Category Archives: History

Faith in America

CNN is featuring an article by Ralph Reed on the evangelical vote in Iowa, entitled “‘Evangelical Vote’ A Myth.”  Reed argues that the evangelical voting block is a myth created by the media, since not all evangelicals vote the same way, and they don’t choose their candidates for the same reason.

I would be thrilled that someone actually said this in a national forum were I not so discouraged by the stereotypes and negativity that are all over the comments section.  One gets used to atheists spewing vitriol on any and every “faith-based” story in the news, but I’ve never seen so many people upset that their preconceived notions were being challenged.  Do these people even know any evangelicals?  I want to ask, but I’m afraid that some of them have had bad experiences in one church, and they’re judging the rest of us based on that.  To make the situation worse, CNN topped the story with a short slide show featuring comments from Christian voters whose comments sound exactly like what the atheists seem to fear most.  Alas, one of my brethren goes so far as to reject the separation of church and state.

The separation of church and state is not our problem.  This is the principle that guarantees us all freedom of worship whether or not those in power like our theology.  What is the problem is the conviction that some of our fellow-Americans seem to have that faith is antithetical to reason and, therefore, should not be tolerated in public discourse.  Having defined faith as blind obedience to arcane and outdated rules, they fail to see the vital role that it plays in civic life.

There is nothing blind about authentic, biblical faith.  There is nothing genuine in a faith that never asks questions, and which never wrestles with its own motivations.  I would argue that at least some of the people posting negative comments on CNN’s message board are guilty of blind faith themselves.  They were told by a teacher or a professor or an author that there was no “scientific” or “historical” evidence for the faith of their parents or grandparents, so they happily chucked it away and never bothered to do their own investigating.  They concluded that no one with any education or “sophistication” (yes, that word came up) believes in the God of the evangelicals.  When I was studying for my M.A., a fellow grad student from another department had a weekly editorial in the school paper and was continually writing statements that began with, “As an educated person . . .”  It was a university; we were all educated people, and plenty of us didn’t agree with him.  His generalization were, therefore, ridiculous.

Let me say, as a college professor, that not every thing college professors say should be taken without question.  I’m sure your professors gave you facts, but they also gave you interpretations.  Interpretations are conclusions drawn from the facts.  Interpretations are always subject to argument, and there are journals in every profession dedicated to carrying on those debates within fields.  There is plenty of archeological evidence that supports biblical accounts, and plenty more that may or may not.  The experts are still debating it.  Likewise, scientific theories are continually subject to argument and debate.  To make generalizations about what all educated people ought to believe is absurd, since not all educated people believe the same things even within their own disciplines.

I know there are atheists who really have thought through their worldview and reached it as reasonable conclusion, just as many Christians have reasoned their way to faith.  What offends me most is the idea that is continually promoted in popular discourse that people of faith are ignorant or bigoted.  It is worse during election season when people on a certain end of the political spectrum stir up antagonism against conservative candidates with the cry, “The Christians are coming, the Christians are coming.”  Even if we were “coming,” GOOD FOR YOU.  We have guided Western Civilization for most of the last two thousand years.  We have built schools and hospitals, created art, made scientific discoveries, promoted democracy and abolished slavery, at least where we could get at it.  We have reformed prisons, fed the homeless, voted in elections, argued for the dignity of women, and yes, campaigned for the separation of church and state.  If you don’t know these things, then your history class lied to you, and you need to do some real research instead of trusting the chewed up and spit out pablum that is dished out in most high school history books.

So, I would challenge the mockers on the CNN post to consider what authorities they have put their confidence in because there surely are some.  If they are trusting the opinions of experts or scholars, then I can offer experts and scholars to contradict them because that’s what scholars do.  If they are trusting their own reason, then they are trusting something that every philosopher since Socrates has doubted.  And if they are assuming that all evangelicals are exactly the same, then they are guilty of faulty generalization and no argument built on that has validity.  Likewise, if they are regarding faith and reason as incompatible, they are guilty of a false dichotomy -pretending that two things are opposed to each other when they do not need to be.

One more thing, if you must attack religion in a public forum, try to avoid name-calling.  It’s a sure indication that your argument has no substance.



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A Question of Worth

My mother was born in North Carolina, as were her parents and grandparents.  In fact, the family’s North Carolina roots are quite deep.  I have even seen a digital copy of one ancestor’s marriage license — from North Carolina — during the American Revolution.  It is an interesting document.  Apparently, the newly minted state was too cheap to throw away its old licenses, so they scribbled out the reference to his majesty, the King, and wrote the state governor’s name into the margin.  Perhaps, some frugal clerk wanted to see if the Revolution worked out for them before he went to the expense of ordering new documents from the printer.

As I said, our North Carolina roots are deep.  So, I read with interest and dismay the story that National Public Radio is featuring on its website by Julie Rose entitled, “A Brutal Chapter in N.C.’s Eugenics Past.”  Prior to World War II, a number of states had eugenics laws designed to keep the “unfit” from reproducing.  The unfit were usually persons with disabilities, or those too poor to afford the children that they produced.   Eugenics fell out of favor in the U.S. after WWII because Americans discovered the atrocities committed by the Nazi’s eugenics program.  North Carolina, however, kept its eugenics committees into the 1970s.  According to NPR, North Carolina sterilized more than 7,000 people.  Mecklenburg County alone (the Charlotte area) sterilized an astounding 485.  While sterilization was supposed to be voluntary, the state cannot now be sure that some of these people weren’t coerced.

Of course, they can’t be sure.  Persons selected for sterilization came into the system from psychiatric hospitals, “schools for troubled youth,” and the welfare system, to name a few ways.  In other words, the eugenics program targeted vulnerable people, just as euthensia is an issue wrapped around vulnerable people, i.e. the terminally ill.  How can anyone be sure that people in extreme circumstances, especially when they have diminished capacity, are not being bullied or deceived into consenting to an irreversible act on their own bodies?

The truth is that society cannot have individual liberty without also upholding human dignity.  It is our dignity, our fundamental value as human beings, that gives us a claim to liberty.  In The Declaration of Independence, Jefferson asserted that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are rights bestowed upon us by our Creator.  They are inalienable because they are issued by divine decree and cannot be revoked by human authority. I’m not inviting you to stand and sing an anthem, but this is as good a time as any to consider how foundational this belief is to our way of life.  We may question whether Jefferson, a slave-owner, really believed that “all men” are created equal, or if he just meant to apply it to white men, and he surely did not mean to include women.  Our emerging national conscience, however, has insisted on applying it to everyone.  We fought a war over slavery, argued over women’s suffrage, and pushed on through the Civil Rights Movement, and every time we came back to the idea that The Declaration of Independence doesn’t free anyone unless it frees everyone.

The core of that conviction is that the worth of a person lies in the fact of his or her humanity.  We do not measure the value of a person by race or social class, as every civilization before ours has done.  We declare everyone equal on the basis of shared humanity.  That means that we must value life whether or not the individual is capable of giving society anything in return.  To decide that someone is dispensable because they are “a drain on the system” is to return to the days when societies considered the wealthy or the well-born to have greater intrinsic value than the poor.  Either way, you have measured human value in monetary units.

I realize that I appear to be addressing an issue (eugenics), which seems to have been tossed into the waste-basket of history, but the truth is that the underlying attitude never goes away.  Our society still wants to push abortions for babies that test positive for Down Syndrome (never mind that the test has a high rate of inaccuracy).  We still debate euthanasia, arguing for “quality of life” rather than quantity, as though each minute of life did not have intrinsic worth.  We complain loudly about welfare mothers, and while surely there is a better way of life than to eke it out on the dole, we forget that every child has enormous potential and a legitimate claim to good care, however dire the circumstances of his or her childhood.  I don’t have easy answers for the economic situation each of these issues create, but to dismiss life on the grounds that we can’t afford to maintain it seems to me a dangerous move away from our core convictions as a free society.

My mother was almost forty when I was born.  She was perfectly content with the two children she already had and certainly hadn’t planned on adding another.  My father was the church custodian and cleaned a doctor’s office on the side; mother was Nurse’s Aid.  They didn’t have health insurance.  According to the NPR article, they were exactly the sort of family that the eugenics board in North Carolina thought they were helping — families who didn’t need the burden of one more child.  Fortunately for me, my parents didn’t consider children to be “life accessories,” and they didn’t think that I cost more than I was worth.  I hear politicians preaching that our society should ensure that every child is planned and, therefore, wanted.  But planned and wanted aren’t necessarily the same thing.  Children are wanted when the parents recognize the intrinsic value of the child, and when they understand that no amount of freed-up income can compensate for losing one.  Children are wanted when society understands that it is worth the money to build more schools, give single mothers a hand-up, and provide safe and nurturing communities that allow even the disadvantaged child to thrive.

Otherwise, we may have left the eugenics model behind, but we will inevitably invite something equally despicable to take its place.

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Last Day

Hello, readers.  I know that I have already posted today, but I probably won’t have time to write you tomorrow.  Heaven forbid you should miss a day of my vacation!  You wonder in exasperation, “Isn’t she home, yet?!”  By this time tomorrow, I will be close to home.  Needless to say, we will miss the ocean.  Needless to say, I have taken enough pictures to last us for the rest of the year.  Believe me, you have only seen the tip of the iceberg, my friends.  And we’ll keep it that way, since I would like for you to stay my friends.

Today, we returned to Manteo, which we simply love.  Here is one reason why:

How is that for a prospect?  And, of course, there is a lighthouse.

That is the Roanoke Marshes lighthouse, small and lovely.

We also made sure to go back to Fort Raleigh National Park.  It’s not a large place, but it is historically significant because it marks the site of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, those mysterious first English settlers in the New World whose colony disappeared leaving only the word Croatoan carved into a tree.  It’s next to the Elizabethan Gardens, but we didn’t go earlier this week because it appeared to be closed.  In fact, they are renovating the place, so there is only the gift shop in a trailer near the visitor center.  The trails are still accessible, though, and I love to walk the trails.

The woods are appropriately silent given the significance of this place.  It is a memorial for a group of unknown people who walked quietly into the pages of history, and then disappeared from those pages just as quietly into a destination just as unknown as their origins.  We know little enough about those settlers, and we have nothing but theories about how their story ended.  In Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony, Lee Miller, an anthropologist, argues that the Lost Colonists were absorbed by one group of Native Americans, which was later conquered and enslaved by another.  Miller’s argument is compelling (though not entirely convincing), but she offers one suggestion which I find intriguing.  Based entirely on circumstantial evidence, Miller suggests that the Lost Colonists may have been Separatists seeking to escape religious persecution 30 years before the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth.

This suggestion is based on two historical facts.  The first is that this was a dangerous and hare-brained enterprise even at the time.  Financial backing was precarious, and England was too absorbed with the impending threat of a Spanish invasion to spare resources for an American expansion.  Based on this, Miller believes that anyone who immigrated to America must have been motivated by desperation.  Further, this was a period of intensified persecution for Separatists, who are distinct from Puritans in that they wanted to leave the Church of England rather than reform it.  This called into question their patriotism and loyalty to the crown at a time when Protestant England was in dire peril from threats abroad.  Miller figures that religious persecution may well have driven the Lost Colonists to the desperate act of resettling in the New World.

This is a tenuous line of reasoning because Walter Ralegh impresses me as the kind of man who could convince ordinary people to take on this kind of adventure whether they were desperate or not.  Further, the fact that it was a bad time to be an English Separatist doesn’t mean that these people were Separatists, or that they were on the run.  Finally, Miller makes Sir Francis Walsingham the villain of the story, as a deliberate saboteur who wanted the colony to fail.  Unfortunately for Miller, her characterization of Walsingham doesn’t match the historical record; she leaves out several pertinent facts about his character and ignores that, as Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, he had his hands full with the Spanish threat and would have had little attention to spare to a small group of colonists who were exiling themselves to the ends of the earth.

For all this, I find Miller’s suggestion intriguing because there is always the chance that she might be right about the colonists’ religious affiliation.  The New World offered economic opportunity to Englishmen who came from a country where there was little land available, and where most of the land and political power was in the hands of the aristocracy, which took for granted that God assigned our stations in life and that the working class should know its place and stay in it.  This included accepting religious practices proscribed by the monarch and enforced by priests and magistrates.  Elizabeth was enlightened for her time, but even she took for granted her right to be obeyed in matters doctrinal as well as political.  The New World was both the opportunity to improve one’s economic condition and a chance to breathe free air.  We simply don’t know fully what motivated the Roanoke settlers, but surely the opportunity for a new kind of community had not escaped them.

Someday, of course, there will be no more unsolved mysteries.  The great books will be opened at the Last Judgment, and every deed will be brought to light.  In the meantime, the stillness of the woods is an opportunity to reflect on the astonishing courage of a few people willing to face the unknown with fortitude.

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