Saturday, August 3, 2013

What's the point of the "Xtian nation" meme?

I've been musing on Dave McNabb's letter published yesterday, in which he gives yet another go at the idea that the Founders intended this to be a "Christian country" by demonstrating his own ignorance about what the label might have meant to them in their own context. I don't need to debate that canard for anyone reading this, but there's an angle to it that's generally not talked about openly, and that is what's really wrong with the idea.

Start with the root question — Why is it important for certain Xtian extremists to win this argument? We don't see letters to the editor defending other extended tenets of faith, like ritual cannibalism, stoning adulterers or magical spirits, so this is not just another one. This is really about creating a religious identity for our country, meaning both that we are this and we are not that.

That leads to what they hope to accomplish if they win the argument. Say some future Congress and Supreme Court not too different from what we have right now were to conspire to alter the Constitution to say, in effect, 'the United States is a Christian nation.' Clearly the extremists want this to happen, so presumably to them it represents positive change. What would it mean, and what specific changes does it lead to?

Better bloggers than I have frequently offered the irresistible parallel to the nations in which secularism or despotism have given way to extremist Islamic states, so I needn't belabor the point, because our brand of religious extremist cannot see himself as part of that Christian tradition. The papal states of old won't do, because these people believe that Martin Luther's revolution purged the faith of its corruption and left it clean and good. Can I get an uh-huh.

I'm sure many would be surprised to learn the extent to which the democracies of Europe were built on explicit statements of faith, and so are a whole lot more Xtian in that sense than we can ever be. Similarly, smiling old corporate Japan and most of the the Asian tigers base their governance on the divine lineage of their monarchs (though nobody much cares). And leave us not forget old Blighty, with its brand-new heir to the throne of its own Xtian sect.

So there's a spectrum of realities between dour old Iran and happy Thailand in what constitutes a "religious state." How would Americans express this idea specifically?

Cotton Mather, the kind of founding father a religious extremist can heart.
I suppose the most relevant examples come from our own pre-revolutionary history, when many of the colonies were explicitly religious states. These were built and operated by people who were too annoying or too extreme to make it in Europe, and thought it would be great to isolate themselves from human society so they could better express their dogma. Here I go straight to Jim Jones in Guyana, but I'm a bit of a cynic in this area.

So while the rest of the nation was expressing its true nature by carving a life out of nothing in a drunken haze, these superstitious crackpot communities tried to enforce gad's law in ways much like those of the Colorado City cult — iron thought control under threat of being cast into what was then a non-metaphorical wilderness, dictatorship under self-appointed spiritual elites in a permanent state of emergency, and the exclusion of anything or anyone that might contaminate the purity of the community or threaten the established order.

This is the world people like Dave would take us back to, but with a high-tech post-industrial infrastructure and surveillance culture that literally runs on fear-based propaganda already. They don't think thngs through far enough to consciously understand what they're advocating, of course, but read what they're saying in public and it's always there in the subtext.

Here's the deal, Dave: the founders said no, no state religion, ever, and no matter what their personal beliefs, they saw this as essential to ensuring our freedom. I'm good with that.