Engaged with the World

Category: History (page 1 of 4)

Enlightened Ancestor: Dr. Benjamin West

I can thank my migraines for Dr. Benjamin West.

When I am anxious or don’t feel well, I often do genealogy research to take my mind off things. I have always enjoyed learning about family history, but really got bitten hard by the bug the first time I had cancer, in 1994. I was at home recuperating, on painkillers and other drugs that made concentrating difficult, and I found message boards on AOL that were all about genealogy. And my ancestors were there! I connected with some very distant cousins and compared notes. I started learning more and more about my origins.

It occurs to me that we are all the products of our parents, who are the products of their parents, who were the products of theirs, and so on. Our parents don’t just pass genetics on to us. Even when we disagree about things like politics or religion or how to raise our children, the values of our parents are distilled into us, just like the values of their parents were distilled into them. We find that professions tend to run in families – a  certain branch of the family may tend to be lawyers, writers, preachers, doctors, architects, artists, military, etc.

An obituary notice in a newspaper from 1822 led me to him. He was named as the father of one of my 5th great-grandmothers, a woman whose origins were completely unknown to me before that moment.  The man was phenomenal, and I don’t understand why every generation after him hasn’t continued to hold him up as the pinnacle of the Enlightenment. This guy’s brain was so huge and active I don’t know how it managed to stay confined in his skull.


Benjamin West, from the Brown University Portrait Collection

Benjamin West was born in Bristol, Massachusetts in March 1730. I think of him as the Stephen Hawking of his day. His accomplishments in math and science are truly remarkable because he was an autodidact – his formal schooling lasted a whopping three months of his childhood. He was poor and had to borrow every book he read until about 1758, when he managed to find some backers to open a dry goods store. A couple of years later, he opened the first bookstore ever to grace the commercial avenues of Providence, Rhode Island. He managed to pay for the books he so desperately wanted by selling them to other people.

He married Elizabeth Smith, daughter of Benjamin Smith, in 1753 when he was 23.  They were married for 53 years and had eight children, only three of whom survived Benjamin. The 1822 death notice for his daughter, Mary Smith West (wife of Oliver Pearce), in a Providence newspaper, alerted me to him. The death notice that mentioned her father was “Dr. Benjamin West of Providence.” Mary West Pearce died in Fayetteville, NC. Her daughter, Eliza West Pearce, married Dr. Benjamin Robinson, that guy from Vermont who tested out that newfangled smallpox vaccine on his little brother and his brother’s friends and basically got run out of Bennington for his efforts. The science is strong in my family!

Benjamin West was a brilliant mathematician and astronomer. His buddies were the founders of Rhode Island College, which later became Brown University. He loved mathematics and astronomy, and conferred with some truly fantastic minds of his day. He published annual almanacs for Halifax, Nova Scotia and Providence, Rhode Island for nearly 40 years. He didn’t have the formal schooling necessary for good academic chops, though, and before he opened that dry goods and book store, he failed at operating a school. He tutored students privately for all of his adult life.

Astronomical Genius

In 1766, something would happen that ultimately would reverse his fortunes and open some gilded doors for him. A comet appeared in the constellation of Taurus on the evening of April 9. Being a good astronomer, Benjamin took careful measurements. The next day wrote a letter to an astronomer named John Winthrop who was at Cambridge College (now known as Harvard University). He had never met or corresponded with Winthrop, but was so excited about his observation he simply had to share it.

Providence, April 10, 1766

Dear Sir:

For the improvement of science, I now acquaint you, that the last evening, I saw in the West, a comet, which I judged to be about the middle of the sign of Taurus; with about 7 degrees North latitude. It set half after 8 o’clock by my watch; and its amplitude was about 29 or 30 degrees. Nothing, Sir, could have induced me to this freedom of writing to you, but the love I have for the sciences; and I flatter myself that you will, on that account, the more readily overlook it.

I am, Sir, yours,

Benjamin West

He and Winthrop became great friends and continued to write each other. For the rest of their lives they would share observations about the night sky.

1769 Transit of the Planets

Johannes Kepler and Edmund Halley figured out how to apply the theory of parallax to determine the distances between astronomical bodies.  With both Mercury and Venus predicted to pass between the Earth and the Sun in 1769, astronomers worldwide were anxious to test the theory. Since this was the first really good opportunity to view the transits of both inner planets since Kepler’s original accurate prediction in 1627 of the 1631 transit, everyone in the field of astronomy was excited. Captain Cook would famously observe the 1769 transit of Venus from Tahiti while on his ill-fated circumnavigation and while bringing European diseases and disharmony to the South Pacific. At the time of the last transit of Venus in 1761, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, who had just finished their survey of the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland, had traveled to the Cape of Good Hope to observe it. All of these men used astronomy as an important part of their lives – navigating the oceans and surveying the land required precise measurements, and measurements started with the stars.


Telescope used by Benjamin West, at Providence, Rhode Island, to observe the 1769 transit of Venus. Ladd Observatory, Brown University

There was no telescope in Providence in 1769. Benjamin West, Stephen Hopkins (the signer of the Declaration and great-grandson of the Mayflower passenger) and the four famous Brown brothers – they were among the founders of Rhode Island College, later known as Brown University – were determined to see the phenomenon, though, so they managed to import a telescope from England at the incredible expense of 500 pounds.  They set up on the outskirts of Providence. Transit Street in Providence is named after the spot where they viewed the transit on June 3, 1769. There are photos of the telescope on the Brown University website – the school still has it.


Benjamin West’s diagram of the transit of Venus, 1769, from the Ladd Observatory, Brown University

As was his habit, Benjamin West made careful measurements of the transit. He published a tract (and dedicated it to his friend Stephen Hopkins) about the event. A copy of the tract made its way to John Winthrop at Harvard, and on July 18, 1770, Benjamin West – the man with only three months of formal education – was awarded an honorary Master of Arts from Harvard. Here’s the text of the notification letter from John Winthrop:

Cambridge, July 19, 1770

Sir —

I have the pleasure to acquaint you that the government of this college were pleased, yesterday, to confer upon you the Honorary degree of Master of Arts; upon which I sincerely congratulate you. I acknowledge the receipt of your favour, and shall be glad to compare any observations of the satellites.

Yours, &c.

John Winthrop


American Academy of Arts and Sciences: the American Philosophical Society

That same year, Benjamin West was unanimously elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia – the American colonial version of Great Britain’s Royal Society. He would meet and befriend another author and publisher of almanacs there: a fellow named Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin West was still primarily a merchant at this time, and the Revolution was on its way. When full-blown war finally arrived, commerce dried up. He went to work manufacturing clothing for the American troops. He continued his studies and his correspondence with the other great minds, though.

Mathematics was Benjamin’s first love. In 1773 he wrote to a friend in Boston of a theorem he had developed to extract “the roots of odd powers” that was probably his greatest contribution to the field of mathematics. That’s right – he discovered a math formula that I can’t even begin to hope to understand, but other really smart people who could math really well understood it and lauded him for it. When he finally explained his theorem to other math geniuses in 1781, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences not only published it in one of their earliest journals but unanimously elected him to membership and awarded him a diploma. It was his second honorary academic degree, and he still supported by only three months of formal education. The theorem caught the attention of the European mathematical geniuses, who, giddy with discovery, also published it. Benjamin West, already pretty cool, became seriously hot stuff.

He didn’t stop at math and astronomical observations, though. One of the biographies I found explained a physics problem he cogitated upon for more than two years in conjunction with John Winthrop and a Mr. Oliver. It had to do with the properties of air in a copper tube that was then put into an otherwise airless container. The qualities of invisible gases – basically, the scientific understanding of the very concept of the physical nature and properties of “air” – was in its infancy. Our ancestor speculated about the attractive and repulsive nature of the tiny particles that made up the matter of air – what we now call its molecules – and how they would behave under different conditions. Gravity, matter, magnetism, and ultimately the behavior of the tails of comets played into his understanding of the question. This is stuff my brain simply isn’t big enough to handle.

Benjamin West’s mind was at the peak of its illuminating brilliance as the world around him heaved. His most important discoveries and writings happened as the American Revolution was about to explode.  By the end of the Revolution, he had returned to academic pursuits. He tutored students in math and astronomy. He still wasn’t rich; despite his prominence in academics he never became particularly wealthy. The well-endowed founders of what would become Brown University had not forgotten their friend, though. In 1786, he was elected to a full professorship there.

For some reason, he did not begin teaching at Brown for a couple of years. Probably because of his honors and his friendship with Ben Franklin and the rest of the gang at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, Benjamin West was invited to teach at the illustrious Protestant Episcopal Academy there. The name of that school is familiar to members of my father’s family.  Although Benjamin West was the direct ancestor of my Arkansas-born mother, my dad, an Irish-Italian kid who grew up in the Philly suburb of Gladwyne, went to school at Philadelphia’s Episcopal Academy while his dad coached its sports teams. (Insert refrain from “Circle of Life” here.)

Brown University awarded Dr. West his first non-honorary degree, his Doctor of Laws, in 1792. He taught mathematics and astronomy there from 1788 until 1799. Then he opened a school of navigation and taught astronomy to seafaring men. Like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, this man loved to teach other people the wonders of the universe.

I’m proud of him for another reason, too: Benjamin West was a member of an active abolitionist group in Providence.

I’ve found several contemporary biographical accounts for Benjamin West. They are typical of their time: purple prose and flowery metaphors abound. They all reach one conclusion: Benjamin West was a genius. He was a determinedly self-educated man who contributed considerably to the arts of science and mathematics during his lifetime. He was truly a product of the Age of Enlightenment: a self-educated, self-made man whose gifts and prominence considerably exceeded his bank account.

This discovery of my ancestor Benjamin West is exactly why genealogy research is so rewarding. And given the anxiety-provoking events of November 8, I expect to be doing a lot more of it – in between my stepped-up schedule of political activities, that is.



American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Book of Members  (2016 edition), p. 252. Entry for Benjamin West, elected 1781, Fellow. Residence and Affiliation at election: Providence, RI. Career description: Astronomer, Educator, Businessperson, Book of Members; American Academy of Arts & Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Leonard Bliss, The History of Rehoboth, Bristol County, Massachusetts:  Comprising a History of the Present Towns of Rehoboth, Seekonk, and Pawtucket, From Their Settlement to the Present Time (Boston:  Otis, Broaders, and Company, 1836). Google Books

Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of the American Enlightenment, Entry for Benjamin West (1730-1813), pp. 1096-1097.

Louise Hall, “Family Records: Newby Bible”, New England Historical and Genealogical Register 122 (Apr 1968):  125-128, 125.

Martha Mitchell, “Benjamin West”, Encyclopedia Brunoniana (1993).

John Chauncey Pease, John Milton Niles, A Gazetteer of the States of Connecticut and Rhode-Island:   (Hartford:  William S. Marsh, 1819), 331-333. Biographical entry for Dr. Benjamin West.  Google Books.

Unattributed, “Biography of Benjamin West, L.L.D.  A.A.S.:  Professor of Mathematicks, Astronomy and Natural Philosophy, in Rhode Island College – and Fellow of the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, &c.”, The Rhode Island Literary Repository Vol I, No. 7 (October 1814):  137-160 (337-360),  Google Books.

Benjamin West Papers; Rhode Island Historical Society Library, 121 Hope Street
Providence, RI 02906.

On Costain, the Plantagenets, and History Books

I love all these things. I love reading, period. There is so much to learn, so much to know. If I can come away from a few minutes of reading with one real fact to share at a cocktail party, the magazine rack in my bathroom library is worth the small investment.

I like science books explain concrete things that we don’t ordinarily think about. They engage us in subjects that aren’t essential to our survival or even to our happiness, but that simply interest us and send us off on a quest to know more. They may be the books that explain innovations, technologies, or practices that controlled the civilizations of their time, from the development of agricultural practices to the economy of the Silk Road. They may examine animal behavior, linguistics, migrations, burial practices, or art. They may be the history books that examine the politics and personalities of an era that led to a revolution. The books that stick with us are the books that teach us something.

I know which books kicked open my love of English medieval history. I know when I read them and why. Sometime in the mid-1970’s, my dad was re-reading one of his favorite authors. As he often did, he read the fun parts aloud to whichever of his children happened to be in earshot – he loved sharing his books as much as he loved reading them.

That day, he was reading Thomas B. Costain’s Below the Salt.  I remember asking him what the title meant, and he explained that in medieval times salt was still a precious commodity. Only the wealthy had much access to it. Even in the dining halls of royalty or nobility, only the head table was allowed free access to a salt cellar. At the other, lower, tables sat the hired hands, the retainers, the working people, and the less influential members of the noble house. They sat “below the salt,” or at tables without access to valuable salt.

below the Salt

Salt? Cheap, ordinary salt? I was incredulous. Dad read me more passages from the book about heroic William Marshal, the beautiful and tragic Maid of Brittany, and King John, perhaps the most depraved of the Plantagenet kings of England.

“The stories are true,” he told me. “Mostly.”

Thomas B. Costain wrote historical fiction that was so well researched that even experts found it difficult to discern what was truly history and what was not. When Dad finished Below the Salt, I picked it up and read it for myself. Then I asked for more. Dad didn’t just give me Costain’s novels, though. Costain had written four nonfiction books about medieval England’s Plantagenet rulers. These works are his true gifts to his readers. Those four books about the very real, larger-than-life descendants of William the Conqueror absolutely riveted me. I couldn’t put them down. I was only about 14, and I was fascinated by the battles, the swordplay, the tournaments, the lust, and the alliances.

And I had so many questions! Why was the Count of Anjou called “Plantagenet”? (Because he wore a sprig of blooming broom – “planta genêt” in French). Why were the kings of England named for a French Count? (Because he was their father, and married their English princess of a mother, who used to be an empress before she had to settle for a mere count.) How did the counts from France get to be English kings? (Read the books!)

Then I asked for more. Dad didn’t just give me Costain’s novels, though. Costain had written four nonfiction books about medieval England’s Plantagenet rulers. These works are his true gifts to his readers. Those four books about the very real, larger-than-life descendants of William the Conqueror absolutely riveted me. I couldn’t put them down. I was only about 14, and I was fascinated by the battles, the swordplay, the tournaments, the lust, and the alliances.

A History of the Plantagenets Boxed Set (1962)

Costain’s writing led me on a romp from one English civil war (with the death of Henry I and the usurpation of the throne by his nephew Stephen of Blois) to the next (the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses). I credit these books with making medieval English history roar to life for me. Costain’s vivid descriptions of the personalities and actions of the Angevin kings, their nobles, and their enemies launched my lifelong fascination with this era.

And the writing! These are not dull history books. Engaging, fluid prose exposes the mysteries, romances, political posturing, and betrayals. Anyone who can tell stories like this really should be a history teacher. No one can possibly come away from these books without a new fascination for the Conqueror’s family and their unique brands of turmoil and governance.

I realize that all this sounds like hyperbole, but truthfully, I don’t have enough words to explain how wonderful these books are and how they made such a difference in how I viewed history – and not just English history, but all of it – for a lifetime.

When I looked on my mother’s shelves for these beloved books a few years ago, I couldn’t find them. I set about the business of locating replacements. The books were out of print and resellers charged a premium for them. Apparently no one who owns them really wants to give them up, and others who want them can’t find them.

I finally came across a boxed set of the books online and I ordered it. When it arrived, I devoured every word just as I had done years ago. Costain’s writing and storytelling are every bit as good as I remember. Some of the stories were missing, though, especially those about the fractious, ruthless sons of the Conqueror. In particular I remember a story of a very suspicious hunting accident that brought down King William Rufus…no, dear readers, George R.R. Martin wasn’t the first to think of a boar hunt as cover for regicide. I realized that the first book of the set I now own was edited rather heavily before its inclusion.

The boxed set holds Costain’s own explanation as to the revision:


I began these books of English history with the hope of carrying the series forward, under the general title of The Pageant of England, to a much later period than the last of the Plantagenet kings. Pressure of other work made it impossible, however, to produce them at the gait I had hoped to achieve. And now the factor of time has intruded itself also. Realizing that my earlier objective cannot be reached, I have decided to conclude with the death of Richard III and to change the covering title to A HISTORY OF THE PLANTAGENETS.

This has made necessary some revision in getting the four volumes ready for publication. The first five chapters in the initial book, which began with the Norman Conquest and covered the reigns of William the Conqueror, William (Rufus) II, and Henry I, had to be dropped. The first volume in this complete edition of the four begins with the final scenes in the reign of Henry I, whose daughter married Geoffrey of Anjou and whose son son succeeded in due course to the throne of England as Henry II, thus beginning the brilliant Plantagenet dynasty. The title of the first volume has been changed to THE CONQUERING FAMILY. In addition to the deletion of earlier chapters, a few slight cuts and minor revisions have been made throughout the series. Otherwise the four books are the same as those published separately under the titles, THE CONQUERORS, THE MAGNIFICENT CENTURY, THE THREE EDWARDS, and THE LAST PLANTAGENETS.


The boxed set of the four Plantagenet books is available at a premium – it’s out of print and only available in the secondary market. The lowest price I found a full set for was $175.00 at Amazon, although a seller on Facebook is offering it at a bargain for only $164.99.

Barnes & Noble doesn’t even have the full set, but does have then as eBooks and is even offering free downloads of the first two volumes – the first volume is the original title of the first book, so I downloaded it and have hope that it contains the missing parts that were edited from this final version contained in the boxed set. I’ll be reading it tonight, looking for clues as to who killed William Rufus. (Spoiler: the culprit was likely a minion of his brother Henry, grandfather of those fascinating Plantagenets.)

Rapert’s Utopian Theocracy Defines Marriage

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.


This is the sanctity Rapert wants to protect. Seriously.

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:


Click to embiggen and read this wonderful infographic that comes complete with citations.


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.

US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his melanin-challenged wife, Virginia Lamp Thomas

US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his melanin-challenged wife, Virginia Lamp Thomas

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.

black rapert

Jason Rapert lies, therefore his argument is invalid.

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.

Oh, and

P.S. It’s not “activism” for a judge to uphold the constitution.

Teaching Children Critical Thinking

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.

carlin question everything

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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?”

“Sure, sweetheart.”

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.

How My Family Helped Start a Shitstorm Called “Vermont”

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.

Patriotic Atheist American Heritage

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.

Carey Dove


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.

Carey Dove

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 (1725-1792), portrait by John Hesselius (1728-1778)

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.


Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, by Howard Chandler Christy (1873-1952). See the three men huddled off to the right, looking on disapprovingly as the Constitution is signed by the other delegates? They are George Mason, Elbridge Gerry, and Edmund Randolph.

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.


Diorama of Gunston Hall

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.


Anne Marbury Hutchinson (1591-1643)

My favorite ancestor is my 11th 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.


John Cotton (1585-1652)

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.

Boston 1634

Boston was a small town in 1634. Click to embiggen, and note that every single household is listed. Will & Anne Hutchinson and their large extended family stayed with friends and relatives while their own home was being built. The population of the entire Massachusetts Bay Colony and Plymouth Plantations was about 5,000 people. (Map from the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center Collection at the Boston Public Library)

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.

Anne-Hutchinson-preaching howard pyle

Anne Hutchinson Preaching at her House in Boston (Howard Pyle, 1901, from the Library of Congress)

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 hutchinson trial

Anne Hutchinson on Trial (Edward Austin Abbey 1901)

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.


It is no accident that this red A, the icon of the secular movement, evokes the scarlet letter Hester Prynne was required to wear in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel.

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.)

I don't know who painted this image of Anne and her persecutors. If someone else does, please notify me. I've found it in several places on the Internet,but never with attribution.

One of my favorite quotes from Anne is:
“How did Abraham know that it was God that bid him offer his son, being a breach of the sixth commandment?” Nevemind that, chronologically speaking, Abraham knew nothing about any commandments.

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 10th 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.


Richard Scott’s signature on the Providence Compact that chartered the town

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

Statue of Anne Hutchinson and her youngest child, Susannah, at the Massachusetts State House. Susannah was the only survivor of the family’s massacre by natives at their New Netherlands home in what is now Pelham Bay Park, NY.

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 for 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.


Firebrand atheism: an in-home “revival,” with Sam Singleton, Atheist Evangelist, at my house in December 2012

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.

Nathan Warren: Free Man, Confectioner, Minister, Civil Rights Advocate

Student portraying Annie, Nathan Warren’s first wife, at 2013’s Tales of the Crypt at the historic Mount Holly Cemetery in Little Rock

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:


Information for this article was gleaned from two articles by Margaret Smith Ross published in the Arkansas Gazette and in the Historic Arkansas Quarterly, from records compiled by Tom Dillard and stored at the Arkansas Studies Institute’s Butler Center, from Bethel AME Church, and from online resources through the magic of Google. The author wishes to give special thanks to Nathan Warren’s 4th great-granddaughter, Shareese Kondo, for her gracious gift of time and for her family legends about her illustrious ancestor.

It’s Really Not OK to Pray in Public Schools

Graduation seems to be one of those times during the school year when religion rears its head and wants to elbow its way into the public square, disseminating itself messily all over unwilling captive audiences. This year is no exception.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) got involved in an Arkansas case recently, writing a letter to tell the Riverside School District in Lake City, Arkansas, that plans to pray and sing hymns at its sixth grade graduation were unconstitutional. Variations of two different versions of what happened next have made their rounds. In the first story, the school board, possibly at the behest of the superintendent, decided simply to cancel graduation rather than bow to the law. In the second story, the school board voted to abide by the law, but the parents organizing the graduation said that if they couldn’t pray, then graduation at the school would be cancelled. The upshot was that the sixth grade graduation was indeed cancelled, and the organizing parents decided to hold graduation exercises at a local church instead. More uproar has ensued.

Because apparently we’re the only advocates of separation of church and state to be found in Arkansas, the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers was invited to participate in a radio talk show about the kerfuffle. When Alice Stewart, Mike Huckabee’s former spokesperson and the host of the program, told me that her other guest would be the evangelical preacher who enjoyed the spotlight at our fair state’s National Day of Prayer event at the state capitol, I asked her if she had considered asking a representative of a more progressive variety of Christian – one that supports separation of church and state. She said she didn’t know any.  Right then and there I probably should have directed her to the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, or Jews, but I didn’t. I agreed to go on the show.

Here’s the TL; DL version of the hosts’s and pastor’s points:

  1. There’s a war on religion.
  2. They’ve done it this way forever, so there’s no harm in allowing them to continue praying at public school events.
  3. The Constitution says we are entitled to the free exercise of religion.
  4. God is the foundation of our founding documents.
  5. Many of our founding fathers went to seminary with certainly the intent that God would be incorporated on our money and in our system and society.
  6. We’ve tried, and we just can’t ever take God, guns, sex, violence, drugs out of school.
  7. God is everywhere in school forever.
  8. Our country is built on the principles of God.
  9. The pledge is a prayer.
  10.  By insisting on leaving religion out of school functions, atheists impose their views on everyone else.
  11. It’s more important to keep faith in schools than anywhere.
  12. It’s impossible to take God out of schools because too many religious people are in the schools, and god is in the songs that the school choir sings, plays that the school theater performs, civics and history books, and because there is a federal holiday honoring Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. who taught the nation about the Bible.
  13. We shouldn’t have to wait for another bombing or mass shooting before a school assembly prays again.
  14. We should not have to care about the rights of minorities in public schools.
  15. FFRF wanted graduation stopped.
  16. Public prayer in school isn’t illegal.
  17. God calls the light day and the darkness night and no one can change that because it’s an order from god. (If you listen closely you can detect that I nearly busted out laughing here. Sorry.)
  18. If the Constitution allows the pledge, which contains a prayer, then it is resolved that all prayer should be allowed in schools.
  19. Religion never changes.
  20. Jesus said always to pray and not to think.
  21. The word that God gives Christians is in Psalms 1.
  22. God’s law is higher than Constitutional law.
  23. If we say “under God” in the pledge at school, we are obligated to continue praying in schools so as not to be hypocritical.

I know, I know. Our first response is “What? They actually believe this tripe?” followed immediately by a facepalm and “Oh, boy. They really believe this tripe.”


1. The War on Religion

Evidently I burned my draft card on this one. Personally, I couldn’t care less what religion someone else practices, as long as they do no harm with it. (Yeah, I know. That’s impossible, unless they keep it totally to themselves, which they never do.) They can have all the fantasies they like about what happens after death, and no one else is affected. We are, however, affected by their dogmatic attempts to indoctrinate our children, deny freedom of conscience to our children and to us, and to curtail the rights of other people based on their fantasies and what someone said their invisible friend wanted more than two millennia ago. So, practice religion all you want – just keep it strictly to yourself.

2.  They’ve done it this way forever, so why make them change?

Ah, yes, the appeal to tradition. As logical fallacies go, this one is pretty easy to dismantle. It is also symptomatic of the traditional conservative state of mind, which holds that progress is bad.

Let’s say you’ve got an employee who regularly steals from the till. You’ve warned him time and time again that if he doesn’t stop, you’re going to take legal action. He doesn’t stop. You call the cops. Do we seriously expect the police to say that since you never called them before, you can’t call them now?

Or, let’s say your neighbor is a wife-beater (the POS, not the shirt). He’s beaten his wife at least weekly for all 40 years of their marriage, and your long-suffering family has witnessed it. One day, you’ve finally had enough. The wife has two black eyes and a bloody nose after one of their little tiffs, and you call the cops. Do you want to live in a society where the police say, “I’m sorry, ma’am, but she let him beat her up for 40 years, so she has to keep letting him beat her up. Just use ear plugs and avert your eyes if you don’t want to be aware of it”?

I didn’t think so.

Illegal is illegal. Period.

3. The Constitution says we are entitled to the free exercise of religion.

It sure does. And then it says that the state can’t tell us how to practice our religions. This is the part the religious right loves to forget as they strive to use government-sponsored events to impose their version of God on the rest of us. And impose it they do – at public invocations, in schools, in the laws they pass, and on billboards across the country.  Only one of those instances is actually legal. (Hint: it’s the one that has nothing to do with government.)

4. God is the foundation of our founding documents.

The only foundational document that mentions anything about a God is the Declaration of Independence, which wouldn’t have been a founding document if the rebellion had not been successful. In its introduction, it mentions “Nature’s God” and which in the famous second sentence of its preamble says: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” One of those unalienable rights, which was added to the Constitution 15 years after the Declaration (it wasn’t there to begin with), says that Americans are free to practice whatever religion they choose, and that the state cannot tell them what religion to practice.

It’s the second part that people like Rev. Hunt and Ms. Stewart and their fundamentalist friends have so much trouble with. In fact, they prefer to ignore it, under the short-sighted and arrogant assumption that their version of religion would naturally be the one established by the government.

5. Many of our founding fathers went to seminary with certainly the intent that God would be incorporated on our money and in our system and society.

Sometimes when religious people say idiotic things, we have to graciously understand that they are grasping at straws. I certainly hope that Ms. Stewart knows the facts don’t support this assertion of hers. I hope she has a better grasp of history than what this particular assertion indicated.

First, let’s look at the education opportunities in the late colonial period. Actual colleges were not easy to find – or, maybe they were, since there were so few of them. New College (now Harvard), the College of William and Mary, the Collegiate School (now Yale), the College of New Jersey (Princeton), the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania), King’s College (now Columbia), Rhode Island College (now Brown), Queen’s College (now Rutgers), and Dartmouth College were the only choices for formal higher education, and the last three in that list were founded after 1760, so it’s unlikely the founders attended them. Without exception, all were associated with religious institutions. However, like the colleges and universities sponsored by religious institutions in the 21st century, none of them was strictly a seminary. Since the founding fathers all obtained what formal education they got prior to the Revolution, these nine schools – and probably actually only six schools – were their only choices unless they opted to go abroad. A number of them whose families had money did indeed send their sons abroad for education at places like Cambridge, London’s Middle Temple (one of the famous Inns of Court where British barristers were – and are – formally trained, not a religious institution), and various schools on the European continent.

So, let’s take a closer look at the oldest six. By 1750, the era when the founding fathers who went there would have been enrolled, only 15% of Harvard graduates were seminarians. William and Mary, the second oldest institution, was founded with only one-third of its resources dedicated to a college of divinity, and separation of church and state was already a thing in Virginia prior to the end of the Revolution thanks to the work of George Mason and James Madison on the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Yale was not founded as a seminary, but as a college of the arts and sciences. Princeton was founded primarily to train Presbyterian ministers, but by the 1760’s was focused on the disciplines valued by the Enlightenment: philosophy, science, and the arts, and by the 1780’s no longer housed a seminary at all. Penn was never a seminary, but was founded, mostly on the advocacy of atheist Philadelphian Benjamin Franklin, as a liberal arts institution. Columbia, also, was founded as a liberal arts school. According to its website, “various groups compet[ed] to determine its location and religious affiliation. Advocates of New York City met with success on the first point, while the Anglicans prevailed on the latter. However, all constituencies agreed to commit themselves to principles of religious liberty in establishing the policies of the College.”  Brown University was founded as a Baptist college – not Southern Baptist, but traditional, original, New England Baptist – although Congregationalists, Quakers, and Anglicans all had significant representation on its original board of trustees. Its Charter, granted by George III in 1764, declared its purpose was to prepare students “for discharging the Offices of Life with usefulness & reputation” by providing instruction “in the Vernacular and Learned Languages, and in the liberal Arts and Sciences.” It was not a seminary. Rather, the charter specified specifically that “into this liberal and catholic institution shall never be admitted any religious tests, but on the contrary, all the members hereof shall forever enjoy full, free, absolute, and uninterrupted liberty of conscience.”

But easily half or more of the founding fathers of the United States of America had no formal education at what we would now consider a secondary level. The state of education in colonial America was such that most people were taught to read and write at home, and additional education was often sought with private tutors. For the most part, our founding fathers were autodidacts – self-taught, widely read, and definitely products of the Enlightenment. They never stopped questioning their world, reading, debating topics as diverse as philosophy, agriculture, and astronomy, and most importantly, they never stopped learning.

I think it is extremely safe to assume that not a single founding father decided to go to a seminary so he could foment a revolution and put his god on the money of a new nation, much less so he could violently rebel against his sovereign specifically to get more religion.

 6. We’ve tried, and we just can’t ever take God, guns, sex, violence, drugs out of school.

Maybe it’s just me, but when the good Reverend Hunt said this, I couldn’t help but notice that his deity was lumped in with all the other bad things we don’t want in schools. The clear implication of his statement was that we can try, but we ought to just give up. Sorry, Rev. Hunt, but no can do – not as to any of these things.

7. God is everywhere in school forever.

Indeed, our imaginary friends can be wherever we choose for them to be. Inflicting them on other people is unacceptable, though.

8. Our country is built on the principles of God.

The principles of God that I see when I read the Bible are intolerance, caprice, narcissism, homophobia, misogyny, and violence. Are these the principles upon which our country is built? If so, it’s beyond time for reform.

Rev. Hunt probably meant the Ten Commandments, though, because before they were written down about 500 BCE, people just went around killing, coveting, disrespecting their elders, stealing, and bearing false witness all harum-scarum and willy-nilly. Never mind that Egypt’s laws (3000 BCE), Mesopotamia’s Lagash Code (2400 BCE), Sumeria’s laws (2200 BCE), and Hammurabi’s Code (1795 BCE) predate Leviticus by much more than a millennium, and Sparta’s laws (800 BCE) predate it by 400-500 years. Other codes of law from roughly the same time period as Leviticus are well documented, including the Dharmasutras of the Hindu tradition and the evolved versions of all those laws that went before, as well as Roman law (550 BCE), the Zoroastrian Avesta (600 BCE), China’s Zheng laws (500 BCE),  and Draco’s Greek law (620 BCE). It is worth mentioning that our trade and maritime laws originated with ancient Phoenicia (~1200 BCE).

Don’t pretend to know legal or social history if you look at it only through the opaque lenses of your Mosaic blinders.

9. The pledge is a prayer.

In the 1962 case of Engel v. Vitalethe Supreme Court held that prayer led by government officials was not permitted in schools, but did not address whether the inclusion of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance rendered it a prayer. Justice Douglas, in his concurring opinion, said that he believed the religion “honeycombed” throughout our federal laws was not permissible, and that the words “under God” should not stand – and that, yes, the pledge was indeed a prayer.

A 2004 case, Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow  challenged the pledge directly, but was dismissed because the plaintiff, a noncustodial parent of the school child in question, lacked standing.

Therefore, I sincerely hope the good Reverend will be willing to repeat this assertion that it is resolved that the Pledge is a prayer the next time some godless heathen decides to file suit to challenge the inclusion of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, because it get us one step closer to getting the words stricken.

10.  By insisting on leaving religion out of school functions, atheists impose their views on everyone else.

There’s a difference between religious neutrality and forced atheism. If we were forcing our atheism on the impressionable little school children, we’d be hosting “There is No God” as the cool after-school activity to go to instead of tolerating the insidious presence of “Good News Clubs” that indoctrinate children. We’d be demanding that the school choirs sing Tim Minchin songs instead of classical choruses. We’d start every event with an announcement that there is no god, and repeatedly remind any believers out there that they are stupid to still have an imaginary friend. As it is, we may think those things, but we don’t say them in government settings and we certainly don’t try to scare the shit out of their children to ensure the little darlings will come around to our way of thinking.

Religious neutrality means no one says anything one way or another about deities, religions, or the way those imaginary beings think we should conduct ourselves, much less what they plan to do with us when we die.

11. It’s more important to keep faith in schools than anywhere.

On the contrary, school is exactly the place where things should be questioned and not taken on faith. School is the place where facts should be tested, experiments performed, empirical evidence gathered and assessed, and ideas debated. Critical thinking skills need to be emphasized much, much more. Our children should be taught never to take anything on faith, but to investigate and find truth for themselves. Otherwise, all we are doing is drilling information into their heads without giving them the skills to apply it to reality and to the betterment of the world. I don’t know about you, but I want more for my child than for him to be an automaton  that dully repeats whatever he’s been told. Faith is the last thing we need to teach our children in school.

12. It’s impossible to take God out of schools because too many religious people are in the schools, and god is in the songs that the school choir sings, plays that the school theater performs, civics and history books, and because there is a federal holiday honoring Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. who taught the nation about the Bible.

Where do I even begin?

Okay, so, there are religious people in schools. Sure. There are religious people everywhere. It does not necessarily follow that everything that comes out of the mouths of those religious people is religious. In a school setting, they need to keep their religion to themselves and teach kids how to think critically, how to solve problems, and what a logical fallacy is. (Maybe by teaching logical fallacies, they will recognize the ones they use on themselves to keep religion alive.)

God is in the songs that the choir sings. Because ecclesiastical patronage is responsible for a considerable chunk of the greatest art and music in history, we neither can nor should avoid some religious songs or art. There is plenty of secular art and music out there, though, and it also should be taught. And if the public school is performing a religious play, someone needs to let the ACLU, Americans United, and FFRF know so a lawsuit can be filed – because it’s illegal. Period.

Religious history is part of human history. The history of the Catholic Church’s political maneuverings is valid study – it has had great effect on the politics of medieval Europe, and despite its lack of stature as an official religion for governments now, it still wields a mighty sword. Its complicity in the Holocaust, for example, should not be downplayed, nor should its interference in human rights issues in places like Africa, where it has helped to spread the HIV/AIDS pandemic by preaching against condom use, and Ireland, where women die because their lives are considered less valuable than the fetuses they carry, sometimes against their will. Religion has a great deal to do with the denial of women’s rights in the Middle East and Central Asia. So, yes, study religion’s effect of world history and current events.

Do not ever make the mistake of teaching public school children which religion is “better” or “correct.” That is establishment of religion, and in this country it is illegal.

And now for Martin Luther King, Jr., who apparently taught us all about the Bible so now we honor him with his very own holiday. I hardly know how to begin to address this idiotic statement, so I’ll just heave a huge sigh and delve in.

Dr. King was indeed a minister. He did indeed connect his faith to his fervent advocacy for civil rights, and frequently invoked his deity and the teachings of the Bible. He wasn’t assassinated for being a minister, though. He died because he was an extremely effective advocate for civil rights and for peace. Dr. King was much more than a minister, and his civil rights and anti-war activism is the reason for that holiday, not his messages from any pulpit. He pioneered peaceful civil disobedience to a degree this country had never before seen. He worked for racial parity and desegregation, something the Bible definitely does not advocate. He worked tirelessly to end an unjust war. The war he wanted to fight was against poverty and the disparate treatment of human beings in American society. That war, at least, was a noble one.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the greatest orators of the 20th century, if not one of the greatest orators in all of American history. His work was rewarded with international acclaim and he was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize because of it. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Four people have federal holidays in their honor: two of them were presidents, one is popularly credited with “discovering” the continent, and the fourth is Dr. King. Could he have done this work without being a minister? Absolutely. Unequivocally. Does he deserve the acclaim he has received? Without a doubt, yes. But not for being a minister. He deserves every accolade he has ever received because of what he did for race relations in the United States 100 years after the Civil War, and for using his popularity and influence to end a horrifically unjust war and to advocate for human rights.

Dr. King didn’t teach Americans the Bible. He taught us something much more important: that all men must be treated equally and fairly. We would certainly appreciate it if the religious right would demonstrate that they understand that lesson.

13. We shouldn’t have to wait for another bombing or mass shooting before a school assembly prays again.

When that next bombing or mass school shooting happens, we still shouldn’t pray – at least, not in school and not as part of a government-sponsored event. Prayer won’t undo it, prayer won’t prevent it, and prayer won’t stop it mid-horror.

Do we really lack so much creativity as a society that we cannot devise another way to honor the dead or mark a tragedy without thanking God for it? Do we really think a prayer will stop malicious and crazy people from socially aberrant behavior? If so, church shootings wouldn’t happen, and legislatures wouldn’t have to make church-goers feel safer by allowing them to carry weapons to Sunday services. And isn’t it ironic that we thank a god for such monstrous atrocities and celebrate the deaths of those killed by saying they’ve been “called home” to that deity? How screwed up is that, anyway?

And this leads us back to good old Epicurus (341 BCE – 270 BCE), another philosopher roughly contemporaneous with the scribes of Leviticus:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then why is there evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

14. We should not have to care about the rights of minorities in public schools.

There is so much insensitivity in this statement that my mind nearly boggled. The majority rules when votes are counted for candidates. When the candidate elected by the majority takes his oath of office, though, he represents everyone, not just those who elected him, and he owes a duty to everyone, not just those who elected him.

We do not operate our society by doing what the majority of people want to do just because the majority want it done. We also look at the public policy behind doing things, the ramifications of doing them, and the overall effect on society.

We also don’t squash the little guy under our heels just because he is poor, speaks a different language, is mentally handicapped, physically challenged, from another country, homosexual, short, illiterate, fat, old, sick, red-haired, of a different racial derivation than we are, of a different religious persuasion, or for any other reason. It’s just plain wrong. When will the Christian right get this through their thick skulls? Seriously, what jackasses!

15. FFRF wanted graduation stopped.

One of the reasons the uber-conservative media is so good at persuading its watchers and listeners that the boogeyman is at the door is because when the truth doesn’t suit them, they change the facts to fit their narrative.

Benghazi. Obama was a foreign college student. Planned Parenthood exists to provide abortions. Shirley Sherrod is a racist. FFRF’s intent.

They make us refute their fake facts, and thereby deprive us of the time to make our points. To borrow a phrase from Christopher Moore, this is heinous fuckery most foul. If you have to lie to make your point, you obviously have a crappy argument to begin with. Go home. You’ve forfeited the game.

16. Public prayer in school isn’t illegal.

The hell it isn’t. See  Engel v. Vitale, supra.

17. God calls the light day and the darkness night and no one can change that because it’s an order from god.

If you listen closely at this point in the segment, you can detect that I nearly laughed out loud here. I apologize for the audible derisive snort. I couldn’t help it. I did, however, have considerable empathy at that moment with David Silverman’s conversation with Bill O’Reilly about the reason for tidal forces. Evidently the good Reverend Hunt is a flat-earther who does not understand the earth’s rotation or heliocentrism. He thinks it gets light and dark because God says so. We’ll just ignore the fact that we have night and day for the same basic reason as we have high and low tides: gravity.

After all, gravity is just a theory.

18. It is resolved, that if the Constitution allows the pledge, which contains a prayer, then it is resolved that all prayer should be allowed in schools.

Well, he was almost right. It is definitely resolved that prayer is not permitted in schools. Engel v. Vitaleremember? But what isn’t resolved is whether or not the words “under God” make the pledge tantamount to a prayer. The atheist that is me thinks it does, and the religious guy that is Reverend Hunt thinks it does. Therefore, the pledge is a prayer and pursuant to the precedent set by Engel v. Vitale and pursuant to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the pledge shouldn’t be recited any more than the Lord’s Prayer should be.


19. Religion never changes.

The delegates to Vatican II would be interested to learn of this.

So would Martin Luther, who kicked off a pretty serious change in Christianity by tacking those 95 theses to the door of that Wittenberg Church back in 1517. (Okay, fine, so the church door thing may be a bit of a myth. But the invention of the printing press did a heck of a lot to change Christianity because that’s how word of the 95 theses got liberally sprinkled throughout Germany and the rest of Europe.)

In fact, I think the attendees of the Council of Nicea – you know, the meeting at which the books of scripture were either included or jettisoned from what we now call the Bible and the meeting at which the Jesus character was determined to be a god – would find the Rev. Hunt’s assertion patently ludicrous, as would those who attended the other thirteen major ecumenical councils of the last two millennia.

I wonder if Rev. Hunt has a Christmas tree? My money says he is clueless about its pagan roots or somehow thinks no religion changed to accommodate that tradition.

20. Jesus said always to pray and not to think.

Herein lies the biggest problem with religion. “Don’t think,” religious leaders tell us. “Just believe what you’re told.” A gullible, uneducated, ignorant populace is all too willing to accept any popular authority that purports to explain their world.

“You’ve got to have faith,” they say.

I have plenty of faith. I have faith that the sun will rise, because every morning it does, and because scientists have provided a reasonable, testable, consistently provable reason for it happening. I have faith that gravity won’t stop working, for the same reason. I even have faith that my computer will post this little rant when I hit a certain combination of keys – because it’s happened before, because it happens consistently and reliably when I hit those keys, and because there is some computer scientist person who knows how and why it happens. I don’t know how or why, and I don’t pretend to understand it, but because it works reliably and consistently with predictable results, I am satisfied that there is a reasonable explanation for it. It might feel like magic to me, because I just say (type) my incantation and poke my fingers at the right buttons and watch it happen – again and again. But I know people who not only understand why it works, but can tell me why it has stopped working, fix it, and make it work again. Reliably and consistently.

That’s the kind of thing I can have faith in.

21. The word that God gives Christians is in Psalms 1.

Wait wait wait wait wait. Wasn’t the Book of Psalms compiled a long time before the guy who started the whole Christianity thing? Hasn’t the god of the Christians failed to utter one single word to them since that dude’s alleged death in the early first century CE? (Well, except for like, the Book of Mormon, but those people are in a cult and not really Christians, right?) I mean, I thought most of the Psalms were attributed to King David, who lived a full millenium before the Jesus character.

Of course, Christians use the Old Testament, too. But since Christianity hadn’t been invented at the time of the composition of the first Psalm (there’s that old religion changing thing again), it would seem that the Christian god might – just might – not have been talking to Christians back then.

Just sayin’.

22. God’s law is higher than Constitutional law.

Not in the United States of America, it isn’t.

In fact, the original language of the Constitution never once mentions or even refers to any deity or creator. The only time religion is mentioned at all is in the First Amendment, which says government is to keep its hands off religion. The government can’t tell us how to practice religion and can’t tell us not to practice religion. It also can’t tell us that we must practice religion.

This is not Indonesia, Iran, or Saudi Arabia. We do not have to believe in any gods at all, and no one can tell us what version of which of the 3500+ gods man has ever worshipped that we should worship.

And just to make sure that foreign governments were aware of this, John Adams, this country’s second president, included in the Treaty of Tripoli an affirmation of the secular nature of the American government with the following language in the Treaty of Tripoli, which was duly ratified – unanimously – by Congress in 1797:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of [Muslims],—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any  [Mohammedan] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

23. If we say “under God” in the pledge at school, we are obligated to continue praying in schools so as not to be hypocritical.

Fine. I won’t say the Pledge, either. Not that I have since I was in elementary school and thought I had to. Actually, I stopped saying the pledge before I was out of elementary school, because by about 5th grade I had had it with religion and with the “because I said so” reasons that I was given for really just about anything. Plus, I thought it was stupid and meaningless to pledge my undying devotion to a piece of cloth. If any piece of cloth could be that important, it would have been the old pink blanket I used to drag around the house when I was a little kid. At least that ratty old thing gave me some comfort and kept me warm.

Rev. Hunt should keep in mind that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t have to say the pledge, either, because doing so violates the rules of their religion.  Neither does anyone else who doesn’t want to, thanks to the Supreme Court’s 1943 ruling in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette.

We’re back to that “free exercise” thing that necessarily goes hand-in-hand with the “disestablishment” thing, and the “freedom of speech” thing that necessarily implies freedom of conscience.

We are free to reject religion, to follow our own consciences, and we are free not to have to submit to someone else’s religion.

Even the religious right’s.


An earlier version of this entry was posted to What Would JT Do?

Reconstruction, Religion, and Civil Rights

Dave Sept 1983

Dave, September 1983

One of my favorite friends from college is Dave.

Over the last almost 30 years since graduation, we’ve remained in touch. At first it was a phone call or two every year, but with the invention of email (thank you Al Gore!) we’ve managed to become quasi-regular correspondents. I’m a terrible correspondent, usually. I’m guilty of holding an email intending to respond, forgetting about it, then shootingoff one or two sentences to cure my egregious default. I don’t tend to do this with Dave. Oh, there’s the one or two sentence responses, but they tend to be sent pretty promptly – well, promtly for me, anyhow.

No, Dave’s emails provoke long-winded responses from me. Dave and I have never claimed to be politically compatible, but our discussions usually turn up much more areas of agreement than disagreement. See, Dave’s a self-described conservative. Not a Tea Party conservative, absolutely not. Dave’s got two post-graduate degrees – an engineering degree from Dartmouth and an MBA from UVA, so no one has ever accused him of not being a thoughtful, extremely intelligent guy. Well, maybe someone did when we were undergrads together at Colgate, but that only happened because they were drunk.

Dave’s emails have inspired more than one of my blog posts. Today’s is yet another.

Dave wrote me earlier this week, saying,

Thought provoking:

1.      Are the people opposed to same-gender marriage equally opposed to opposite-gender marriages where there is no sex and hence no chance of procreation?

2.      What will same-gender marriage advocates protest for if full marriage rights are granted?  My guess is clean air and water, safer roads, better schools …  Or maybe they won’t protest at all and instead will just get on with their lives like most “normal” people.

‘Tis a silly question, I thought in my best Monty Python accent. Opposition to same-sex marriage tends to be based on religion, not on procreation. And don’t “normal” people get concerned about inequities of our government and culture? So I responded,

  1. Depending on their reason for objecting to same-sex marriage, maybe.
  2. The world won’t be fixed when this one unfairness is resolved. We have lots more to protest. Equal rights for women (the ERA in Arkansas can’t seem to make it out of committee). Equal rights for minorities. Freedom from religion-based laws that restrict freedom of conscience. Access to safe, effective sex education and birth control, including safe abortions. Life and health for kids whose parents would restrict their access to proven and effective medical treatment in the name of religion or pseudoscience. Eradication of preventable disease. Vaccination. Food for the hungry. Replacing dictatorships like North Korea’s and North Dakota’s. A stop to corporate abuses of campaign finance laws. A stop to the corporate abuses of the people who buy their products. Clean air. Clean water. Safer roads. Better schools. Alternative fuels. Safer communities. Rehabilitation of criminals. Job training for criminals. Job training for young people who choose not to continue their traditional educations. Preservation of rain forests. Preservation of threatened and engendered species of plants and animals. Funding of scientific research. Funding of medical research. Space exploration. More charitable giving. Rehabilitation of drug abusers. A stop to unnecessary regulation of anything. Complete nuclear disarmament. An unbiased news media. Free healthcare. Free Tibet.

Need I continue?

Dave wasn’t about to let me off so easily.

1.  Some people just object.
2.  I think that was the point.  Move on to other issues.  And the people opposed  to same-gender marriage won’t have to hear about it anymore. Maybe the people opposed to same-gender marriage will find themselves side-by-side with same-gender marriage advocates on issues where they share common ground. It’s up to them to build on it.



Insert eyeroll here.

I am not in the least optimistic that the vast majority of those opposing same-sex marriage will look for common ground with anyone who does not share their insular opinions. If it happens by accident, sure, but look for it? Don’t make me laugh. They are terrified of anything that shifts their paradigm, of anything that moves their cheese.  Those who can ally themselves over issue 1 (we are at war with Eurasia) will be mortal enemies over issue 2 (we have always been at war with Eastasia), and will come back together over Issue 3 (because we have always been at war with Eurasia), only to become enemies again on issue 4. And often they will not realize that they have changed alliances. Because the enemy has always been Eastasia.

We have a crisis in this country right now. It’s a communication crisis, and it can be blamed on the sound-bite and an “Us vs. Them” mentality. People have much more in common than not. Only occasionally do the different sides actually have different goals. It’s all in how the media or their leaders – or both – spin it to them.

Conservative America traditionally stands for smaller government, which theoretically brings with it lower taxes and greater personal autonomy: “freedom.” Liberal, or Progressive, America traditionally stands for social safety, which theoretically brings with it more government involvement and necessarily higher taxes. What is their common goal? They want to be safe, healthy, and financially stable, because only if they have these things will they have “freedom.”

For more graphs with detailed information about political polarization, go to

Political party platforms associated with conservative ideals and with progressive ones change over time. The economic disasters of Reconstruction and the Great Depression caused profound changed in the political affiliations of many Americans. So did the political panic of the Cold War. The demise of the Dixiecrats and the fall of Jim Crow has a lot to do with current political alignments. I’ve seen a violation of the basic tenets in both of these diametrically opposed sides just during my lifetime. Political alignments often define issues, and since for all practical purposes we have limited ourselves to only two parties in the United States, our political parties appear to be polarized. And at the moment, as the chart shows, our two political parties are more polarized than they have ever been since the end of Reconstruction.

At the time of the Civil War, the Republican Party was conservative, but not as much as it is today. In 1860, Republicans not only did not want to “conserve” the status quo (which is the very definition of conservatism), they wanted to bring massive change to the economy of half of the country. The war certainly accomplished that. Outlawing slavery all at once undermined the agrarian business model of the nation, which had been overwhelmingly dependent on slave labor to get crops planted and harvested. The more industrialized north did not feel the devastating economic crisis brought on by this change as greatly as did the primarily agricultural South. Emancipation was the most drastic change in property rights in US economic history – possibly in world economic history. The only comparable situation I can think of is the 1861 emancipation of serfs in the Russian Empire – serfdom in western Europe, on the other hand, disappeared gradually over several centuries.

The two biggest cash crops in the South before the war were cotton and tobacco, followed closely by hemp, rice, and indigo. The primary producers of these crops were the large Southern plantations – farms larger than 200 acres – that used significant slave labor. In 1860, plantations with more than 50 slaves made up 4% of all farms, but grew 32% of all the cotton produced in this country. By 1880, farms of that size constituted less than 1% of all farms, and now were paying wages instead of supporting slaves at subsistence levels. Increased costs to produce the South’s primary sources of income dramatically compromised the economic health of the South.

The stereotypical image of the pre-war plantation is of a rich, idle white family surrounded by complacent slaves who did everything for their masters – from the farm labor and cooking to dressing the ladies and caring for the white children. This image is flawed. The white “masters” typically labored in the fields, too, and always had hired hands – both white and free blacks – in  addition to slaves. Families owning 50 or more slaves were rare. For that matter, families owning any slaves at all were not in the majority of white southerners. Only about a quarter of southern families held slaves,  While wealthier families frequently had a family of slaves in the same house, most southerners were themselves the laborers, the farm hands, and the hired wage earners that they still are today. Most slaves were owned by large planters and worked on the larger plantations. Nevertheless, when the legs are cut out from under the highest-earning industry in a geographic region, the entire region suffers. (No area of 21st century America knows this reality more intimately than Detroit.)

But let’s add other economic costs. At the end of the Civil War in 1865, the Confederate dollar was worthless due to inflation and people in the South had to resort to bartering services for goods. White planters had lost their enormous investment in slaves. They had virtually no capital to pay free workers to bring in crops. Immediately after the war, onerous property taxes were imposed on southern landholders. These taxes were essentially war reparations, and had to be paid in scarce Union dollars. Land owners often could not pay these taxes. The way they had raised money in the past – providing subsistence rather than wages to the families that worked their land to conserve cash income for other purposes – was no longer legal. They had to change their business model entirely, and immediately.

Sharecropping was the answer. Landowners broke up large plantations and rented smaller plots to their former slaves and employees. Almost overnight the South was transformed from a prosperous land-owning populace into a tenant farming agriculture system. The few large landowners who were able to hang on to their property no longer worked the land themselves. Those who were fortunate enough to obtain land at fire-sale prices worked harder than the previous owners to make it produce enough to support their families. Tenant farmers could never hope to wring enough profits out of the land to support themselves in their former lifestyles, unless they were freed slaves, in which case their condition in life was definitely improved.

Now, add to that massive change the fact that for four years Southerners had burned cotton and tobacco rather than allow Union forces to confiscate it. Invading Union troops had devastated the physical structures that constituted the framework of the Southern economic engine, and nearly half of the livestock of the South had been killed during the war. And here’s the kicker: over a quarter of all Southern white men of military age died during the war, leaving their families destitute. Per capita income for white southerners declined from $125 in 1857 to a low of $80 in 1879. Reconstruction officially ended in 1877, but rather than being reconstructed into something viable and prosperous, the South had been further devastated by it. By the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th century, the former Confederacy was locked into a system of poverty. The financial ruin of the South was complete. One hundred and fifty years later, it still has not recovered except in pockets where petroleum production has made the difference.

The resentment of the defeated South at losing the comfort and prosperity it had once enjoyed lit flames of anger among people who had lost nearly everything. That anger was directed externally: toward the slaves they had once depended on or who they had once ordered around with impunity, but who now were raised to the same socioeconomic level as free white laborers almost overnight;  toward the educated, industrialized northern states, which were able to resume their former lives after the war; toward the federal government agents who enforced these changes; and toward the speculators who came to the South with carpetbags full of cash to take advantage of Southern economic desperation.

The only real power or freedom that remained to Southerners was in how they treated each other. Free black people were the poster children of Confederate defeat, and because of their lack of education, unfamiliarity with government processes, lack of representation in government, lack of education, and economic disadvantages, they were easy targets. White supremacy ideology frustrated racial equality and ushered in the  Jim Crow era. Jim Crow laws had an initial side effect of disenfranchising poor whites along with poor blacks, and almost all black people were poor.

Voter turnout dropped considerably, and the United States Supreme Court eventually declared poll taxes unconstitutional. It was more difficult for the federal government to regulate how people behaved toward one another, though. While many white Southerners who had managed to retain more wealth focused on economic issues, the vast majority of impoverished white Southerners were still indignant that they were caught up in the Southern economic crisis. In the late 1800’s “separate but equal” became the law of the land, cast in iron by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Not only was it perfectly legal to treat the different races differently, it was government sanctioned.

Environmental disaster compounded economic disaster when the Great Depression struck. While the stock market crash of 1929 had relatively little to do with the suppressed Southern economy other than to deprive it of what little wealth it had managed to regain, the Dust Bowl had a devastating effect on the still predominantly agricultural South.

The Depression is notorious for high unemployment rates. People who can’t find jobs have no purchasing power. The South was already economically depressed before the 1930’s, and the “stimulus” of the New Deal sometimes extracted more money than the poor South had to spare. The New Deal is responsible for the progressive socioeconomic reforms of social security, minimum wage controls, and farm subsidies, the latter of which allowed poor Southern farmers a measure of economic security they had never before experienced. It cost the worker more in actual cash, though, and established institutionalized inflation that is unstoppable.

With the end of World War II, the Southern Democrats who had signed on to the New Deal because of their constituents’ dire economic situation suddenly faced a civil rights crisis: those uppity women and blacks who had earned a comfortable living during the war did not want to turn loose of the gains they had made. The Southern white man had gone away to fight and lost enough of his dominance that something had to be done quickly to preserve his way of life. And despite the gains made by women and black people, white men were still in charge of the government.

Enter the Dixiecrat. After the Civil War, Southern politicians wouldn’t be caught dead identifying with Lincoln’s Republican party. The South turned overwhelmingly to the Democratic party in the 1870’s, and until the 1990’s – that’s right, only twenty years ago – Republicans were rarely elected at the local level anywhere in the former Confederacy. There was no point in voting in a Republican primary in the South because there were so few Republican candidates. Local elections were normally determined in the Democratic primaries until the Reagan administration managed to make diplomatic inroads with Southern sensibilities. Rev. Jerry Falwell had a lot to do with that, which I’ll explain in a moment. (The South voted for Republicans at the national level, though.)

Really, it’s all Harry Truman’s fault. The economic demands of the New Deal had started a schizophrenia among Southern politicians. Socially conservative politicians, damned if they would let minorities get the best of them, embraced progressive economic ideas that were sold as a way to lift not just the South but the entire country out of poverty. After Franklin Roosevelt’s death, the liberal and progressive Truman (from the border state of Missouri) got a bee in his bonnet about – of all things! – civil rights. The original idea was to end discrimination in the military, since black and Indian soldiers had made amazing contributions to the war effort. The Dixiecrats and their supporters saw the writing on the wall, though. If those minorities got an inch, and they’d take a mile. Discrimination was entrenched in the Southern way of life, and that was a status quo the whites could not tolerate changing. Those uppity Negroes were trying to take the rightful place of white folks all over again. This was Reconstruction Redux.

The Civil Rights movement put an end to the cooperation between Southern Democrats and their northern counterparts. Once again, those damn Yankees were attempting to force massive change on the Southern way of life, and South was not happy about it.

When I was born at the tail end of the baby boom, Jim Crow was alive and well. The outraged Dixiecrats were being forced to desegregate schools. (My rural eastern Arkansas elementary school desegregated in 1968, the year I started first grade.) The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave the gret-grandchildren of slaves a more effective legal tool to fight the racial discrimination that had been institutionalized all over the country. An amendment to it in 1968 further expanded civil rights.

Since the end of the Civil War, Congress had passed numerous civil rights laws. In 1866 Congress overrode President Andrew Johnson’s veto of a bill that said  anyone born in the U.S., regardless of race, was a U.S. citizen. In 1871, Congress outlawed ethnic violence against black people. (The KKK ignored this law with impunity.) In 1875 Congress attempted to prohibit discrimination in public accommodations, but the Supreme Court struck down the act as an unconstitutional regulation of individual action. Brown v. Board of Education, which overruled Plessy v. Ferguson to do away with the doctrine of “separate but equal,” was decided in 1954. In 1957, the year the National Guard was called out to desegregate Little Rock schools over the objection of segregationists here, the Civil Rights Commission was formed. And in 1964 the broad Civil Right Act prohibiting discrimination was passed – a hundred years after the Civil War had ended. Laws passed in 1968 (the Fair Housing Act) and 1987 (extending nondiscrimination requirements to government contractors) further expanded civil rights.

We are now 150 years and seven generations removed from slavery. Those without a sense of the history of it see the struggle for racial parity as black people being “given” what white people have “earned.” Affirmative action, designed to promote minority interests when all other things are equal, is seen as favoring minorities, and to an extent, it does. Quotas that reflect the actual population are also seen as rewarding those “lazy” people who would otherwise not be qualified. Those who complain are called either racist or realist, depending upon their audience.

We see the same thing in other civil rights struggles. Homosexuals make up more than 10% of our population, but discrimination against them is still legal. (A 2002 Gallup poll found the number to be 9%, but keep in mind that Kinsey’s research found that sexual orientation is more of a question of degree along a spectrum rather that a bright line.) Couched in terms of the civil rights struggle, which same-sex marriage certainly is a part of, the conservative population resists change, preferring to maintain a status quo. By definition, a liberal is progressive in ideals and outlook. A liberal sees change as improvement in the current situation. This is the exact opposite of conservative ideals, which harken back to the “good old days” when “things were better” and “people knew their places.”

Change is scary to those whose mind-set is conservative. Instead of embracing change with all the promise and anticipation of a liberal, the conservative resists with everything in his power.

What’s another thing that poor people tend not to have that wealthier people tend to acquire? Education. The South and Midwest are less educated, more superstitious, and therefore more fearful of the unknown. A lack of desire to educate themselves is an unfortunate characteristic that brands these types so that they are easily recognizable.

Religion in America is symptomatic of these attitudes. The United States has experienced several episodes of Christian revivalism or “Awakening.” These terms refer to a specific period of increased spiritual interest bracketed by declines in religious interest. Revival or awakening happens regularly everywhere in the world where religion is practices. Eras of economic hardship correlate to increased religious revival.  The Enlightenment of the 18th century was a period of spiritual decline marked by searching outside religion for matters of morality and understanding about human nature. The Great Awakening was its philosophical rival in colonial America, and was such a strong movement that its imprimatur is still evident in our national psyche. It was followed by a Second Great Awakening, during which Christian evangelicals really became the institution they now are. Charismatic and emotional speakers rode a circuit to whip the religious audiences into frenzies, and their converts at these tent revivals were so inspired that they carried the word to others, making religious adherence not only fashionable, but necessary for morality. A third Awakening spread especially throughout the Midwest and prompted a new flood of missions to Asia.

Despite the persuasive and educated voices of men like Thomas Payne, Thomas Jefferson, Robert G. Ingersoll, John Dewey, Felix Adler, and George Santayana, the sheer charisma of the evangelicals of the Great Awakenings carried much more weight with a partially literate, largely uneducated public.

We are now in the midst of another Awakening. This Awakening has cemented itself in the disillusioned South and in the Midwest, where the economy of the mostly rural population is largely agrarian and relatively fewer people have higher education. Television and radio have sped and maintained the momentum of this religious movement. I’ll never forget hearing Jerry Falwell (I told you I’d get back to him) decrying secular humanism in the heyday of the Moral Majority. I never understood how he could make “humanism” into a curse word until it dawned on me that the people flocking to listen to him had no idea what it meant.

In this Fourth Awakening, new Christian sects have sprung up like weeds in a previously neatly-tended garden, and the detritus they spread is poison to reason and science. They look backward instead of forward, and are willing to compromise freedoms of conscience to maintain the status quo they treasure. They are the Todd Akins (“Women’s bodies have a way of shutting that whole [pregnancy from rape] thing down”) and Sarah Palins of American politics, and their followers are the Tea Party, and can always be counted on to vote against their own best interest. They are persuaded by sound bites on television and sermons from their ministers. These people are anti-intellectual, uneducated, and irrational. They parrot the words of their religious and political leaders without examining the ideas critically or, apparently, even with any real interest.

Obviously I do not hold much respect for these people. The sign that summed them up for me read, “Keep Government OUT of My Medicare.” The Awakening and the Tea Party both have less traction on the more populated coasts of our country, where people tend to have more education and tend to be exposed regularly to people who are not like them. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it allays fear.

Now, a person who styles himself as a “fiscal conservative” is a different animal altogether from these screaming mobs of illogical idiots with their misspelled signs and their complete misunderstanding of the purpose of any government system. These fiscal conservatives usually bemoan the loss of the Republican party to the religious right and to the anti-intellectuals of the Tea Party. They are right to be concerned. Where reasonable minds can disagree and compromise, unreasoning minds consider dialogue the precursor to capitulating – compromise is to be avoided at all costs.

This is no way to run a government. It is no way to decide public policy. I sincerely wish that rational conservatives would retake control of the Republican party. It’s not that I agree with them, but that I see them as opponents worthy of outreach. I feel like I could work with them, because they will see that we are committed to the same goals, albeit with different ideas as to how to reach them. However, there’s no working with irrational, willfully ignorant, reactionary mobs who see any change at all as a threat to their precious way of life, and who cannot imagine a better future.


Imminent Invasion

Today, I am Belgium.

Ergo, I attempt neutrality, knowing at any moment I will be invaded by Panzers.

I would prefer to be Switzerland, safe behind mountains unscalable by any army without elephants.

However, the tanks are at the door. Shots have already been fired across my bow this morning, and diplomacy seems fruitless.


I’ll mix more metaphors as the day draws on…

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