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A Yankee Notebook

February 10, 2014


MONTPELIER, VT – Anyone who spends any time on line with any of the social media – Facebook is a good example – has most likely been exposed to discussions of current events. This is especially true if the “friends” on your Facebook page are from other sections of society: by age, geography, education, background, political persuasion, religion, and the like. I was a bit chagrined once when, trying to log onto Facebook from Costa Rica, the site told me that, to prove I was who I was, it was going to give me a quiz, by posting photographs of my friends and asking me to identify them. That was scary; I’ll bet I wouldn’t know most of them on the street. Luckily, it was a multiple-choice quiz, and I knew enough to get three out of five, which got me in.

The point is that even people who number their “friends” in the hundreds probably don’t know personally more than a few dozen. This means we’re exposed to points of view that in the normal course of an old-fashioned life, within our comfort zones, we’d never hear. That’s got to be good for us. A few of my friends are especially good at expressing provocative points of view or posting links that, if followed, sometimes lead to some pretty dark cellars of public opinion. The comments emanating from those caverns can be both enlightening and depressing.

Disguised by avatars and assumed personas, commenters don’t wait for even a civil exchange of differing opinions before letting fly with the vilest opprobrium (called “poisoning the well” in debate-speak); and somehow it’s a little unsatisfying to respond to attacks like that with a lame “Am not!” So the fur flies, harmlessly, and nobody learns a thing – not even each other’s names.

The subjects or objects that evoke the greatest violence of outburst are gun control (I honestly believe some characters would rather have their spouses sold into slavery than be required even to register their weapons); Barack Hussein Obama; the Muslim faith; immigrant workers (especially the undocumented); abortion; gay rights and marriage; government aid to the needy; the behemothic government; and the godlessness of the United States. Except for aid to the needy, these are all issues that the current pope has labeled “distractions.” Yet they occupy the attention of thousands. This has, however, had one salubrious effect: People who previously couldn’t distinguish between the Fourth Amendment and the Gettysburg Address have suddenly become Constitutional scholars – particularly as regards the Second Amendment.

Deploring godlessness doesn’t get a lot of traction in the three northern New England states; they’re already, according to polls, among the least religious in the nation. As a descendant of preachers and clergymen, I’ve long felt that, if I were ever to take the cloth, I sure as hell wouldn’t pursue my vocation here. Vermont’s attitude – nothing if not easy-going – is best summed up in the story of the preacher who stopped by the neat farm of a hardworking old Yankee and, gazing across the fields, marveled at the wonders God and man could accomplish when they worked together. “Yep,” said the old man. “Shoulda seen this place when just God was runnin’ it.”

I’m especially offended by the remarks of self-described Christians who post star-spangled battle cries (always with a red-white-and-blue motif) to put God back into our body politic, Christ back into Christmas, and gays back into the closet; who feel themselves beleaguered and under attack. They rummage through Scripture to bolster their arguments, often ignoring some rather interesting verses right next to the ones they’re quoting. As one gay friend of mine recently posted, “I’m gonna Deuteronomy what it’s trying to do to me.” Cultural values are changing faster than many folks can adapt, and they try to stem the tide with a levee of Old Testament prohibitions.

When I’m particularly troubled by some bit of righteousness, I turn to a really good book, which I recommend: Gary Kowalski’s Revolutionary Spirits: The Enlightened Faith of America’s Founding Fathers. Kowalski, a graduate of Harvard and Harvard Divinity and a Unitarian minister, has pored at length over primary sources: the letters, writings, and recorded speeches of Franklin, Washington, Paine, Madison, Jefferson, and Adams – the so-called founding fathers. These were men schooled in Latin, Greek, French, and the classics, and well read in the scientific and intellectual advances of the Enlightenment. Jefferson and Franklin were scientists and tinkerers themselves. If the Constitution reflects their values and precepts – which I think it does – there are most likely no grounds to consider it a “Christian” document; or likewise the nation it governs.

About Article Six – that no religious test is required as a qualification for any public office – they first quashed a version originating in Virginia that stated “no other religious test shall ever be required than a belief in the one true God, who is the rewarder of the good, and the punisher of evil.” They were liberals in the truest sense of the word: less afraid of progress than stagnation.

Still, the myths remain powerful. At the entrance to the Valley Forge memorial, there’s a depiction of George Washington kneeling in the snow in prayer. With his arthritis, that’s doubtful. As an Episcopalian, he preferred to pray standing (which many of us in the true faith still do). He was once detained by the tithing man as he rode through Ashford, Connecticut, on a Sunday, and was forced to stop till church was over. He didn’t care for either the tavern or the sermon.

The founders were dissidents by nature; they deplored the state religion some had known in England. They remembered the horrors of Salem Puritanism and knew too well the enforced conformity of reformed churches to think of giving them places in government. Let each be subject to his own conscience, they believed, and no one subject to the conscience of another. Not bad.

Photo by Willem lange