As I write this, I am thinking about a little girl named Malala Yousafzai, who lies in a hospital bed in Pakistan, after being shot on her school bus by religious extremists who think that their Muslim faith prohibits the education of women.
The famous philosopher and student of religion, E. Marty, once wrote,
[R]eligion, a force for ennobling life and giving it meaning, can also be used to justify the ugliest of human ventures. Crusaders and conquistadores, claiming to have read or heard the word of God, find themselves righteous as they stab “infidels.” Both sides in holy wars regularly feel that they are acting out a divine drama that finds God on their side.
None of the major Abrahamic faiths is without its tendency to violence against those who are not counted among the followers of the faith. In the Jewish Scriptures, in the Book of Deuteronomy, the Lord says:
If there is found among you, in one of your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, a man or a woman who does what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, and transgresses his covenant by going to serve other gods and worshiping them...then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has committed this crime and you shall stone the man or woman to death.
Even Jesus of Nazareth said, “Do not think that I come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." Most Christians forget that Jesus had the apostles bring swords to the Garden of Gethsemane on the night he was arrested. And Marty’s comment, quoted above, about the crusades and conquistadores are, of course, out of Christian history. If we would look for a modern Christian statement of hatred for those who do not have the “truth,” one need only look to the Westboro Baptist Church, the Christian group that pickets soldiers’ funerals carrying signs that read “God Hates Fags,” “Priests Rape Boys,” and “Pope in Hell.” And Bishop Jenky, of the Catholic diocese of Peoria, recently compared President Obama’s “secularist” policies to the work of the twentieth century’s worst mass murderers, Hitler and Stalin—which, to my mind—comes as close to hate speech as any comparison could without quite getting there.
Islam has given rise to similar dicta urging violence against those who betray the faith. All of the following are found in the Koran: “Slay them (i.e., unbelievers) wherever you find them. Drive them out from the places from which they drove you.” And “Say to the unbelievers, ‘You shall be overthrown and driven into Hell - an evil resting place!’” And “He that denies God’s revelations should know that swift is God’s reckoning.” And “We suddenly smote them (i.e., the unbelievers) and they were plunged into utter despair. Thus were the evil-doers annihilated. Praise be to God, Lord of the Universe!” The men who attacked Malala Yousafzai on her school bus were fanatical Taliban Muslims motivated by religious verses like these.
Although it is not a Christian or Abrahamic faith, Mormonism taught that private individuals could “execute God’s judgment against the wicked.” And in their Endowment Ceremony, Mormons vowed to avenge their martyred leaders with violence in return. One of the bloodiest religious group killings in what is now the United States was executed by Mormons against unbelievers in the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857. It is not clear whether Brigham Young knew about the planned killings in advance, but he was certainly part of the cover-up, trying to pass off the massacre of 120 non-Mormons by Mormon vigilantes as the deed of native Americans.
Faith is a powerful motivation, for good and for evil. Its mixture with politics is inevitably toxic. Thomas Jefferson, a staunch defender of religious liberty, knew this, which is why he talked of the “wall of separation” between church and state. In 1800, he wrote to Jeremiah Moor, “The clergy, by getting themselves established by law and ingrafted into the machine of government, have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man.” And in a letter to Baron Von Humboldt in 1813, he said, “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.”
And while Jefferson may have been the first to use the phrase “separation of church and state” in his letter to the Danbury Baptists, James Madison also used the phrase, speaking specifically of the U.S. Constitution: “Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion & Gov’t in the Constitution of the United States, the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history.”
Jefferson and Madison were both founding members of the same political party, then called the Democratic-Republican party, a counter-weight to the much more establishment prone Federalists. Madison, who helped to draft the Constitution and the Bill of Rights had views similar to Jefferson’s on the mix of religion and politics.
I am thinking of all these things because Malala Yousafzai lies critically ill in a hospital bed in Pakistan and here in the United States, the silly season is upon us, namely presidential election time, and preachers, primarily of the Christian variety, including some Catholic bishops and priests, are becoming more and more vocal about the candidates, clearly indicating to their flocks the persons they should vote for. They need to stop. As I said, the mix of religion and politics is toxic, always has been, always will be. To date, we Americans, respecting our Jefferson-Madison roots, have mostly steered away from this. We have accepted John Kennedy’s wise advice. We “believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote.... in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials.” And this is as it should be in a secular, pluralistic democracy. It is also a major reason why Washington D.C. has not become a Beirut or a Cairo, with religious violence in the streets or a bus in Pakistan, where it is permissible to try to kill a school girl who simply wants to be educated.
It would be very sad if, in some preachers’ quest for political power, we lost this freedom. Our democracy will be much the less for it— as Jefferson, Madison and Kennedy knew.
Nicholas P. Cafardi