The Puritan Myth
I have long suspected that Republicans, while doing the work of their religiously conservative base, have worked hard to “dumb down” the public education system in our nation. As an instructor in court reporting programs for fourteen years, I observed the toll this took on several generations that followed us Baby Boomers. While my generation of court reporting students suffered the factual statistic that only one in ten would actually complete court reporting school and enter the profession, when I taught in the ’90s and early ’00s, a ten percent success rate would have been quite welcome. In fact, the rate was far less, but for “recruitment reasons” there seems to be no statistical data to compare the two eras. But my honest observation of the young adults that came into the programs I taught revealed that they were linguistically unprepared for the task of writing down someone else’s words and then transcribing them into a readable format. Many lacked the minimal skills to recognize a sentence when they saw one – or more appropriately, recognize when something was not a sentence.
As we wring our hands as parents and educators, wondering why this lack of educational skill has beset the greatest nation on earth, we need look no farther than our choices in the voting booth over the past 30 years. In a growing “greed is good, taxes are bad” mindset, we, the American people have repeatedly elected politicians who do everything they can to save money on everything except defense. As the Baby Boom generation, one of the most liberal in my lifetime, shifted from a parental generation into a grandparental generation, we became less and less willing to spend money on education. Taxes cramped our style, standing in the way of “important” acquisitions such as McMansions and foreign luxury sedans. More and more the generation that brought us free love and peace became the greedy generation of suburbia and big business. It’s not unexpected for these things to happen. I was told early on that not to be liberal in your youth was heartless, just as not being conservative in later years was stupid. So for all of my generation’s “change the world” rhetoric in the ’60s and ’70s, we reverted back to Eisenhower-era values in the ’80s and ’90s as we reached middle age. This shift brought us Reaganomics and two Bushes as well as the crash that we are suffering through today. The anti-Vietnam War generation watched complacently as conservative governments took us into wars in the Middle East. “Just don’t take away our big houses and luxury cars,” we silently said.
So here we sit some forty years since high school and college, the most educated generation in the history of our country, in a nation that is becoming more moronic and less intellectually curious every day. Why is that? I have my own theory. I believe that the conservative movement in American politics felt that our great education was the big downfall of the nation. We were so educated that we dared to ask “Why?” instead of just saying “yes.” We questioned everything including religion. As we moved up through the educational process, we were exposed to the idea of logical reasoning, something that most of us were not hearing if we were regular church attendees. In fact, many, if not most, in my generation felt that they had been drug into church every Sunday as long as they could remember and were “burned out” on religion. We saw too much hypocrisy and not enough love and understanding coming from the generations before us who didn’t even dare to question the precepts of religion. Then the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that students could not be forced to say The Lord’s Prayer or any other prayer at the start of the public school day. Then the bombs really went off. The Religious Right burst into existence and began demanding that school children be forced to pray the Christian prayer found in the New Testament. The war between the Christian Right and the free-thinking left has raged ever since.
This war reached its zenith in the presidency of George W. Bush who callously used the issues of gay rights, women’s right to choose and public prayer to stir up a frenzy on the right which was strong enough to squeak him to re-election in 2004. While claiming the moral high road as their exclusive territory, the Republican Party at the state and national levels started pandering to the Religious Right legislatively and governmentally. In conservative states like Texas creation “science” replaced Darwinian science until it was reversed just this year. I must admit, not having a child or grandchild in public school, I was stunned to find out that 20 years of Texas school children have been “indoctrinated” by the Religious Right’s claim that the whole earth is less than 5,000 years old despite massive scientific evidence to the contrary. Yet it really happened!
And that’s not all. There has been a concerted effort by the Religious Right to re-write the history of our nation and make a claim that the Puritan Pilgrims were the “founders of our nation.”
My religiously conservative, Republican brother has been throwing this in my face for quite some time. “The Puritans founded the United States,” he says with conviction. “So that makes this a Christian nation.” Just a minute, brother. The Puritans founded Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay Colony, not the United States of America. In fact, their early overpowering influence in that region of the English Colonies resulted in the infamous Salem Witch Trials. In an aside, it was learned by my family a few years back that one of my ancestors was a resident of Salem at that time. Turns out he didn’t join the hysteria and left for Dorset, Massachusetts with a breakaway group of Puritans. I guess I’m not the first free thinker in the family after all. But back on the timeline of the founding of The United States of America. That heroic event happened almost 150 years after the Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock. In that period the Puritan influence over The Colonies had greatly diminished due to immigrants coming from different religious backgrounds to enjoy the freedom not to be forced to attend the Church of England.
By the time of the American Revolution, a great diversity of thought had emerged in The Colonies. The Age of Enlightenment was sweeping Europe and bringing into question a blind-faith acceptance of The Holy Bible as a book of science. Widespread wars between Catholics and Protestant Christians had decimated entire populations in Europe in bloody wars that had names like The Hundred Years War and the 30 Years war. So many non-English immigrants escaped to the Colonies to find a safer place to live regardless of their religious beliefs. Religion, which many feel should be a source of comfort, had become a source of strife and warfare that ravaged Europe, not to mention England itself. Let us not forget the bloody birth of The Church of England. Henry VIII executed anyone who was unwilling to renounce their Catholic faith and follow him into his newly found Church of England. This elevated Henry VIII to a prominent leadership role in the Protestant movement, placing him among the likes of Martin Luther and John Calvin.
By the time that our real Founding Fathers came along, they were determined to avoid the chaos that was going on in Europe by taking religious preference out of the government of their new democracy. Now, these weren’t just any men. They were a collective of every sort of leader across the width and breadth of The Colonies. Some, like John Adams of Massachusetts, were deeply religious; some, like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and George Washington himself were either agnostics or deists, depending on which modern historian you read. But the fact remains, they were unanimous in their decision to exclude religion from governance. They had seen religion used and abused too many times by tyrannical rulers in Europe to allow its deployment on the citizens of the new democracy they were forming.
Now, the Religious Right is launching a new campaign to “educate” the American People on the fact that The United States of America is a Christian nation. Yesterday on Hardball, without Chris Matthews, Republican former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell made the same idiotic and untruthful statement, “The United States was founded by the Puritans.” When conservative Christopher Hitchens, author of “God Is Not Great,” tried to correct him, Blackwell did what so many commentators and politicians do: he blocked Hitchens from saying any more on the subject by talking louder and faster about how he was right. Well, Mr. Blackwell is wrong! The United States of America wasn’t even a remote dream in the minds of the Puritans. They just wanted to escape the persecution they were suffering in England. It is somewhat interesting that once they had their own place to live, they reverted to the same kind of persecution of those they disliked, calling them witches and executing them after bogus trials. What goes around comes around.
One more point the Religious Right is stirred up about lately is the phrase, “one nation under God” contained in the Pledge of Allegiance. They point to that as proof that the Founding Fathers supported Christianity in our nation’s government. Fact is, that phrase was added to the pledge during the 1950s in the anti-communist panic that Representative Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin), spread through his infamous House Un-American Activities Hearings. So the Founding Fathers had nothing to do with the insertion of that phrase into our national pledge of loyalty. In fact, the deist term “Creator” is the word used by our Founding Fathers in their documents, and “Jesus” is not to be found anywhere in the Declaration of Independence or The Constitution of The United States of America. Conclusion? There is no historical support for the contention of the Religious Right that it is all right to impose their religion on everyone else.
I am pretty sure that they would feel quite differently about this whole issue if their children were forced to utter a Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist prayer at the beginning of each school day. Recently a firestorm erupted in Friendswood, Texas, when a public school teacher allowed a Muslim woman to come in and explain her religion to elementary school students. One can only imagine what the reaction would have been had she allowed the woman to teach the children a Muslim prayer.
My word to the Religious Right: Be careful what you ask for. You may just get it!