Inquisitor’s religious beliefs. No doubt, these people were engaged in a ‘war on Christianity’ and had to be dealt with. Burning at the stake seemed to be an appropriate way of dealing with THEM. Of course, it did not hurt that those who lead the inquisition were able to win all sorts of financial backing and political authority with which to execute their program.
There were also inquisitions that targeted scientists. Those who denied that the Sun and all things orbited the Earth were clearly trying to dethrone God. They were questioning man’s role as the center of the universe around which everything revolved. In doing so, they were also challenging the authority of the Church. Horror of horrers, they were saying that Church leaders, who get their facts directly from God, were wrong. This was clearly an attack on Christianity that could not be tolerated.
They target – another group of THEM that turned out to be useful – were the witches. Of course, there was no such thing as 'witches' in the sense that the religious conservatives used the term. However, religious persecution only requires an accusation of witchcraft. The accusations do not have to be true or honest. In fact, as we look at the history of these different religious crusades, they are all grounded on fiction at one point or another. Besides, in place of evidence, the Church can simply torture its ‘suspected witches’ into confessing their crimes and naming names. Then, they have all of the evidence they need.
During the religious wars of the rise of Protestantism, THEM were either false-Christians who had taken over the Vatican, or the rebel populists who were attacking true Christianity as represented by the church. Both groups, in this case, were equally successful at rallying their followers into war by the need to attack THEM in the name of God. The resulting wars depopulated whole regions of Germany and France – all of this justified by people who claimed that they promoted hate in God’s name, and who were believed.
In the middle of the 1800s, THEM were the abolitionists. Southern slave owners stood clutching their Bibles firmly to their chest proclaiming that God loves slavery. Nowhere in the Bible does God clearly and unequivocally say, “Thou shalt not regard another person as property.” In fact, God routinely commanded his faithful followers to take slaves, and gave careful instructions for the care and feeding of slaves. Clearly, given the fact that God thinks so highly of the institution of slavery, those Yankees who were against slavery had to also be against God.
Now, we are living in a time where people are calling the faithful together to fight yet another crusade. This time, THEM are liberals, homosexuals, and atheists. Once again, a group of religious zealots are going before the people and rallying them to fight a noble fight in God’s name against THEM. “Oh, and while you are at it, do not forget to give us all of your wealth and give us dictatorial political power so that we may better execute God’s will, thank you very much.”
Like all of the previous crusades, this one too aims to promote hatred, and spread misery among a group of people who would have been content to live with others in peace, if given a chance. However, when the people know peace, they are not inclined to give wealth and power to political zealots. Giving wealth and power to political zealots requires having a THEM to hate and to fight.
These 21st Century Crusaders/Inquisitors might try to defend their actions by saying, “We are not anything like those earlier Crusaders or Inquisitors. We are not calling for anybody’s execution. We are not defending slavery.”
I know that my co-worker has a stack of $20 bills in her desk drawer. I stop by on the weekend and take one of those bills out. I could have taken more. Yet, clearly, I cannot argue that, because I did not take as much as I could have, that I have done nothing wrong. It would be absurd of me to claim, “I should be praised, rather than condemned, because of the restraint that I showed in not taking more money than I have.”
I can well imagine the assailant saying, “Do not punish me. You should be praising me. There should be statues in my honor and I should go down in history for my benevolence. After all, I only maimed my victim, when I could have killed him instead.”
This is the argument that religious zealots give. “Certainly, we are reducing you to the status of second class citizens. However, what we could be doing to you is far worse. You should really be thanking me for my generosity. As long as you bow before me and call me ‘master,’ I will let you live. Be happy with that. Now, you are dismissed. Remove yourself from my sight.”
This is the historic and moral context of the current rise of the religious right. Future generations will look back on this decade as yet another crusade. It is yet another example of religious zealots went before the people and argued that, for the sake of God and all that is holy, we must attack THEM. “Oh, and while you are at it, give me unlimited political power and great personal wealth so that I may better lead the battle against THEM.”
The only question that we have not yet answered for those future historians is how bad this crusade will get before the end.