Burning the booksellers: Religious freedom and the secular state

by John MacBeath Watkins

My copy of Foxe's Book of Christian Martyrs has a woodcut illustrating a particularly odious form of book burning -- a bookseller being burned with his books.

Not that the punishment was without an internal logic. The booksellers had been selling Holy Scripture in English. The Catholic Church objected to this, and any other Protestant heresy that involved removing the priest's mediation of scripture. The Bible, the Church decreed, was meant to be in Latin, a language taught mainly to the clergy.

The booksellers were therefore heretics, spreading the false gospel of a personal relationship with God. They had to be punished, and not just their bodies. At the time, the Church taught that to be resurrected on Judgement Day, your body needed to be buried more or less intact.

The booksellers were being burned so that they could not be resurrected on Judgement Day.

This dispute was part of the genesis of liberalism, of the separation of church and state and of free speech. It also relates to the belief in the literal interpretation of the Bible.

The Anglo-Saxons had translated the Bible into their language, no problem. But the Norman French did not speak their language, and the Catholic Church was trying to assert more control over peoples' religious lives. They cracked down on the Goliard poets in the late 13th century and early 14th, labeling them "Bohemians" in an effort to link them to the gypsies, who they called by that name. John Wycliffe, an Oxford don, translated the Vulgate Bible into English, and while he was allowed to die of natural  causes in 1384, his body was burned to prevent his resurrection (ironically, the Vulgat Bible was translated from Hebrew and Greek into Latin so that citizens of Rome could read it in their own language.)

William Tyndale, a scholar born about a century after Wycliffe's body was burned, went back to the Hebrew and Greek text to produce a better translation into English. He did much of this while hiding in the Netherlands, but the Church caught up with him in 1535, and in 1536 he was sentenced to death by strangulation and his body was burned at the stake.

Two years later, Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church and decreed that the Bible should be published in English, resulting in the Great Bible, largely based on Tyndale's work.

Hank8 did not intend to separate church and state. He intended for the state to take over the church. Thomas More, that martyr of conscience, died for the principle that the Pope should be able to tell monarchs whether they could have their marriages annulled, thereby ruling on who was a legitimate heir.

English kings continued to rely on religion for the legitimacy of their rule. James I wrote The True Law of Free Monarchies and Basilikon Doron (Royal Gift), both asserting the divine right of kings, and following the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, he required Catholics to sign an oath of allegiance denying the Pope's authority over the king.

But he married a French princess who was Catholic, and his son, Charles I was Catholic as well as being, like his father, a believer in the divine right of kings.

And that's where it gets interesting.

If you are a Catholic in a nation that is divided between Catholics, Anglicans, and non-conformist protestants such as Puritans, Quakers, Ranters, Anabaptists, Diggers, Muggletonians and other more obscure groups, whose God gives you the right to rule?

Chuck1 was an apostate to most of his subjects, but also an arrogant and high-handed ruler based on his claim of divine right. In the end, he rather lost his head.

Which led his son's tutor, the redoubtable Thomas Hobbes, to look for a new source of legitimacy for English kings.

He imported the values of the marketplace into politics, asserting that a nation needs a ruler to keep order, or chaos will reign, no life will be safe, there will be no point in planting crops or shipping merchandise, and in short, you will be reduced to a state of nature, which in his pessimistic view was nasty, brutish and short. In fact, his vision of the state of nature was similar to the breakdown of civilization that had been produced in many areas by the then recently concluded 30-Years-War.

Thus, the need for a secular government was created by a crisis in faith, the splintering of the Church into a dizzying array of churches. The blossoming of the Protestant churches could only happen in a secular state, because freedom of religion requires that you be free from the religions of others.

We tend to forget what the establishment of religion means. Here's an example from Wikipedia:
The Separatists had long been controversial. Under the 1559 Act of Uniformity, it was illegal not to attend official Church of England services, with a fine of one shilling (£0.05; about £16 today[3]) for each missed Sunday and holy day. The penalties for conducting unofficial services included imprisonment and larger fines. Under the policy of this time, Barrowe and Greenwood were executed for sedition in 1593.
The Pilgrims came to America in 1620, a generation before the English Civil War, to be free of the state religion of England, free to practice their religion as they saw fit. Not that they wanted a secular state; they wanted to set up their own colony with their own state religion. One of my ancestors was kicked out of this group for sheltering some Quakers from a storm, and became a Quaker as a consequence.

For different groups to share the new land with freedom to practice religion as they saw fit, they needed to be free of each other's religion. I've noticed that deeply religious people sometimes have trouble wrapping their brains around this. They tend to focus on the practice of their religion, and, not having been forced to practice the religion of others, not think about what this could mean.

After all, it was back in England that people were executed for conducting unofficial services, and that was a long time ago. And no one has been executed for blasphemy in the United Kingdom since 1697, nor has anyone been executed for it here.

But those were real penalties for holding the wrong religious beliefs under an established church. We still see them today in places like Iran where religious authorities reign supreme.

America's founding fathers knew what it was like to live under an established church. After British officers of the Catholic faith turned their positions over to their Catholic co-religionists during the war for the Netherlands' independence, Queen Elizabeth decreed that only Anglicans could be officers in the military or practice law or hold public office.

In the American revolutionary army, you could be of any faith. Col. Mordecai Sheftall, for example, was Jewish  But how did our founding fathers feel about the role of religion after they got independence?

Well, the first amendment to the constitution decrees that congress shall make no law regarding establisment of religion. That seems clear enough. And in 1797, congress unanimously passed the Treaty of Tripoli, which decreed that:
As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims],—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Mohammedan] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
 That seems clear enough.

However, not everyone respects history or the original intent of the founders. For example, World Net Daily confronts us with the headline, America: A Christian Nation, Like it or Not. An Evangelical group points to some 19th century Supreme Court decisions that indicated that at the time, a majority of justices viewed America as a Christian nation.

Just as kings never had to make the argument that they possessed their power by divine right until that was in doubt, conservative Christians seldom had to make that argument until an increasingly large proportion of the population were either unchurched or belonged to non-Christian faiths. The percentage of the population professing no religion in 1953 was 1 percent, the number in 2013 was 15 percent. In the same period, the percentage of the population identifying as Protestant declined from 70 percent to 41 percent. Non-specified Christian, a group not counted in 1953, is now 9 percent, and Catholic has held steady at 24 percent.

The percent Jewish has declined from 4 percent to 2 percent, and the percentage "other" has risen from 1-2 percent to 5 percent.

This has accompanied a radical change in our nation's ethnic makeup. The reason Catholics have held up as a percentage of the population is the vast number who have immigrated from Latin America. The reason "other" keeps increasing is that we have so many immigrants from areas where Christianity is a minority religion, in Asia, the middle east, and Africa.

The drive to define this country as a Christian nation is not led by traditionally black denominations. It is led by traditionally white denominations who are concerned about how America is changing.

Most people would say that after WW II, America came into its own as the most powerful nation in the world, supplanting the battered British Empire. Yet to those who wish to define America as a Christian nation, this appears to be a period of decline, starting with a 1947 ruling:
From the time of Everson until today, decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court have helped to bring about the greatest decline in American civilization. It was as if the Supreme Court had declared a bloodless revolution in America -- a revolution more subtle than yet just as destructive as the Russian revolution under Lenin. Over the next three decades, we witnessed a stream of liberal court rulings that gradually reshaped who we are as a nation.
 The author quotes Alexis de Tocqueville saying that America's greatness is connected with America's goodness, which the author claims is lost when we don't regard America as a Christian nation. This ignores Tocqueville's own views on religion, as revealed in an interview he did with an American newspaper:
Q. In your opinion, what would be the best way to render to religion its natural empire? 

A. I believe the Catholic religion less apt than the reformed to accord with ideas of liberty. However, if the clergy were entirely separated from all temporal power, I cannot but believe that with time it would regain the intellectual influence which naturally belongs to it. I think that to appear to forget the church, without being unfriendly to it, is the best way and even the only way to serve it. Pursuing this policy you will see public education little by little falling into its hands, and the youth will with time adopt a different attitude.... 
 It seems he was right. The nations which had established churches are not typically as religious as America. Separating the church from all temporal power may well be what's made it so influential in our culture.

But there does seem to be a group of people who really want to define America as a Christian nation, and in effect, establish Christianity as the national religion. First, there are the Dominionists, relatively few in number, who believe that God gave Christians dominion over the earth, so they should rule. Then, there is the broader public of the Christian right, which World Net Daily appeals to, who long for a time when white protestants dominated our culture and politics more than they do now. This is a larger, and in fact, vast group, though far from a majority in the country.

This is the group that supported Rick Santorum for president, and he provided them with a suitably Dominionist critique of President Obama, which I've mentioned before:

Obama’s agenda is “not about you. It’s not about your quality of life. It’s not about your jobs. It’s about some phony ideal. Some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology,” Santorum told supporters of the conservative Tea Party movement at a Columbus hotel.
He enlarged on the theme when talking about environmentalism:
 “When you have a worldview that elevates the Earth above man and says we can’t take those resources because we’re going to harm the Earth …  it’s just all an attempt to centralize power, to give more power to the government.”
Santorum's supporters, in addition to wanting Christianity to dominate our government, have shown themselves intent on ridding the Republican Party of people they consider RINOs -- Republicans In Name Only. Put them in charge, give them their wish of a theocratic state, and soon you'd see them suppressing those they consider CRINO -- Christian In Name Only. This would doubtless apply to the church my 89 year old mother has attended for 42 years, which has a female preacher and is happy to accommodate gay marriage.

There is a reason the people who want to define America as a Christian nation don't want to include churches like hers. Evangelical churches didn't become politically active until the IRS started cracking down on "white academies" -- private schools, often associated with a historically white church, which sprang up in the South after school integration began to spread to the region. The Christian right has long been tainted by an association with this effort to revive segregation. In short, the problem isn't just a desire to see Christianity dominant, it is also an element of ethnic panic,  a fear that the identity of their nation will no longer be associated with their ethnicity.

That's why the more tolerant Christian sects are anathema to those who want to see America defined as a Christian nation. As a political matter, these sects tend to belong to different parties. Stanley Greenberg, a pollster, has described the Democratic coalition as "diverse America and the whites who are comfortable with diverse America."

And the Republican Party, because of its reliance on a conservative Christian movement associated with the white academies, consists in part of whites who are not comfortable with diverse America.

I should note that there are many white evangelicals, often Northern, who don't have a problem with diverse America, or with sending their kids to public schools. They remain culturally conservative, and generally fall in the Republican camp politically. But then, most of them aren't big on gaining temporal power for religion.

Perhaps they should remember where the freedom to start their churches came from, and what could happen to that freedom.