I am pleased to finally be able to reproduce Marilyn’s letter here. Because of its length I placed it at the end of this diary, after the fold; but it’s well worth the time to read it!
There’s a lonely one-woman campaign for justice being waged in Franklin that I think deserves recognition on an annual basis. I’m referring to Marilyn Hackett and her ongoing protest against the invocation of prayer at Town Meeting. Today’s Messenger carried an articulate two-column letter by Ms. Hackett placing her position in the context of history and constitutional law. I can’t find it online anywhere; and my attempt to reach Ms. Hackett by phone was unsuccessful. From the public letters I have seen addressed to Ms. Hackett in local newspapers, I can well understand why she might be unreachable by phone. Nevertheless the letter is remarkable, and deserves a timely read; so I am taking this opportunity to publicly ask for a link which I will add to this diary.
To refresh the memory of anyone who has somehow managed to miss this annual bit of personal heroism, here is a link to the Messenger story that commemorated this year’s confrontation in Franklin; and here is a link to her previous letter of March 27, 2009 in which she civilly attempted to explain her position to her neighbors
I’ve gotta tell you; I admire her guts. Now, I was raised a Catholic and have my own issues; and even though “some of my best friends” truly are Methodists, it is no secret that I am largely in agreement with Bill Maher when it comes to viewing religion as an overarching menace. This may well be due to a human inclination to appropriate, obsess over, mutate and ultimately pervert even the purest of spiritual pursuits; but there it is. We can’t seem to help ourselves. Still, when it comes right down to it, I wouldn’t dream of taking on my neighbors on this ticklish topic. I’m raising hives just broaching the subject here, among my fellow progressives.
Even though she does have some local supporters, Ms. Hackett must have a pretty tough time of it in Franklin, year-round.
After promising that this year’s Town Meeting would include only a moment of silence rather than the usual prayer, Town Fathers reneged at the last moment, provoking another confrontation. In the past, some of her neighbors have suggested that she should simply leave the room while a minister recited the invocation. When she found this solution somewhat less than satisfactory, they accused her of being unreasonable and disrespectful of their “traditions.” What about the Constitution, countered Hackett? Doesn’t that represent a tradition older than Town Meeting itself? Her neighbors were unmoved, being convinced that the true intention of the Constitution was to protect religious expression, not to exclude it from public events. The arguments go back and forth like this every year, establishing something of a new “tradition” themselves.
I have to say though, that Ms. Hackett may have finally had the last word. This latest letter is a thing of beauty… a tour-de-force of reason and history. It touches on all of our favorite themes: Jeffersonian humanism and its ultimate failure to quell religious zealotry in the New World; suspicion against Catholics, Jews and Mormons that flourished in the soil of America’s preference for Protestantism; McCarthyism; the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment; the odd overtone of “holy war” that has come to cloak the current conflicts in the Middle East; and so on. I really hope I’ll get that link! Meanwhile, her closing paragraph is worth repeating in toto:
Only the vigilance of thoughtful and courageous common citizens insisting on government neutrality can save us from ourselves. Citizens who take patriotism to the highest legal level, fighting back in the courts, are the ones who protect both freedom of religion and freedom from religion. Neutrality – not Christianity, Judaism, Islam, secular humanism, or atheism – protects citizens freedom of conscience. The side benefit – preventing the abuse of power by over-weaning religious organizations – can also not be underestimated.
Here is Ms. Hackett’s letter in its entirety:
“We are not yet a theocracy.”
That is what an astute citizen at a Franklin Select Board meeting said in early February. The speaker – who clearly believed that government by divine guidance is not yet our kingdom on earth (at least not in the United States of America) – opposed prayer at the upcoming March Town Meeting.
A few Franklin citizens had tried to convince the board to direct the town moderator not to call for the usual Christian invocation. A compromise calling for prayer at church, a civil invocation, and/or a moment of silence was proposed. In the end, the select board, which said it had authority to direct the moderator, didn’t. The omnipresent, Trinitarian, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” Christian version of religious reality was foisted on Christians and non-Christians alike – U.S. Constitution, separation of church and state, civil rights, court law, and common consideration be darned.
In the ensuing month or more of abuse by religious patriots, it has become clear that the question really isn’t whether we are a theocracy, but how much of a theocracy we are. Americans, like people all over the world (that we should have learned from by now), suffer temptations to be selfish, sometimes aggressive, about their religions or philosophies. Catholics and Protestants have killed each other in Northern Ireland, Sunnis and Shia in Iraq, Hindus and Muslims in India, while Buddhists committed suicide in Vietnam. The irony lies in the fight over religions first developed to improve life. Religious culture and politics have overwhelmed good intentions, with bloody long-lasting results, in country after country.
Despite our Constitution, Americans are far from immune. We act out in everything from subtle proselytizing, like that at Franklin Town Meeting, to (so-called) religious war – what jihadists believe we are waging in Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. history has seen endeavors to convert people called savages followed by their calculated genocide, KKK crosses burned on lawns augmented with mob murder backed by police, Biblical reasoning and governmental action oppressing suffragettes, and a Senate committee which ran kangaroo courts, imprisoning artists and labor activists as Godless Communists. More recently we saw a Christian, American President on TV informing viewers God told him to go to war. Is it a wonder Islamic extremists believe in the second coming of the Crusades? When we fail to stick to our principles, there are horrible consequences.
Religion is so often misused that our founding fathers, and hopefully the mothers who supported them, made well-grounded efforts not to lend it the power of government. Religious institutions still attempt and succeed in political power grabs. Right from the first this nation has been backsliding from the original, humanitarian intent of the First Amendment. The motives have always been political and have produced not only a standing hypocrisy, but many of the United States’ greatest moments of shame.
The shut-up-and-sit-down-until-it’s-over, Christian contingent in Franklin is part of the scary mainstream moving towards theocracy. Members have made rousing, roundly-applauded speeches against individuals who believe in separation of church and state. They’ve voted to have their prayer in willful ignorance of minorities’ civil rights. Officials and townsfolk remain baffled as to why Constitutionalists don’t just leave if they don’t like it. Come back when the prayer is over.
Of course, the answer is it never will be over. When there is prayer at Town Meeting, “under God” in every school day’s Pledge of Allegiance, “In God We Trust” on U.S. money, town council invocations, jury and inaugural oaths, religious statues and sayings carved in government buildings; a pervasive, subliminal, status-quo message gradually infuses our culture. People get to believing we are a Christian nation. Electing even a non-Protestant President (John Kennedy) created a furor. Election of members of other faiths – never mind someone with the courage to claim no faith as relevant in a bid for public office – is barely conceivable. Politicians pander, exploit, even cower in the face of religion.
The competition between the outward signs of patriotism and the reality of freedom has never been more apparent than it is today. The hundreds of Hatriot groups – patriotic people who claim to love America but hate most of the people in it – in the United States foreshadow another McCarthy Era. They are part of a theocratic tradition Americans have both embraced and battled for centuries.
In our nation’s first inauguration, for example, George Washington – a signer of the very Constitution which forbids establishment of religion – added the words “so help me God” to the Presidential oath. He was looking for something to unite a nation of religious outcasts, anti-authoritarian ruffians, and stubborn tax evaders. Not ironically, many Americans now use deity to mow over religious dissidents, flaunt the Constitution, and complain about paying taxes on property which is the owner’s God-given right to use as s/he pleases.
The writer of the Declaration of Independence, our third President Thomas Jefferson, responded when Philadelphia’s Christian clergy in the City of Brotherly Love campaigned against him. This “godless” Unitarian was an infidel, according to his political opponents. Jefferson’s encompassing semantics – “Nature’s God,” used by many deists of the time – did not suffice to quell religious detractors. Unfortunately, in his response, he wrote, “I have sworn on the altar of God, every hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Politicians to this day cannot resist the temptation to swear on the altar of religion any more than religion can resist the temptation to co-opt the power of politics.
Jefferson did make an effort to keep history from repeating itself. He knew that “Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity.” He, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin – all familiar with Europe’s never-ending, violent, religious wars and all strong proponents of separation of church and state – wrote a secular national motto “E Pluribus Unum” or “One from many,” hoping for American unity.
The campaign to change the motto to “In God We Trust” surfaced during the insecurity of the1830s Depression, following Jacksonians’ destruction of the National Bank. Use of the motto on U.S. money abated and resurfaced continuously until the Civil War when the phrase was used consistently on coins to remind citizens the Union was on God’s side of the slavery issue. In 1861 Lincoln, who appointed religious zealot James Pollock director of the Mint, needed a nation united with a national currency to fund the war between the states. Christian ministers called for replacing coins’ Goddess of Liberty with “In God We Trust.”
By the time the Pledge of Allegiance was adopted in 1892, the official God was apparently no longer entirely in favor of equality for former slaves. Author, Baptist minister Francis Bellamy, painfully pressured out of his own church in 1891 for alleged socialist views, proposed his amended pledge the following year. Chairman of a state school superintendents committee and a savvy politician, Bellamy took the word “equality” out of his original version. The superintendents had expressed fear that liberty, equality and justice might be enough to rouse movements for women’s and African Americans’ equality. By removing equality, Bellamy got the pledge into public schools.
“In God We Trust” came and went on money until its institutionalization in 1908. President Theodore Roosevelt disapproved calling it a “cheap” political motto. The pledge was toyed with, as well. In 1942 it was adopted into the U.S. Flag Code without the “under God.” Then, in 1943 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public school children could not be forced to recite it. By 1954, after a campaign by the Catholic Knights of Columbus and during the Red Scare, the religious/political pendulum swung the other way. The words “under God” were inserted in the pledge during this disgraceful period.
It would be easy to revert to the childhood mantra that sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you. Names, sticks and stones all hurt and usually come together, however. Real harm is caused.
In the last half century or so, Catholics, Mormons, The Christian Coalition, and Protestant fundamentalists, to name a few, have controlled Americans’ reproductive rights, defeated the Equal Rights Amendment for women, organized churches to elect conservative Republicans, backed faith-based initiatives, promoted parochial schools, and censored textbooks, respectively. The Christian Coalition alone claims to have sent voter registration packets to 250,000 churches. Ronald Regan’s and George W. Bush’s election victories are attributed by many analysts to the work of Republican-Party, Christian-Fundamentalist organizations. Washington’s faith-based initiatives, used to buy votes in the 2004 election, were a quid pro quo to churches which stuck to the party line. The Christian Right is a well-financed, fearsome foe on the road to political power and theocracy.
We cannot pretend that the intrusion of religion into government is not part of the conservative agenda. The U.S. Supreme Court, currently controlled by conservatives, is supposed to uphold the Constitution. Sporadically, over the years, it has, more often than not.
It is almost 50 years since school prayer was outlawed by the court (almost as long as “under God” has been in the pledge). Attempts have been made to chip away at the protection, but now even extracurricular school events may not force religion on participants or spectators. By 1985 the court ruled that not so much as a moment of silence “where the motivation is encouragement of prayer” is constitutional at a government-sponsored event. An exception was made for the Nebraska Legislature in 2004 (perhaps explaining why the Vermont Legislature disregards its own constitution), but its invocation must still remain non-denominational. Town Council prayer has finally been tested and restricted in the last couple decades, as broad-minded citizens win Supreme Court cases again and again against the new, non-denominational, establishment prayer.
A few local thinkers, in attempts to deal with establishment of religion, have suggested rotating invocations among various clergy. However, if one wrong doesn’t make a right and two wrongs don’t make a right, why would three, four, five or more? In practice this ecumenical effort has usually stretched only as far as a variety of Christian denominations. At least 75 percent of invocations at government meetings were rotated among Protestant ministers. It is a moot point. The Supreme Court addressed rotational prayer by noting that when any one prayer is used, by the very nature of its exercise, all others are excluded. It would be impossible to have a prayer or philosophical treatise fitting the views of every meeting attendee, including the 17 percent of Americans who claim to be atheist or agnostic. Furthermore, that is not the purpose of a Town Meeting or any other government assembly. Prayer is simply not Town Meeting business.
Only the vigilance of thoughtful and courageous common citizens insisting on government neutrality can save us from ourselves. Citizens who take patriotism to the highest legal level, fighting back in the courts, are the ones who protect both freedom of religion and freedom from religion. Neutrality – not Christianity, Judaism, Islam, secular humanism, or atheism – protects citizens’ freedom of conscience. The side benefit – preventing the abuse of power by over-weaning religious organizations – can also not be underestimated.