Saturday, January 26, 2008

Ideologues: Don't they read their own history?

In a thread about theocracy and theocrats over at Dispatches From the Culture Wars, a prize specimen, one Angela Wittman, showed up to ask just what was so bad about theocracy:
Are you afraid that Christians will encourage honesty, fidelity and truth? Just think... We might even obey Christ's command to love our neighbor as ourself and bless others with goodness.
Admittedly that doesn't sound like such a bad thing, on the face of it. But what, concretely, does it actually mean? Well, Angela has a most interesting website that tells you all you really want to know about her. For example, on the page "A True Christian Woman", we learn about several gals whom Angela considers heroines of the Faith. Among them is Jenny Geddes, an Edinburgh lass who in 1637 had a bit of a temper tantrum in church, which included throwing her stool at the minister. What terrible thing had the minister done? It seemed he had attempted to "introduce a different style of Worship than Presbyterian".

Geez Louise. About 15 years back, I was on the Worship Committee of our church, which was responsible for setting the order of service, choosing hymns etc. And when we changed something, occasionally people would complain. But I don't think we ever had anyone throw the furniture at us. Is this Angela's idea of "blessing others with goodness"?

Of course, I'm leaving out a bit of context here. The liturgical crime the minister committed was, apparently, to read from an Anglican-flavoured Prayer Book introduced by Charles I and his Archbishop -- a slap in the face to Scottish nationalist feeling (I get the impression that, as so often happens, the religious fight is just the visible proxy for the real issues). And in fact, the stool-throwing lead to bigger things:
Jenny Geddes has been credited with sounding the alarm which led to the Scottish National Covenant, English Civil War, the execution of Charles I and Cromwell's conquest of Scotland.
Civil War. Great. If it's all the same to you, Angela, I'm not sure I can handle being blessed with that much goodness.

But the irony is that Angela seems to be missing a crucial point: the entanglement of government power with the affairs of the church is central to the Jenny Geddes incident and its sequelae. First, the English state church tried -- with the backing of the monarchy -- to impose itself on the Scottish Church. And few years later (as the end result of the larger incompetence of Charles I), Cromwell imposed his Puritan vision on the whole of Great Britain -- which was great for the Presbyterians, but if you were High Church Anglican (or worse, Catholic) your life was likely to suck rather badly.

The take-home lesson is that theocrats don't stop with persecuting the damned atheists and the sexual perverts: even the "wrong" variety of their own sect eventually winds up in trouble with the Powers That Be. Which is why the modern separation of church and state (whether expressed
de jure as in the American Constitution, or observed
de facto as in much of the rest of the West) is such a marvelous invention, and a precious gift to be defended. What the Angela Wittmans of the world don't see is that we are all safer because of that.


Anonymous said...

Dear Eamon,
Thank you so much for reading my article on Jenny Geddes. I would like to point out that even though many point to Cromwell as a wonderful example of Christian leadership, the Covenanters had a different view of him. I am of the understanding that they resisted him and believed he was imposing his religious views upon them. However, it is true that the persecution of the Covenanters ended during this time and they lived in peace.

King Aardvark said...

Very good review of what happens in a theocratic society. Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it, I suppose...