Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Fusion of Religion and Politics: A 19th-Century Southern Republican Leader Rings Warning Bell

Some days lately, I have to pinch myself to remember that I'm living in the 21st century--as a vocal minority of American citizens demands theocratic control of the majority who do not wish to see church joined to state, and do not share the peculiar religious beliefs of the minority clamoring for control. As I look at what happened recently in Kansas and Arizona, at the similar anti-gay bills sitting before a number of other state legislatures, at the push of powerful groups including the Catholic bishops of the U.S. to extend the "right" of veto power over federal health regulations to private businesses on grounds or "religious liberty," I can't help thinking of the insightful predictions of the 19th-century Arkansas Republican leader whose work I published last year in my book Fiat Flux.

Wilson R. Bachelor was a staunch Republican who had opposed slavery and secession, who stood squarely against the Jim Crow laws he saw Southern states enacting in the final full decade of his life, who was appalled at the lynchings that attended the imposition of these laws, who defended women's rights, deplored the death penalty, and expressed horror at the notion that everyone should have the right to bear arms freely and at will--including in churches. In the 1890s, he also became strongly convinced that the nation was moving in a very dangerous direction under the influence of wealthy elites that had bought control of the government, and that wanted to use religion as a tool to consolidate their control, particularly of citizens whose economic self-interest was in no way represented by these wealthy elites.

Bachelor saw these developments as extremely troubling: they augured ill for the future of American democracy. In a brief essay he wrote on the eve of the 1892 presidential elections, in which Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland and Republican Benjamin Harrison opposed each other, he noted that politics had come to "determine everything" as candidates vied for office in the U.S. 

In particular, Bachelor feared the kind of religious posturing that was increasingly dominating the process of campaigning for office. In a number of essays he wrote during this period, Bachelor ridiculed the pretensions of his own candidate, Harrison, to understand the mind of "Providence" as he ran for office. In the essay he wrote as the 1892 election neared, he states (p. 104, Fiat Flux),

I see the signs of the times point to the future when politics will determine everything. When a man proposes now to run for an office in some places he is asked if he is for or against license, or alliance. In others, is he of a labor organization. The time is coming when he will be asked if he is a Catholic, a Methodist, a Baptist, or Agnostic; and according to the answer he will be boycotted or supported. This tends to make politics more corrupt, for candidates will be and act the hypocrites for votes. While I deprecate this tendency, I accept the situation and hold liberty of thought above all political organizations.

The melding of politics with religion leads to corruption, Bachelor the Republican thought in 1892. This melding, this posturing, fosters a hypocrisy on the part of political candidates that is inherently corrupting. So Wilson R. Bachelor the staunch Republican wrote in 1892--as he stressed that the turn of American politics in this direction of religious tests for office was driving him to move in the direction of an independent voter, rather than a blindly partisan one.

In another essay he wrote in the fall of 1892 (Fiat Flux, pp. 101-2), Bachelor takes a critical look at the attempt of various churches to prevent the opening of the World's Fair in Chicago on Sundays. He notes that church leaders had mounted a national drive to prevent Sunday opening of the Fair, and were encouraging their members to write petition letters to senators demanding that the Fair be kept closed on the Sabbath. 

He states that he finds this national campaign curious, when Christ and his disciples never sought to interfere in the running of secular governments, and when Christ taught that his followers should render to Caesar what belonged to Caesar, and emphasized that his kingdom was not of this world. Bachelor states that he's baffled by the talk of church leaders of the "national sin" of Sabbath-breaking that had to be prevented at all cost: he wondered if these ecclesiastical leaders had concluded that secular government was better "run by ecclesiasticism" than by those competent in the secular realm to make wise decisions on behalf of their constituents.

And he notes that those on whose backs this battle for ecclesiastical governance was being fought out were the working poor, who could attend the Fair on no day other than their sole day off from work--Sunday--while the affluent, who were not restrained by work schedules, could attend the Fair any time they wished. (The letter-writing pressure campaign of churches prevailed, by the way, and the Fair was kept closed on Sundays.)

And then he writes,

This incessant talk about Sunday laws and christian government is enough to make one tired. This is not a christian government. George Washington said: "The government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion."  
Nor is it true that christianity is the common law of our country. The name of God is not in the constitution neither is it used when a President of the United States takes the oath of office. 

He goes on to say, 

Chief Justice Story of the supreme court, speaking of the bill of rights says[,] "It must have been intended to extend equally to all sects, whether they believe in christianity or not, and whether they are Jews or infidels." It would seem that ecclesiasticism has forgotten the history of church and state. Talk about religious government—don’t they all claim to be? Don't Russia? When our fathers came to this country and established a republican form of government did they still expect christianity to rule? If so, why rebel against their mother authorities? No, our government is secular. Let us have none of this national religion. Such has caused the butchery of 100,000,000 people. Let religion keep within its own province, the spiritual and emotional, and not arrogate to itself the seculary governing power. 

As I say, some days lately, I have to pinch myself to remember that a Republican leader in a conservative, backwards Southern state could write things like this in the 1890s, when, in the early 21st century, Republicans and their theocratic base now propose what is tantamount to the total fusion of right-wing Christian theology with secular government. When they now propose the capitulation of American government at the federal and state level to the theocratic control of right-wing churches . . . . 

As Dan Durning states in his generous review of my book for which I'm exceptionally grateful, even in his own time and place, it's likely that Wilson R. Bachelor rubbed many of his fellow citizens the wrong way, especially in a conservative Southern state like Arkansas. Even so, I find it remarkable that a Republican leader in such a time and place could write so presciently about the danger developing in American politics, as wealthy elites found that they could consolidate and extend their power by manipulating the masses through religious posturing.  

And I wonder what he'd say if he could see where his party has chosen to go as the 21st century gets underway. 

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