Fraternity parties, reading and writing. College didn’t consist of much else.
Oh, there were variations on the theme, of course. Maybe instead of Fraternity Row, we headed downtown to one of the bars. Maybe a study group got together to discuss the assignment at the on-campus pub.
I started out in political science. When a Canadian foreign policy professor insulted me in class for being “stupidly southern” – my accent had not yet flattened into the nondescript sound it would have by the end of my college career – I switched to philosophy. Weed and philosophy just seemed to go together, and as a college freshman, I liked weed. The term papers, fortunately, came easily.
Too much of philosophy dealt with religion, though. Kant bored me. Kierkegaard had some good points, but his conclusions disgusted me. Don’t even get me started on Nietzsche and the nihilists. It became hemlock to me. Me, who preferred whisky sours. I felt like a hack pulling an all-nighter to spew existentialist nonsense through my typewriter onto onionskin paper.
At a party at the Beta house just before fall class selections were due, an interesting guy I had just met talked about his passion for history. We drank a hell of a lot of beer that night, and, still hung over on Monday, I signed up for a history major.
History is where all the best stories were, right? Battles, intrigue, betrayal, love stories, revenge, swords, longbows: history had them all. I had a great professor who liked to host parties at his home for his favorite students. We’d go and talk about more history. But why did all of these cultures clash? Over cheese dip and home-made hard cider, the conversations I liked best were the ones that talked about motivation, not just the cold facts.
One spring evening at the history professor’s house, his buddy from the Sociology Department showed up wearing a t-shirt from Belize. Belize had just become independent from Great Britain. (Yeah – now you can tell how long ago this happened.) He spoke passionately about imperialism and colonialism, and I was hooked on a new discipline. I also discovered that Long Island iced teas oiled conversation really, really well.
The next semester, I signed up for every class the Belize guy taught, and I adored his Welsh accent. Anthropology and Sociology ripped my attention away from the details of medieval European wars. Cultural annihilation and tribalism made for much more fertile ground for delving into the mysteries of what motivates people.
Campus was a microcosm of colonialism, tribalism, and cultural annihilation. Some of us resisted the allure to joining Greek tribes; others of us embraced them. None of us would leave the same people we were when we arrived. Intramural rivalries made for every party on the Row outdoing the last. Theta Chi was a very different tribe from Sigma Chi, despite sharing the same last name.
It wasn’t until the spring of my junior year, when I realized that I was writing the same paper for a sociology class that I had written for every other sociology class I had ever taken that I decided I’d had enough. Two days before the end of the drop-add period, I dumped that sociology class and changed my major to English. It was the only major I knew I could complete in two semesters. I still adored that professor with the Welsh accent, though.
I graduated on time, even getting a class in nothing but Kurt Vonnegut novels to count toward my new major. I cranked out papers faster than ever. I soared on the written page. And now when I hung out with the guys at the Fiji House (may it rest in peace), I could talk about any subject under the sun. I had, it seemed, even if only briefly, majored in them all.
On a brilliantly sunny day in May 1984, I got my sheepskin. I had my Bachelor of Arts degree. It claimed to be a B.A. in English, but I knew better. My B.A. in English was actually a B.A. in B.S.
Ah, the humanities of it all.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette gave significant print space today to state senator Jason Rapert to let him deny that he ever called for Judge Chris Piazza’s impeachment. (It seems the paper printed the story, and then refused to issue a correction despite Rapert’s demands, so they allowed him to submit a “guest column.”)
You may recall that Judge Piazza declared the ban against same sex marriages unconstitutional, which raised Rapert’s Neanderthal hackles. Rapert’s screed focused on the will of the people as opposed to the foundational laws of our country – at least, the will of 753,770 people who voted a decade ago against letting any pair of consenting adults marry.
Oh, and God, God, God. Because God. Or, at least, Senator Rapert’s version of a god.
From Rapert’s essay:
I believe the current culture war on marriage between one man and one woman is a symptom of the degradation of the fundamental principle that is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution–that our government is based upon “We the People.”
We, the people of this country and of each state, do indeed elect those who make our laws. Occasionally, in the case of a referendum (the ban on same sex marriage was a referendum back in 2004), we the people actually vote on whether something should be a law. But we don’t all vote – not even when we’re eligible.
Judge Piazza decided that 750,000 individual citizens of our great state, representing 75 percent of the electorate at the time, were wrong, and their sense of morality and beliefs no longer mean anything in Arkansas. In reality, he rendered a judgment essentially saying that the will of an overwhelming majority of the people in our state means nothing and their votes do not count.
But did the majority of Arkansans, actually reject same sex marriage? Did we, the Arkansas people, actually speak with a strong voice about this matter?
Arkansas has a population of around 3 million people, 3/4 of which are over 18. According to the United States Election Project, 54% of the population eligible to vote in Arkansas made it to the polls in November 2004, when the legislature’s referendum was on the ballot. The total turnout was 1,070,573 – about a third of the actual population of the state. Nearly 2 million Arkansans were eligible to vote.
About 1/4 of the population of the state was sufficiently incensed over the notion that equality might happen that they beat a path to the polls in that election to vote against equal marriage rights for their LGBT neighbors, friends, and family members. Not a majority of the population. Not even a majority of the population over 18 or a majority of eligible voters. Just a majority of people who voted on that issue decided to maintain an unequal status quo.
It gets better:
Judge Piazza and activist judges like him … are saying they no longer respect the values, traditions and mores of the majority of the population in our nation and that they singularly have the right to impose the will of a small vocal group upon the rest of our state and the nation.
More than anything, this quote from his essay underscores Sen. Rapert’s lack of understanding of both the concept of separation of powers and the role of the judicial branch of government. It also tells me that a man charged with the responsibility of making laws does not understand that there is this foundational document called the United States Constitution that gives him – and the judges who overrule him – that authority. The U.S. Constitution and the Arkansas Constitution define the roles of each branch of government and explains how checks and balances work. Where state and federal laws conflict, federal law trumps.
Changing that foundational document takes much more than the proverbial “act of congress,” and ever since Marbury v. Madison was decided in 1803, the judicial branch was confirmed as that branch of government endowed with the responsibility of interpreting how laws should be applied. Therefore, judges like Chris Piazza are doing their jobs – not engaging in activism – when they interpret laws withing a constitutional framework. We don’t have to like their decisions. If we don’t like their decisions enough, we can appeal them to a higher court, until the buck stops with the US Supreme Court. Ultimately, the language of the United States Constitution applies.
Jason Rapert and his ilk don’t like the decision. Rather than wait for the appellate process to weave its constitutional magic, they scream like banshees at the idea that other human beings – human beings who are a tiny bit different from them – will get treated like actual full citizens of this state and country.
Rapert felt the need to make a number of points about how awful it is for the nasty homos to call themselves a family:
As for the context of the debate raging in our nation and now in Arkansas over same-sex marriage, there are a few things that must be said.
First, honoring the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman whether out of a sense of morality or based upon one’s religious faith does not mean that a person hates homosexuals.
With this quote, we see what the problem is. Jason Rapert really wants to live in a Christian theocracy. Of course, not a theocracy defined by, say, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Quakers, or Evangelical Lutherans. Nope – he wants a Southern Baptist or fundamentalist evangelical theocracy. In other words, if someone else’s religious beliefs don’t mesh with Rapert’s, then they obviously shouldn’t have the right to hold those beliefs.
And he doesn’t hate homosexuals – he just doesn’t think they are really “people” and that they shouldn’t have the same rights to the pursuit of happiness as “real” people. Of course he doesn’t hate them. How can you hate someone that isn’t really a person? It would be like hating a doll or a tree or a puppy. It’s like accusing an atheist of hating God. It’s not possible to hate something that doesn’t exist.
Rapert’s claim of a “sanctity” of marriage is the big giveaway. Marriage is a contract between two people. It isn’t a sacred state; it’s a legal one. Sure, the couple can have their marriage blessed, and because that blessing is important to many people the state generously allows religious leaders to file their credentials with the state and empowers them to confirm the existence of the marriage in a religious ceremony. The bottom line, though, is that the state has the final say over whether someone is married or not and over who can sign the marriage license. The legal documents have to be in order. The mere act of blessing the couple’s union is not sufficient to marry them. And by virtue of their elected or appointed office, nonreligious people also have the power to marry people.
Furthermore, to dissolve a marriage is akin to dissolving any other legally binding contract. What the state has joined together, the state must split asunder.
Rapert goes a step further in his “I don’t hate” insistence:
I do not personally hate anyone who has chosen a homosexual lifestyle and I believe they should be able to live their lives in peace like anyone else.
Really? Then why is he so gung-ho to deny them the basic and fundamental right to form a family with the partner of their choice? Why does he want to deny them the rights that heterosexual spouses have when it comes to matters like health care decisions? Why does he want to deprive them of inheritance and property rights like dower and curtesy? Why does he want to deprive them of the parental rights to children they have raised together? Why does he want to deny them the tax status granted to legally married partners? Why does he want to deny them the ability to obtain insurance as a family? Why does he want to deny them retirement benefits a spouse would normally get automatically? Why does he want to refuse them the privilege of not testifying against each other in court? Clearly, he does not want them to be able to have the same rights, privileges, and protections “like anyone else.”
Oh, there’s a reason for that, according to Senator Brother Rapert. “[M]arriage is integral to the concept of family, and research shows that children are given the best opportunity for well-rounded social development when they are raised in homes with a mother and father.”
Sure, children do better when there are more adults with a hand in child rearing. The gender of the parent-figure doesn’t matter, nor does the gender orientation of that parental figure. The fact that there is a stable home with the same adults in the household matters.
Not just one, but several factors tend to forecast a happy, successful child. Stability of the family is a paramount predictor of a child’s success. Based on all the research gathered to date, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) has concluded that “[l]ike all children, most children with LGBT parents will have both good and bad times. They are not more likely than children of heterosexual parents to develop emotional or behavioral problems.”
Canada agrees. In 2006, the Canadian Psychological Association reiterated its 2003 position on the issue:
CPA continues to assert its 2003 position that the psychological literature into the psychosocial adjustment and functioning of children fails to demonstrate any significant differences between children raised within families with heterosexual parents and those raised within families with gay and lesbian parents. CPA further asserts that children stand to benefit from the well-being that results when their parents’ relationship is recognized and supported by society’s institutions.
Therefore, if this is all about the children, validating the union of same-sex parents will go much farther to stabilize families than telling the kids that they don’t have a “real” family at all.
Senator Rapert calls a marriage between one man and one woman “natural” marriage. Once again, he displays his ignorance on a sleeve.
Marriage is whatever the law deems it to be. Let’s look at how marriage laws used to be:
Out of all that, he picks only one style of marriage to be “natural.” Blinders make the world a lot less expansive, don’t they?
Mildred Loving might find his comments ludicrously funny. She would have noted the irony that completely escaped Justice Clarence Thomas in his dissent in the DOMA and Prop 8 cases that were decided a year ago: but for a US Supreme Court finding that equal protection was violated by the anti-miscegenation statutes on the books of many of the states, his own marriage and family would not be recognized as valid.
Senator Rapert claims he’s not prejudiced.
Fourth, the tactics of intimidation toward those who object to same-sex marriage, including comparisons to racism, are unfair, unwarranted and shameful. When I was invited to join over 100 African American pastors on the steps of the Arkansas Capitol just a few days ago as they took a public stand for marriage between one man and one woman, that argument began to fall completely apart.
He actually wants us to believe that his embarrassingly solitary white face in that crowd of black pastors was because they invited him, not the other way around.
The comparison to racism is unfair? Why? Because giving equal rights to people born with a different skin color is different somehow from giving equal rights to people born with a different gender orientation?
Let’s imagine for a moment that in 1859, there was a vote in some slave state (just for giggles, let’s pick Arkansas) to preserve the status quo and make it illegal for the government to free the slaves. Heck, let’s take it one step further and suggest that in this vote, any black people who weren’t slaves would automatically become slaves unless they left the state before the end of the year. The state was determined to maintain an unequal status quo.
Impossible, you think?
Nope. That totally happened.
Rapert then claims that the bad press he’s gotten is because people don’t like his “stance on marriage and also as the sponsor of the Arkansas Heartbeat Protection Act.” He is absolutely right. His ideas are completely repulsive to those of us who value our individual liberties, autonomy over our own bodies, and the freedom to make very personal choices for ourselves. He claims that these are the acts of “liberal extremists.”
If only “liberal extremists” are in favor of same sex marriage, then we have generations of “liberal extremists” to look forward to. Liberal policies are the hallmark of progress, while conservative policies tend to be just the opposite. Senator Rapert, like many Tea Party Republicans, goes beyond maintaining a status quo, though. His policies are regressive and authoritarian. Passing statutes for no good reason other that wanting to deny equal rights to a segment of society they find distasteful is a reprehensible way to govern. He does not deserve the office he holds, nor do his like-minded comrades in office. Their policies are fascist.
It’s all about Senator Rapert’s religion, when it comes right down to it:
The America I was taught to honor and respect would never force Christians to do anything that violated the tenets of their beliefs. We have freedom of religion in this nation, not freedom from religion altogether.
No one is forcing anyone else to get gay-married. They aren’t forcing them to go gay-grocery shopping or to gay-teach students. No hate-filled Christian has to have gay sex or even decorate with glitter or rainbows. They don’t have to hire gay interior decorators, get their air trimmed by gay stylists, or wear clothes designed by gay designers. They also don’t have to benefit from the use of computers conceived by gay Alan Turing or read books and plays by gay Oscar Wilde or Gore Vidal. They can switch the channel when Ellen comes on. They can boycott Wachowski films like the Matrix trilogy, Cloud Atlas, and V for Vendetta. They don’t have to patronize LGBT businesses and art any more than LGBT people have to patronize those who proudly proclaim their prejudices and hate.
What they cannot do, though, is refuse service to any LGBT person on account of their hate. As it did upon the demise of Jim Crow laws, the Heart of Atlanta case will provide the precedent to prevent discrimination by businesses through the application of the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution.
Oh, and that dig about freedom from religion? Yes, that’s actually a thing. It’s also the law. If we don’t have freedom from religion, we can’t possibly have freedom of religion. Otherwise, courts would be in the business of establishing religion, and telling us which tenets we have to observe and which we don’t. And the First Amendment to the US Constitution says that can’t happen.
But Senator Rapert feels victimized:
It is very interesting that Christians are targeted so heavily with the venom of the homosexual lobby because most all other major faith traditions do not embrace homosexual marriage either, including Islam.
I would suggest to Senator Rapert that perhaps because they invoke their religion as the reason someone else can’t do something, they seek to establish their religion as the law of this country. And like I mentioned above, they don’t want to establish the denominations that are tolerant of other people’s private behaviors. They want to establish an authoritarian, restrictive, invasive religion. That is entirely, absolutely, completely, and decidedly unacceptable. If the Muslims were the ones doing the screaming and quoting the Qur’an as the reason we shouldn’t allow certain people equal rights, Senator Rapert and his troglodyte cronies had better believe that the American people would object to that, too.
I’m not even going to respond to the whole God thing Senator Rapert spewed on and on about in his column. The United States of America is not a theocracy, and Senator Rapert and his ilk may not cherry-pick their favorite version of the Bible to oppress people with Iron Age laws. If immigration rates continue the way they have been, pretty soon a majority of Americans will be Papists. Does he want a Catholic nation just because the majority of the population attends mass?
If the basis for a law is Biblical, it should immediately be suspect, and it should bear intense scrutiny. The science and research do not support these laws, no matter what they are.
Arkansas voters and legislators have an unpleasant history of maintaining an unequal status quo. When men make decisions for how a woman may take care of her own body, when straight people make decisions for how gay people may create and care for their families, when white people make decisions about whether black people can take part in the electoral process, there is a very real danger that the dominant and privileged among our population can – and will – oppress those whose voices are not as strong. That’s why the constitutional safeguards of equal protection and due process exist.
P.S. It’s not “activism” for a judge to uphold the constitution.
Arkansas is now added to the list of states that permits same sex marriage. Judge Chris Piazza’s decision did not come with an automatic stay, and the Pulaski County Clerk (the county where Little Rock is located) says that starting Monday morning, his office will be able to issue gender-neutral marriage licenses.
The decision strikes down more than Amendment 83 to the Arkansas Constitution, which was passed by the state’s voters in 2004. It also declared several laws aimed at preventing same sex marriage that were passed by the Arkansas legislature in 1997.
Arkansas Attorney General had said privately that he wouldn’t oppose a ruling striking the same sex marriage laws in Arkansas, but last week said he believed he had to continue to defend the laws on appeal as part of his duties as the state’s chief lawyer. Among practicing attorneys, there has been hot debate about whether McDaniel would be more ethical to defend the laws or not.
Unless the attorneys on the case get cracking, though, it’s unlikely that there will be a decision before next year, when the make-up of the Arkansas Supreme Court may be more conservative after the mid-term elections.
But come Monday, if any same sex couples want to get married, they should hurry to the courthouse, get their licenses, and let me know. I’d be proud to do the officiating.
Read the court’s decision here.
Sometimes I am asked how I came to be atheist. The short answer is that I was born that way.
No one is born with a religious belief system – our parents and others have to tell us the stories and indoctrinate us with their religion. That’s why there are so many Hindus in India, so many Jews in Israel, so many Muslims in Arabia, and so many Christians in America. We are indoctrinated into the religion of our parents. No Buddhist kid surprises his Christian parents with his full-blown understanding of the sutras as soon as he can talk, just like no Christian preschooler tells his Hindu parents that the only way to heaven is to accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior. We all have to be taught religion.
I think some kids are born skeptical. I think I was, and I see those traits very strongly in my oldest and youngest nephews and in my oldest niece. My youngest niece and middle nephew are plenty smart, as is my son, but they don’t have the attitude of “Nuh-uh, you’ll have to prove that to me!” and the excitement inherent in “That’s so cool! How’d that happen?” that the other three do.
My mom is Presbyterian and my dad was Catholic. There was no Catholic church in Des Arc, Arkansas, where I grew up. The Presbyterian Church had been founded by my mother’s ancestors when they first came to Prairie County in the 1800’s, so naturally, that’s where we were taken as kids. The ceiling was pressed tin, and I cannot begin to guess how many times I counted those decorative squares out of sheer boredom.
In Sunday school, we were taught all the usual stories. One of my earliest memories is of sitting in the Sunday school classroom coloring a picture of Daniel in the lion’s den and listening to the teacher explain that God had closed the mouths of the hungry lions so they wouldn’t eat Daniel. I remember thinking, “Nuh-uh. They just weren’t hungry, or there was some other reason.”
By that age (probably by about 6), I already knew the truth about Santa, and had ruined it for my sister and one of our friends. My sister and our friend Mischelle will say how mean I was – truthfully, I think I was just so delighted and excited to have my suspicions confirmed that I couldn’t wait to tell them. They were about 4 or 5 when I ruined Christmas for them forever, and neither one has ever, ever forgiven me.
When I was a little older, I realized that the weekly sermon was supposed to be based on the Bible readings that were part of each church service. I started opening the Bible and reading the verse along with the minister, then reading the passages that led up to it and beyond it. So many times I wanted to raise my hand and tell the minister that he was wrong – if he had read the verses that came just before or just after, he would realize how off-base he was. He was taking the verse out of context and building a brand new story around it, and assigning it meaning it didn’t have.
Then I started reading other parts of the Bible in church just so I didn’t have to listen to the inane ramblings from the pulpit. I came across Judges 19, and at that point I could not accept that there was anything good about these stories at all. A few years ago, I reinterpreted the atrocities of that chapter in a short story set in the modern era. It won a scary short story contest.
Concordant readings and the hymns were excruciating. Eventually, I decided I wouldn’t say or sing the words I thought were silly or that I didn’t agree with. I refused to say out loud that I was a worthless sinner (I didn’t think I was) or that I wanted divine intervention in anything (because I didn’t think it would happen). Then I realized that the whole thing was vapid and insipid. It was just another Santa Claus story.
When I was about 9 or 10, I threw a major hissy fit over church. It was a Sunday morning. We were ready to walk out the door for Sunday school and I had had enough. I remember screaming at my mom, telling her that the whole thing was stupid, that God wasn’t real, that God was really mean and horrible, and that going to church was pointless because praying was stupid and the words we were supposed to repeat every week were stupid and made no sense – hey, I was 9 or 10, so everything I didn’t like was “stupid,” right?
My Catholic dad stepped into the middle of my meltdown and suggested that Mom go ahead to church with my brother and sister. He said that he’d have me watch church on television while they were gone. After I calmed down, he started telling me about the Mover of the First Part. (It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized he was teaching me Aristotelian philosophy and basically regurgitating Thomas Aquinas’s apologetic Summa Theologica.) Of course, my question was, “Who made the Prime Mover, then?” Dad didn’t have an answer, but he said we had to watch church on TV since he had promised Mom.
He told me that there was a TV preacher named Oral Roberts who started every broadcast by saying, “Something GOOD is going to happen to you!” That’s who we would watch. Sure enough, he turned on Oral Roberts, and sure enough, those words came out of the preacher’s mouth the very first thing. As soon as the words were said, Dad switched the channel over to a John Wayne movie.
Dad and I spent many Sundays watching John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda while mom and my siblings were at church. I developed a great appreciation for Westerns (including the spaghetti variety), and was introduced to all-time favorites like the Cheyenne Social Club and Paint Your Wagon, World War II standards like Mister Roberts and Donovan’s Reef, and straight-up classics like The Quiet Man.
I still had to go to church fairly regularly, but after that I always sat next to my dad, and we always found something to giggle about during the hymns and whisper about during the rest of the service. We made an effort to twist things to the absurd. Having a secret, fun co-conspirator made me feel better about having to go in the first place.
I don’t think Dad was atheist. He may have been agnostic, but I suspect he made Pascal’s Wager, because he always told us to get him a priest if we knew he was dying. Not a Presbyterian minister, even though he eventually joined the church and even became a deacon – he wanted a Catholic priest. As it turned out, my father died very suddenly, and there was no time to get a priest. Atheist me insisted that we call one, though, just to satisfy that need he had – because that’s what he had always said he wanted. It was a matter of respect.
When I was about 12, Mom insisted that I take Catechism classes – part of the training for joining the Presbyterian church, even though I insisted that there was no way I would do that. I dutifully memorized the Bible verses and the doctrinal responses. The Presbyterian Church in Des Arc had a tiny congregation, and I was the only student at that time. I spent more time questioning the sense of the verses and the responses to the doctrinal questions, asking “Why?”, and demanding answers to the unanswerable than anything else. The minister’s answers never satisfied me, mostly because things like “God’s ways are mysterious” and “We aren’t meant to know” are completely unsatisfactory answers to someone whose brain thrives on and revels in knowledge. When I was given an answer that rested on convoluted or circular reasoning, it drove me further away from belief, not closer. I never joined the church.
My sis and I were sent to an Episcopal boarding school for high school. During the course of the curriculum, and especially in our senior year, we had to take a class that entailed reading the Bible and being tested on it. I actually looked forward to having this class, because the priest who taught it, Father John Babcock, was very approachable, friendly, and related well with all of us kids.
Unfortunately, a different priest taught that class my senior year. He was more academic than Fr. Babcock, and had us write long, college-like essays on exams. For the midterm, he asked a question that started, “Why do you think…?” Silly me took the bait. I told him exactly what I thought about whatever the topic was. I got a C, which, if you know anything about perfectionist me, you will understand really upset me. When I went to talk with him about it, he told me that I was wrong, so he couldn’t give me a better grade. I was totally pissed – my opinion was only worth a C because it didn’t match his ridiculous opinion.
At Colgate, one of the first classes I took my freshman year was the Philosophy of Religion. Aristotle, Kant, Kierkegaard, Aquinas – this is the class where I read about the Prime Mover and remembered my dad’s explanation from a decade before. None of the explanations that any of the religious apologists offered were satisfactory. The reading selection in that class that hit me the hardest was Kierkegaard’s explanation of the Isaac story in Fear and Trembling. It seemed to me to be the stuff of tortured logic. If religion was the source of morality, then how could Isaac’s sacrifice be morally wrong but religiously right? There was no answer to this except the “leap of faith.” Nope – not only was that answer not good enough, it was ethically reprehensible.
If none of these religious stories and doctrines made sense to me, how could they make sense to other people? WHY did they make sense to other people? I decided to try to find out. I went to different religious services on campus, both Catholic and Protestant. I talked to a friend who went from Colgate to Harvard Divinity School to be a rabbi. (He told me a few years later that the rabbi thing didn’t work out, because anyone who pays attention in Divinity School ends up atheist. He’s a doctor now in Springfield, Massachusetts.) I spoke with a cousin who is a Presbyterian minister. I’ve spoken with friends who have strong faith.
When I ask people why they believe, they tend to get defensive instead of explaining their rationale. My asking them why they believe is not meant to be antagonistic – I really want to know, because to this day I don’t understand why normally rational, compassionate people would buy into this whole faith thing. “You’ve just got to believe,” they tell me. No. No, I do not.
My mother once remarked that because I went to Catholic and Episcopalian services, I must like the ceremonial flavor of the more ritualized “high church” sects. I wasn’t going to church so I could get religion. I was going to try to figure out what other people got out of it. What I concluded was that the ritual seems to calm and comfort the people who attend these churches. Ritual is comforting. We know what to expect, we know what we are supposed to do. Ritual, like meditation, has a calming effect on the human psyche.
Rituals need a purpose, though, and I have never found purpose in a purely religious ritual. I see the point of the ritual in a wedding. I can see the point of ritual when it comes to memorial or funeral services. I see the point of other rituals that mark life transitions, like the naming of a baby or graduation or the passage to adulthood. I understand why human beings want these rituals to formalize life transitions. It doesn’t mean they are any less real if there is no ritual, but it does recognize the transition publicly, and we all want our major life changes to be recognized by others. Recognizing those life transitions is one of the main reasons I got ordained with the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and filed my credentials with the Pulaski County Clerk. Those rituals need to be recognized regardless of religious persuasion or non-belief.
When I got married, I agreed to a church wedding. Mostly that was because a church wedding was important to my beloved mother-in-law, who has a very strong faith. She knew this was the only wedding either of her children was likely to have, and it needed to be right for her. Skip and I would have been perfectly happy – and just as married – to have a judge say the words and sign the certificate on our front porch, followed, of course, by a kegger for our law school buddies. Instead, we were married in a giant church and had a reception at a country club.
We had our child baptized for the same reason – not because I wanted to do it, but because it was important to his grandparents. We took him to church when he was about 5 or 6 because we thought he needed to have had that experience. In retrospect, that was an exercise we didn’t need to put him through. I enjoyed the young adult Sunday school class that we went to there, though, and a few of those classmates I still call friends.
I’ll never forget the Sunday the minister of that church decided to teach our class. We were reading something attributed to Paul, and I was challenging at least half of what the blessed apostle wrote.
“Good! It’s good to question your faith!” the minister said to me, and the entire room erupted into laughter. My Sunday school classmates all knew I was atheist, but evidently word had not filtered up to the pulpit.
“I’m not questioning my faith,” I answered. “I’m questioning yours.”
So, I never “arrived” at non-belief. Truthfully, I didn’t have to. I never found a reason to leave non-belief in the first place.
Yesterday, some friends of mine – all of whom have Big Brains and Big Compassion, argued intensely and passionately about George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. Because my friends are passionate, compassionate, intelligent people, they are more likely to disagree very strongly when they disagree. Yesterday, tempers flared. Folks got defriended and blocked. “Fuck yous” were tossed about. Names were called. It was decidedly unpleasant all the way around.
I’m very glad they don’t disagree more often.
I haven’t said anything about this case because what I have to say won’t be popular: the American system of justice worked in the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case.
Does it piss me off that a 17 year old kid died for no apparent reason? You bet it does. Do I think Zimmerman acted wrongly? You bet I do. Should he have been convicted of murder for his conduct? Not based on the evidence.
The jury did not have enough evidence to convict Zimmerman of murder. The evidence was ambiguous at best, and tended to exonerate him. In order to convict someone of a crime, there can’t be any reasonable doubt as to the criminality of his conduct. When evidence is not clear, when it can be interpreted more than one way by reasonable minds based on the totality of the circumstances, the evidence doesn’t rise to the level of “beyond reasonable doubt.” Therefore, the jury had no choice but to find Zimmerman not guilty. They did not find him “innocent,” mind you. They found that there was insufficient evidence to say he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
It’s true that had Zimmerman not followed Trayvon, both would have their lives today. He was told by the police dispatcher not to follow the suspicious person and he ignored that instruction. He probably ignored it because he knew police were on their way and he wanted not to lose sight of the person he deemed to be suspicious. George Zimmerman should never have followed Trayvon Martin. Period. But once he did, the facts become much murkier, and the most important question becomes whether he was justified in using deadly force after the situation escalated. And that’s where reasonable minds may differ.
A terrible thing we do as a society is second-guess juries based on media hype. What happened was awful, tragic, and ultimately pointless. Zimmerman was probably the aggressor in that he scared a kid who was just walking home. That kid probably made a mistake when he decided to lash out at a guy who was scaring him by following him. The situation escalated out of control, until ultimately a gun was fired. Whose fault was it? Both Zimmerman and Martin screwed up their engagement, and one of them died as a result.
Don’t get me started on the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. I’m not going to rehash the evidence. Wikipedia and about ten million news stories do that for us, and they are all available on the Google for anyone who wants to look for them. What we absolutely cannot do is armchair quarterback the conflict and the trial.
I’m not defending George Zimmerman. What he did was stupid, ill-advised, and ultimately cost a child his life. I’m also not persecuting Trayvon Martin. Based on the evidence presented, Trayvon acted in self-defense himself. And when two people reasonably believe they are acting only in self-defense, and one of them dies, there should not be a murder conviction. If reasonable minds can differ in the heat of the moment, they can certainly differ as to whether, in hindsight, the actions of one of those parties rose to the level of criminal conduct.
The bottom line is that based on the evidence it was presented, the jury did the right thing – just like they did in the original OJ Simpson case, and just like they did in the Casey Anthony case. Personally, I would rather have a guilty person walking the streets than an innocent person rotting in jail. All too often, juries seem to convict defendants on less evidence than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” When there is room for doubt, and that doubt is reasonable given the known facts and circumstances, juries should never convict. Even if, in the guts of each and every one of them, they think the defendant is most likely guilty. “Most likely” isn’t the standard of proof. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” is.
What Zimmerman did was wrong. Had he not disregarded the dispatcher’s advice not to follow a person he deemed suspicious, we would not know his name and Trayvon would be a freshman in college somewhere. Had there been no “stand your ground” law, the case may well have turned out very differently. Had George Zimmerman not been armed when he and Trayvon confronted each other – whichever of them initiated the confrontation – the entire situation may well have turned out differently. Zimmerman, not Martin, might be the dead person, and Trayvon Martin might have been acquitted after a national media circus. Or he might have been convicted.
I haven’t practiced criminal law since 1991, but as I recall, the person who initiates the conflict is generally at fault if he has reason to believe that things will escalate to the point of physical violence. In Zimmerman’s mind, he was following a probable criminal. It would not have been unreasonable for him to think that criminal was armed – yet he engaged him anyway. At least, we think he did. No one actually knows whether Zimmerman or Trayvon initiated contact. And that’s why the jury couldn’t convict him.
I’m not going to call for Zimmerman to be persecuted, lynched, chased off a beach, or otherwise harassed. I would like to see his concealed-carry permit revoked, because I firmly believe that his gun probably made him braver and less cautious than he might have been had he been unarmed that fateful night. However, I admit to an extreme distaste for guns and the inflated bravado they inspire. (If I had a dollar for every time someone had remarked that a gun would have taken care of the men who robbed me last year, I’d be rich. And if I’d had a gun handy that night I might be dead. Or in intensive psychotherapy because omigod I shot someone.) What I take away from the Zimmerman-Martin situation is that we need realistic gun control laws, and we as a society absolutely must stop romanticizing how handguns protect us. They don’t. They endanger us, whether or not we are the person wielding them.
I want justice for Trayvon Martin, but I don’t think the criminal conviction of his killer is the justice that will prevent this situation from happening again. It certainly won’t bring Trayvon back. Responsible laws and public education about the use of force and weapons will make a difference. Warehousing George Zimmerman in a prison won’t. And if Zimmerman is going to commit crimes, he, like any other criminal, ought to be judged on the merits of his conduct in that circumstance.
I can’t imagine being George Zimmerman right now. He’s a pariah in the media, which delights in scrutinizing every mistake and case of bad judgment the man makes. Is Zimmerman a shitty person? Maybe. Some of the things reported about him sure paint that picture. He’s also under incredible stress – he HAS to be, given the microscope the national press uses to follow him. No one acts completely rationally under intense, chronic stress. The media scrutiny on Zimmerman’s every move is horrific. If someone followed me around and reported everything I said and did for months on end, and then only reported the negative stuff and not the good or boring stuff, I’d probably be suicidal.
If I were George Zimmerman, I’d move, get plastic surgery, change my hair, and change my name.
I get asked a lot about how I approached the question of religion when my son was young. Did I insist that he follow my lack of belief?
No, I did not. That he has a vivid imagination but a rational and humanistic lifestance is attributable, I think, to making sure he knew how to think for himself.
One of the things we most urgently need to instill in our children is the to think critically about the world around us. Not just when it comes to religion, but when politics, ethics, and personal conflicts are in issue, having the skill to think rationally about things is crucial to a better life.
I taught my child to question everything. Lots of times, I taught him to do it by asking him questions. Yes, my son was raised by Socratic Method. We had rules, but we felt it was important for him to understand the reasoning behind the rules.
- I never said no to him without giving him a reason. “Because I said so” is not a reason. “Because I don’t feel like it” is.
- If he calmly and rationally rebutted me, I listened. If his argument was better than mine, I changed my position. That being said, if he was argumentative or rude, he automatically lost the argument and often got sent to his room to calm down. If only this process were observed in the political arena, we’d be in great shape!
- We explored his questions and his interests together. We did science experiments in the kitchen and back yard. And because Dinosaurs Are Awesome, we kept a notebook full of dinosaur information, and added newspaper and magazine clippings to it regularly. I still have that notebook.
- Bedtime stories were just as likely to be stories from history and science as they were from Narnia or Hogwarts. We told each other stories we made up, and we made up stories together.
- When he was preschool and elementary school age, we bought age-appropriate books of Greek, Norse, Egyptian, Native American, and other mythology, which we read right along with the children’s Bible our son’s grandmother gave him.
- He played the video game “Age of Mythology,” which taught him about the capriciousness of deities. Later he graduated to “Age of Empires,” and when he told me William Wallace was his hero, I knew for sure that these games were okay.
- We played the “what if” game, to imagine how things might be different if one thing about the world was different, and we explored the best possible uses of a time machine.
- Magazines full of popular science were in every bathroom and on every tabletop. Discover. Archaeology. National Geographic. Smithsonian. We read those articles together, too. When he got older, he would pick up the magazines himself and read them.
- We watched science, nature and history shows together. Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin was at his pinnacle when Jack was growing up, and there was a lot of really good stuff on that show. We grieved his death. The Walking with Dinosaurs documentary series (not the new movie) was on the Discovery Channel – back when the Discovery Channel still was about science. Connections – that James Burke documentary series that combined science, history and technology in wonderful ways – was a favorite, too.
- I spent time in his elementary school classrooms, and talked not just to him but to his classmates about how to tell stories, all about fossils, dinosaurs, how the legal system works, how amber is formed, and more. I even organized a field trip to the local juvenile court where his classmates and my lawyer friends put some naughty dinosaurs on trial. After the trial, we visited a real juvenile detention facility.
- I took him to Sunday school. I felt like I needed to, because I wanted him to understand where his religious friends were coming from. He went to Bible School one summer, too. He was in about second grade. We only did this for about a year, because I’m atheist and it was on Sunday mornings, when civilized people lounge around the house in pajamas reading the New York Times and doing crossword puzzles. I wanted him to learn, but not be indoctrinated.
This is when I knew I had succeeded:
When he was about 11, I asked him whether I had to do the Easter Bunny schtick again that year. “What do you mean, ‘schtick’?” he asked.
“Your father never helps me and I have to stay up late and I really don’t want to,” I told him. (Yeah, I was kind of whiny about it, I admit.)
“You! What about the Easter Bunny?”
“Son, do you really think a bunny hops around the house after we go to bed hiding eggs and pooping jellybeans?”
“Well, no … but can I still have the basket? And all the candy?”
Fast forward to summer. He had lost a tooth and I forgot to put money under his pillow.
“Mom, the tooth fairy forgot last night.”
“I’m sure she was just busy and lagged behind. She’ll get to you tonight if you put it under there again.”
The next morning he reported that the tooth fairy had once again forgotten. “Just go get my purse. Get a dollar out of my wallet.”
“What? You’re the tooth fairy, too? First the Easter Bunny, now the tooth fairy – what’s next? Santa Claus?” I could tell he was annoyed, but I needed to get to work.
“Yes, son. And right after that comes God,” I said.
He looked at me in pure shock and horror for about three solid seconds, and I wondered what I would say next. Then he burst out laughing.
“I knew all along, Mom.”
Eventually, I sent my son to an Episcopal school. I did this because, after working in the juvenile justice system for a decade, I was terrified of gangs in our local public middle schools. There weren’t a lot of private school options, so I chose the least religious of the bunch, where I thought he would get a good education (that included evolution as real science, not as part of some non-existent controversy). He was inoculated against religion before he went, because critical thinking was automatic and habitual with him by the time he was enrolled there in 5th grade.
He had to take religion classes for one semester both in middle school and in high school. That was fine with me, because I doubted he’d read the Bible otherwise. Let’s face it: it’s a lousy, poorly-written book with plot holes big enough to fly 747s through, but knowing enough to be able to talk intelligently about it is pretty important in our culture.
In middle school, he pretty much kept his head down and just did his work. In high school, though, Father John wanted more out of him. The very first day of class, the priest threw out a question:
“Jack, What do you think prayer does?”
There were pockets of laughter around the classroom as Jack hesitated.
“Yeah, Jack! What do you think?” asked one of the students.
“What’s so funny?” asked Father John.
“You asked an atheist what he believes prayer does!” one of Jack’s classmates blurted. Jack was probably grinning, too. I hope he was.
He said, “I don’t think prayer does anything, but I can understand how it might be helpful for some people.”
I’m happy with his response. My son the critical thinker is also much more diplomatic than I am when it comes to this subject.
We need to give kids credit for being able to think for themselves – but we need to teach them to do it, too. It’s part of our jobs as parents, to give them the tools to understand and deal with the world, and to be able to determine for themselves what is credible.
~~I’m very tardy with this post. It should have gone up on Christmas Day. Oh, well. Christmas isn’t officially over until tomorrow, when Epiphany strikes.~~
The year Jack was 15, he and I went to my sister’s for Christmas dinner. When we got there, Susan put a pork tenderloin in the oven and we gathered around the tree to open gifts. Susan’s two boys, ages 15 and 13, were there, as was my mother. We spent a lovely hour ooohing and ahhhhing over what everyone got and gave. It was a very nice time.
We were almost through opening gifts when Su left to check the pork tenderloin we were having for Christmas dinner. She was in the kitchen for a few minutes. The rest of us waited to open any more gifts until she returned.
We were chatting and laughing and not paying any attention to her when Su tip-toed back into the living room and tapped me on the shoulder. “Come here,” she whispered.
I had been sitting on the floor. I got to my feet and followed her into the kitchen.
“Have you ever cooked a pork tenderloin?” she asked.
“Sure,” I told her. “Lots of times.”
“Good. I have something I need to ask you, then,” she said, and opened the oven door. She reached in and pulled out the roasting pan holding the meat. I thought she would ask me about how to tell if the meat was cooked through, or how best to carve it or something. I am always willing to dispense sisterly advice. But that wasn’t what Su wanted.
“Is it supposed to look like this?” she asked.
Su put the pan down on the counter and grinned at me real big. “Shhhh,” she said.
We walked back into the living room, and she beckoned to Mom.
I couldn’t help it. I could barely hold in my laughter, and it was obvious. I do not have a poker face at all. When my mother followed Susan into the kitchen, I did my best to keep three large teenage boys at bay, thinking they were too young and … ahem … tender … to witness what had been prepared for Christmas dinner.
I was unsuccessful. The boys barreled into the kitchen just as their grandmother was in the act of looking at the slab of meat that faced her. Their Gran glanced up with a quizzical look. For a second I thought she didn’t get it.
Then she burst out laughing.
The boys crowded around. “What is it? What’s so funny?” they demanded. Their mothers and grandmother were laughing too hard to tell them.
Su headed down the hall to the bathroom before she wet her pants. When she came back, she suggested that a creamy Bearnaise sauce would be a lovely accompaniment.
That set us off again. Su headed back to the bathroom.
We females of the family enjoyed every bite. “Mmmmmm.” “Yummy.” “This is delightful,” we said.
The boys, for some reason, opted for a meatless Christmas dinner.
And now, for the crucial question:
If a pork tenderloin is circumcised, does that make it kosher?
During a recent visit with cousins from out of state, I learned that my mother’s family’s Mayflower connection is through Mercy Leonard, the wife of Samuel Robinson. I started doing a little digging to confirm this. I haven’t found the Mayflower connection yet, because, hey, I just started looking, but I found something else that grabbed my attention.
Because I get absurdly excited by all of these family history discoveries, I have to share. Grab a Bloody Mary (yeah, we’re related to her, too, but it’s way distant) or pour another glass of grape juice, and settle in for a little history lesson.
In the mid-eighteenth century, both France and Britain claimed parts of what is now Vermont. To further complicate matters, three British colonies – New York, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts – laid claim to at least a portion of Vermont’s territory. They argued nastily among themselves as to which colony had the right to issue land grants in the area. In 1741, to the relief of New Hampshire and New York, a royal decree finally prevented Massachusetts from claiming lands north of its current border. But the French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years War, broke out in 1756 over territorial lines between the American colonies claimed by France and those claimed by England. Vermont lies less than 50 miles south of Montreal. Its territory was very hotly disputed.
The British finally took control of Ticonderoga (New York) and Montreal (Quebec), and in 1760 signed a peace agreement with France to end the North American portion of the conflict. The North American battles between France and England that started in 1756 had spilled over to Europe, where it the Seven Years War finally ended for good in 1763, making it last – you guessed it – seven years.
Even though the European superpowers had resolved their territorial differences, the British colonies had not. Before the ink was dry on the North American peace agreement, New Hampshire colonial governor Benning Wentworth began making land grants in disputed territory. His motivation was part colonial power struggle and part avaricious land speculation. Many of the settlements that sprang up as a result of Wentworth’s land grants were named for Wentworth and his rich and powerful pals who he hoped would support him when New York predictably got testy over the whole matter. The very first of these land grants went to our ancestor, Samuel Robinson, for Bennington. Samuel knew the area because he had camped there with his troops during the French and Indian War.
Samuel Robinson died in London, England on October 29, 1767. He had been elected by a convention of Vermont towns to go to the king to petition for validation of the New Hampshire land grants. He succeeded, but was stricken by smallpox before he could return home. In a twist of fate, his grandson Dr. Benjamin Robinson (1776-1857), would pioneer smallpox vaccination in America.
The territorial dispute among the colonies was not resolved before the Revolution. Vermont was never a separate English colony. Depending on who was asked, it was part of either New Hampshire or New York. In 1777, during the Revolution, Vermont declared itself to be a separate Republic because of the land disputes between New Hampshire and New York. After the Revolution, in 1791, Vermont became the 14th state. The New Hampshire land grants pretty much prevailed once everything shook out.
My 7th great-grandfather Captain Samuel Robinson was a product of the First Great Awakening, an evangelical religious movement that started in New England in the 1730’s. This evangelical movement championed a version of separation of church and state that was first proposed by Roger Williams when he founded Providence, Rhode Island, along with Richard and Catherine Marbury Scott. (FYI: Catherine Marbury Scott is my favorite of our direct ancestors. Her older sister, Anne Marbury Hutchinson, was utterly amazing, and I’m going to be just like her when I grow up. That means I’ll be run out of Boston and killed by restless natives on Long Island, but that’s another story.)
Roger Williams promoted the notion that freedom of thought, of opinion, and of the press would inspire individual religious belief, not dogma dictated by a ruling hegemony of religious leaders. Naturally, these religiously “free” places – like Providence – permitted their leaders to impose their version of religion on local residents. The movement was born in Puritan New England, after all. (Non sequitur: Massachusetts was the last state – yes, state – to abolish established religion in the United States in 1833.)
Our illustrious forebear did all he could to ensure only the right sort of Christians were his neighbors. Mercy Leonard Robinson and her children are buried in Old Bennington Cemetery, next to the church Samuel Robinson founded there. The original church building no longer exists, but its replacement celebrated its 200th birthday in 2006.
After the Revolution, Mercy and Samuel’s son Moses (named for Mercy’s father – it’s her I’m researching, remember) was a member of the delegation sent by the Republic of Vermont in 1782 to the Continental Congress to work out the territorial dispute with New York. He later served as governor of the Vermont Republic and oversaw its transition to statehood. He served as one of the first pair of senators from Vermont. Several of Samuel and Mercy Leonard Robinson’s sons were prominent leaders in politics and medicine. Religion, not so much. That was their father’s bailiwick.
Thomas Jefferson is credited in legal doctrine with the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” because of a letter he wrote to the Baptist Church leaders in Danbury, Connecticut in 1803. Before the famous Danbury letter, though, he wrote a letter to Moses Robinson in 1801 on the subject. The original is at the University of Virginia among Jefferson’s papers. Jefferson, who had been President for less than a month at the time the letter was written, expressed dismay that so many of the clergy seemed to want to establish state religion, and ended his letter with a complaint that still rings in my ears today – mostly because I listen to my own words, and I pontificate about this a lot:
The eastern States will be the last to come over [to Jefferson’s notion of a secular and scientific nation], on account of the dominion of the clergy, who had got a smell of union between Church and State, and began to indulge reveries which can never be realised in the present state of science. If, indeed, they could have prevailed on us to view all advances in science as dangerous innovations, and to look back to the opinions and practices of our forefathers, instead of looking forward, for improvement, a promising groundwork would have been laid. But I am in hopes their good sense will dictate to them, that since the mountain will not come to them, they had better go to the mountain: that they will find their interest in acquiescing in the liberty and science of their country, and that the Christian religion, when divested of the rags in which they have enveloped it, and brought to the original purity and simplicity of its benevolent institutor, is a religion of all others most friendly to liberty, science, and the freest expansion of the human mind.
(Today, I’d insert “Southern and Midwestern” for “eastern” in that first line. In fairness to Jefferson, not only was the letter written before the Civil War and Dust Bowl devastated the economies of those regions, thereby providing fertile ground for more religious fervor, it predated the Louisiana Purchase.)
According to a recent Gallup poll, Vermont is now the least religiously-inclined state in the nation. I assume 7th great-grandfather Robinson would not be nearly as amused as I am by this, especially since his own sons began selling land to the wrong sorts as soon as old Sam was room temperature.
Recently I posted some hate mail on Facebook that the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers received. This email said that atheists have no heritage in the United States, that we aren’t real patriots, and that we don’t have the courage to step up and play with those who are.
Dear Carey Dove:
I’ve studied constitutional law, history, and my own genealogy. I know what my heritage is. Apparently, you don’t know me at all.
So, let me give you a little introduction to me, my knowledge about the constitution, and whether or not I have any American heritage.
We’ll start with the constitutional lesson.
George Mason wrote the first bill of rights to be adopted in the Americas. His Virginia Declaration of Rights, written in the spring of 1776, influenced revolutions on two continents. The Declaration of Independence drew heavily from it. The Bill of Rights plagiarized it. The French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen tracked it. Its final provision was to grant religious freedom to Virginians.
George Mason was a delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, when fifty-five men from twelve of the newly formed states argued about how to replace the unworkable Articles of Confederation. Mason dominated the discussions. Ultimately, he was one of three delegates who voted against it, primarily because it did not contain a bill of rights – there were no constitutional guarantees of personal liberty.
He would be vindicated four years later, when the bill of rights was adopted. The first of those rights was religious freedom.
So, now we have established that our constitution, and the history that preceded it, includes religious freedom. That means the freedom to dissent and to reject religion, because without the freedom to dissent and reject what we find to be wrong with religion, there can be no freedom in our practice of religion. And if we ultimately reject it all? That is the ultimate freedom.
So now I’ll embark on explaining the pedigree I have in this country.
A few years ago I was chosen to be on the Board of Regents that oversees the maintenance and operation of George Mason’s historic home in Virginia.
I was invited to sit on that board because of who my ancestors were. My European ancestors not only lived in colonial America, but they gave their time, talents, efforts, and money in public service to their colonies. They were politicians, military officers, doctors, judges, ministers, founders of schools, and founders of towns. They spoke out. They acted. They were patriots.
Who they were and what they did has shaped our country and its government. They shaped our states and our institutions. Their words and actions are this country’s heritage, and this country is their legacy.
On a very personal level, who they were and what they did has shaped who I am personally, and what I do. Their behavior, values, strengths, words, intelligence, and deeds are my heritage, and I am the culmination of their legacy.
My favorite ancestor is my 9th great aunt, Anne Marbury Hutchinson. Anne Hutchinson was a well-liked and respected mother of 15 children. She was brilliant, charismatic, and a passionate intellectual. She was also the polestar of a controversy that nearly shattered the religious experiment that was the infant Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Anne and her husband Will came to America in 1634 with a Puritan minister named John Cotton, who would eventually become the most preeminent theologian in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Unlike the Puritan ministers already in Boston when he and the Hutchinsons arrived, John Cotton believed that a person had no control over his own salvation, but had to depend on God’s grace. This was Calvinist predestination in its purest sense, but it was contrary to what other Puritan ministers were teaching. They taught that the good works done by a person were the only ticket to salvation.
The Hutchinsons were wealthy in England, but even wealthier in the colony. They built one of the largest homes in Boston. After church services, Anne Hutchinson would invite other women to gather in her home to discuss the sermons and the Bible. Anne’s meetings were very popular with the women of Boston, and soon men joined in.
Like her mentor John Cotton, Anne emphasized the importance of a state of grace over good works. People liked what she had to say. They were focused on feeding their families and running their businesses; they didn’t have time for unlimited acts of charity. As the number of people at her meetings escalated, Anne’s philosophy quickly leaked back to the Puritan clergy. Boston was a very small town in 1634.
The ministers claimed that Anne’s “unauthorized” religious gatherings “might confuse the faithful.” They argued the theological point of predestination – good works versus inherent grace – among themselves, and ultimately Anne was charged with heresy.
John Cotton, however, was not.
Anne was a woman, so was not authorized to preach.
Left to her own devices, Anne Hutchinson, the first female defendant in any trial in America, defended herself at her heresy trial, which was prosecuted by John Winthrop, her neighbor and the governor of the colony. Governor Winthrop was most displeased with Anne’s religious dissent, because his wife, Margaret, was very fond of attending the meetings in the Hutchinson home, and brought home with her ideas he found unbecoming in a woman.
And like the Reverend Dimmesdale in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, who was modeled after him, John Cotton essentially betrayed Anne to the powerful citizens who brought the charges against her. When he was called to testify, Cotton denied that he had incited any dissent in Anne, and smiled and shrugged, claiming he did not remember the substance of any of his conversations with her.
Upon hearing his repudiation, Anne Hutchinson did something she had been forbidden to do: she began to teach the men. While her teaching had been in private before, here, now, at her trial for heresy, she took off the gloves and came out punching. “If you please to give me leave, I shall give you the ground of what I know to be true.” Without waiting for permission, Anne continued speaking, explaining her own history, her dissatisfaction with the Church of England, her search for the truth she knew had to exist.
Governor Winthrop attempted to interrupt her. She ignored him and continued.
“God did discover unto me the unfaithfulness of the churches, and the danger of them, and that none of those ministers could preach the Lord aright.” Scripture fell from her lips as she brazened on, daring to teach, despite an exchange with Governor Winthrop earlier in her trial during which they had exchanged barbs about the ability of women to teach. (“What, now you would have me teach you what the Bible says?” she mockingly exclaimed to him.)
Governor John Winthrop was also, conveniently, one of the judges, so naturally Anne Hutchinson was convicted, and in November 1637, she was banished from Massachusetts.
Anne was 43 years old at the time of her trial. She was also pregnant, and during the trial she suffered a miscarriage. The superstitious Puritans allied against her saw the severely malformed fetus as proof that Anne had fallen from God’s grace.
Anne’s youngest sister was my 8th great-grandmother, Catherine Marbury Scott. Catherine and her husband, a shoemaker named Richard Scott, came to America on the Griffin with the Hutchinsons and John Cotton in 1634. They left Boston with Anne, first joining Roger Williams at a place he called Providence, in the Rhode Island and Providence Plantations secured by Williams as a separate colony. Williams had himself been banished from Boston in 1635, the year after the Hutchinsons and Scotts had arrived, for preaching that one did not need a a church in which to worship.
In Providence, the Scotts, along with many other of Anne’s followers from Boston, created a new community. Richard Scott wrote the Providence Compact, which was then signed by each of the 39 heads of household to come to that place. They became Baptists for a while, then Quakers. Then, in 1660, Catherine returned to Boston to protest the punishment of two young Quaker men. For her efforts she was stripped to the waist and flogged in public. Even though Boston had been unspeakably cruel to her sister 23 years before, Catherine did not hesitate to speak out when she saw the government do something wrong-headed. She was a worthy bearer of her sister Anne’s torch.
Anne herself was afraid to stay in Providence, especially after her husband’s death. Massachusetts had rattled its saber at the Rhode Island settlers, claiming it had the right to govern them, so she fled with her children to Long Island. There, in 1643, she and all but one of her children were murdered by natives. How long might she have lived had she not been run out of Boston? How much more might she have contributed to the ideas of women’s rights and freedom of conscience had she remained in Boston?
Far from being dour, rigid Puritans, Anne and Catherine were firebrands.
Anne Hutchinson is a key figure in the development of religious freedom in the U.S., and in the history of women in ministry. She challenged authority, and she didn’t back down. A monument to her at the Massachusetts State House calls her a “courageous exponent of civil liberty and religious toleration.” She is easily the most famous – and infamous – Englishwoman in colonial American history.
Anne Hutchinson was a freethinker in the truest sense of the word: Dogmatic as she was in her own way, she seriously contemplated her religion, a deity, and the teachings of those who claimed to know, and then she drew conclusions for herself. The conclusion she reached was not the one that was favored in Boston in 1637. Nevertheless, she did not back down. She had the courage of her convictions, and today she is admired and even revered her her steadfastness.
I admire her enormously. Her courage in the face of adversity, her sustained intelligent wit, her sublime sarcasm – right to the face of the most powerful man in Massachusetts! This – this is a woman I can only hope to live up to as I exercise the courage of my own convictions.
When I speak up and speak out, when I hold meetings in my home, when I dissent from religion, when I give my time and my money and my talents to my community and to issues I care about, I am following the legacy of my heritage. I am doing exactly what my ancestors have done ever since they first came to this continent.
For the 392 years that we’ve been in America, it’s been my family’s tradition to speak up and speak out, and to act on our convictions.
And that, Carey Dove, is a very proud heritage, with full knowledge of where our religious freedoms came from, with full knowledge of when they did not exist here, and with full knowledge of what happens when dissent is not allowed – and why it most definitely and wholeheartedly is.
The lot of a slave in the American South was not easy, no matter how well he or she was treated by well-intentioned owners. It is hard for many of us to imagine being born into bondage, not free to make our own decisions about where to live, whether to be educated, whom to marry, and whether we can even live with our own families. In the early 1800’s, though, for most black people living in the newly-formed United States of America, such a situation was their reality, and a well-intentioned slave owner was not the norm – certainly not when it came to the liberty of his slaves.
Some slaves overcame their stifling beginnings, though, and became laudable examples of the kind of men and women their entire race should always have been allowed to be. Nathan Warren was one of these great men. Born into slavery, Nathan “Nase” Warren was a successful businessman, a minister, a devoted husband and father, a community organizer, and a civil rights activist. He is buried in a lost grave at Mount Holly Cemetery in Little Rock, Arkansas.
When Robert Crittenden came to Arkansas as the first Secretary of the newly-created Arkansas Territory in 1819, he brought with him a six year old slave called Nase. Some of Crittenden’s white descendants and some of Nathan’s black ones believe Crittenden, who was about 15 or 16 years older than his young slave, was the child’s father.
In 1834, when Nathan was about 21 or 22 years old, Robert Crittenden died nearly bankrupt. Crittenden was only 37 years old when he died, and his widow had difficulty even keeping a roof over her head. This meant turmoil for young Nase, whose ownership was transferred to Daniel Greathouse, the pioneer in Faulkner County, Arkansas, who at the time was living in Little Rock. But Greathouse filed an interesting document with the Pulaski County Clerk – after three and a half years of service, Nase was to be freed. Greathouse died before those three and a half years had expired, and Nase was indeed given his freedom just before Arkansas became the 25th state to be admitted to the Union.
Possibly because of his visibility in the Crittenden household, Nathan had made important contacts among other members of Arkansas’ territorial elite. Chester Ashley, one of the men who donated the land where the Mount Holly Cemetery sits to the City of Little Rock, was one of those contacts. Ashley hired Nathan as a carriage driver. Nathan and Anne, the quadroon daughter of the Ashley’s cook, married. They would have either nine or ten children together, and Nase would help to rear Anne’s older son, W.A. Rector.
Nase was much more than an ordinary carriage driver. When he took over a confectionery two blocks from the Ashley’s home, on the land where part of the Capital Hotel now stands, the people of Little Rock quickly learned that he had a true gift for his craft. His shop was so successful that the ladies of Little Rock would not consider having a party without treats from his store. They begged “Uncle Nase” for his secrets, but he refused, telling them that if he shared his recipes with white ladies, he would give away his trade.
His confectionery eventually moved to a larger storefront west of Main Street. He suffered a setback when his shop burned. Arson was suspected. He reopened, though, and business continued briskly.
Nathan was not the only member of his family to live free in the early 1800’s. One of his brothers who had remained with the Crittenden family in D.C. had also been freed, and together they purchased the freedom of a third brother from the Crittenden family in 1844.
When Nathan’s first wife died, he married another Ashley slave, Mary Elizabeth. He had two daughters with her, and eventually purchased their freedom. The children from his first marriage remained slaves in the Ashley family, though.
In the 1850’s, sentiments against free black people ran high in southern states, and Arkansas was no exception. In 1859, Governor Elias N. Conway signed the Free Negro Expulsion Act. Free black people, which meant anyone who had at least one black grandparent, were required to leave the state by January 1, 1860, or face sale into slavery for a period of one year. The continued freedom of about 700 people was directly jeopardized by this Act. Nathan was not among them, though. He was a very intelligent man, and when a similar measure had narrowly failed in the legislature in 1857, Nathan had seen the writing on the wall. He packed up Mary Eliza and their two free daughters and left for Xenia, Ohio, where he lived for several years. While he was in Ohio, he took the name Warren as a surname. At the time of the 1860 census, he lived in Xenia, Greene County, Ohio, with Mary Eliza, their daughters Ellen (8) and Ida (4), and two sons, William (2) and Edwin (7 months). As he had in Little Rock, Nathan worked as a baker.
A story in a newspaper article about Nathan claimed that an old friend encountered him in New York during his exile, and that Nathan was miserably unhappy and down on his luck. The friend, a Mr. Tucker, brought Nathan back to Arkansas even though the Act expelling free black people was still in effect. Family legends and the census locating Nathan’s family in Ohio for this time period dispute this version of events. Nathan’s descendants believe that Nathan and his free family returned to Little Rock about 1863, possibly with the help or sponsorship of the Ashley family. Since Nathan had left nine or ten of his still-enslaved children in Little Rock, one can only assume that he missed them and worried about them as the Civil War raged in and around Little Rock. Perhaps local people had their hands full with politics and the war, or perhaps “Uncle Nase” was so well-liked that the society ladies were grateful for his return and persuaded their husbands to leave him alone. At any rate, upon his return to Little Rock, Nathan Warren reestablished his confectionery and his popularity.
While living in Ohio, Nathan and the Warren family had been introduced to the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The AME church had broken away from the Methodist Church in Pennsylvania because black congregants wanted their own place of worship, independent from the white church. Almost as soon as he returned from Ohio, Nathan started the Bethel AME Church in Little Rock and was ordained as a minister. The Bethel AME Church is still a vital part of the downtown community, although it has moved into a different building that takes up the block bordered by 16th Street and Wright Avenue between Izard and State Streets. It is celebrating its sesquicentennial this year.
The year Nathan Warren started Bethel AME Church was a turning point not just in his life, but in the lives of all American slaves in rebellious states. The Emancipation Proclamation had been issued January 1 of that year, and Civil War raged across the country. Most of the battles fought in Arkansas occurred after January 1863, including the battles of Bayou Meto (also known as Reed’s Bridge) and Bayou Fourche, both of which were fought on the Union army’s approach to Little Rock.
With Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the rest of Nathan Warren’s family soon became free. Most of the children from his first marriage were adults now, and many of those ten children had inherited Nathan’s musical talent. Nathan was a popular fiddler, and his children played other instruments and performed publicly as a group.
The end of the war brought other changes, too. The government’s efforts at reconstruction in the southern states meant that black people would be granted rights. Exactly how those rights would be realized, and exactly how the former slaves would support themselves, was uncertain. Nathan Warren was a Pulaski County delegate to the Convention of Colored Citizens held in Little Rock November 30 – December 2, 1865. It was the first convention ever held by the black residents of Arkansas.
The language contained in the minutes of that convention is stirring. The convention
met for the purpose of conferring with each other, as to our best interest and future prosperity; also, to memorialize the State Legislature and Congress of the United States, to grant us equality before the law, and the right of suffrage, … we have earned it and, therefore, we deserve it; we have bought it with our blood, and, therefore, it is of priceless value to us.
Rev. Nathan Warren delivered the prayer at the closing session the final day of the convention. The final resolutions of the convention underscored the great hope that the newly emancipated black Arkansans had, while recognizing that a struggle still lay before them.
The persecutions of two and a half centuries have not been enabled to destroy our confidence in the eventual justice of the American people. We believe the time has come when wisdom again asserts her sway in the councils of the nation.
It would be another hundred years before the federal government would pass a civil rights act to ensure racial equality.
Through the Reconstruction era, Nathan Warren maintained his confectionery and his musically-gifted children continued performing. Their musical gifts would bring them tragedy, though. In early 1866, the Warren family performers were hired to perform for a private party aboard the steamboat Miami on a journey between Little Rock and Memphis. In the early morning hours of January 28, 1866, the Miami was on its return to Little Rock. As the Miami navigated waters near the then-thriving town of Napoleon in Desha County, where the Arkansas empties into the Mississippi, its boilers exploded. Three of Nathan’s sons, George, Frank and John, were among the 225 passengers killed, as was his son-in-law, Wash Phillips. Nathan’s son Isaiah and stepson W.A. Rector were on the boat, but survived the explosion.
The Miami was one of three such tragedies in just a few days on America’s central waterways. Two days after the Miami’s explosion, the Missouri exploded, and two days after that, the W.R. Carter blew up. Around 365 lives were lost in the three explosions. The causes of the explosions on the Missouri and the W.R. Carter were never explained, but according to a report in the Cincinnati Enquirer on February 6, 1866, inspectors investigating the incident blamed the Miami tragedy on its engineers, who apparently were aware that the boilers needed repairs, but failed to maintain them properly during the trip. The Atlantic and Mississippi Company, which owned all three of these steamboats as well as three others that had exploded in the preceding year, had no insurance coverage for its vessels. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that the company’s managers had reasoned that it was cheaper to replace a boat now and then than it was to pay expensive insurance premiums on its entire fleet. A month to the day after the Miami tragedy, three more of the Atlantic & Mississippi’s steamboats were destroyed by fire near St. Louis. After losing nine steam boats – six within thirty days of each other – the company finally elected to insure its fleet. The Miami was lost during the most destructive four months in the history of America’s river navigation. It was one of twenty-nine steamboats destroyed by fire in the sixteen weeks between December 15, 1865 and April 12, 1866.
Despite this incredible personal tragedy, Nathan Warren continued to push for his own prosperity and for the prosperity of his race. Bethel AME Church grew exponentially, and Rev. Warren himself shepherded the flock there. On August 22, 1873, an article in the Arkansas Gazette described efforts to form an organization designed to test the limits of the newly-enacted Arkansas Civil Rights Law of 1873. Some believed the act was a sham and that the white people of Arkansas had no intention of granting rights to black people. Nevertheless, a coalition of black and white citizens met to devise ways in which the law’s purpose could be tested and fulfilled. Rev. Warren attended, and was elected to the group’s finance committee.
Rev. Warren’s name appears in minutes of other meetings during Reconstruction. He was a civic leader, a minister, a successful businessman, and a civil rights activist. Despite periods of great suffering, tragic setbacks, and loss, Nathan Warren persevered. His descendants have every reason to be very proud of their notable ancestor.
He died in 1888 at about the age of 76. He was a member of the Mosaic Templars, and was accorded Masonic rites at his funeral. He was buried at Mount Holly Cemetery.
Nathan Warren’s tragedies did not end with his death, however. The civil rights he wanted so much for himself and his family were to be tested in the fires of Jim Crow, and at some point during those terrible years of racial inequity, tombstones of the graves of a number of black residents at Mount Holly were vandalized and removed. The minutes of the Mount Holly Cemetery Association are incomplete for dozens of years in the first half of the 20th century, and no one now alive has any memory of exactly what happened to the obelisk that had been erected on Nathan Warren’s grave. Even the location of his grave has been lost to history.
Mount Holly’s surviving records show that the Reverend Nathan Warren was buried in the Chester Ashley family plot, and that an obelisk marked his grave. On November 9, 2013, a new monument, donated by Dr. Sybil Jordan-Hampton of Little Rock, was unveiled in the Ashley plot over the spot believed to hold Rev. Warren’s grave. Dr. Jordan-Hampton is a member of Bethel AME Church and a member of the Mount Holly Cemetery Association, which maintains the cemetery. The monument is crowned with the Masonic symbol and reads:
BORN INTO SLAVERY 1812
CAME TO AR WITH ROBERT CRITTENDEN IN 1819
OBTAINED FREEDOM IN FEBRUARY 1835, THEN WORKED
TO SECURE THE FREEDOM OF FAMILY MEMBERS
DIED JUNE 3, 1888 LITTLE ROCK, AR
LITTLE ROCK CONFECTIONER
FOUNDER BETHEL AME CHURCH LITTLE ROCK 1863
DEDICATED IN HONOR OF BETHEL AME CHURCH