Zealotry: A growing danger to American freedom

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When the spiritual love of Jesus turns into "the dogma of Christ
politicus," it is a dangerous moment for America. This is happening at an
alarming rate and in weirder and weirder forms by the week. Somewhere along
the line we hope the broader range of Christian open-minded and moderate
thinking will prevail in the public discourse. The signs of the times,
however, seem ominous and dark indeed.

Witness Rev. Chan Chandler of the East Waynesville Baptist Church in North
Carolina, who kicked out nine members from his own congregation because
they voted as Democrats and did not support George W. Bush for president.
During last year's presidential campaign, Chandler told his congregation
that those who would vote for Democratic Sen. John Kerry should repent or
leave his church, according to one member who was forced out.

Witness the Baptist deacon of a California congregation who told the Lakota
family of Muriel Waukazoo, who wanted a drum group to accompany their
mother's funeral, that the traditional Indian songs could not be tolerated
because "drumming brings the demons."

Witness Bush getting the nod from the Catholic Church hierarchy, which
essentially endorsed him when it allowed then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger,
now Pope Benedict XVI, to urge bishops to consider the denial of Holy
Communion to Catholic politicians (i.e. John Kerry) who endorsed a
pro-choice position on abortion rights for women.

Witness the even more troubling case of an American Jesuit who respectfully
and intelligently criticized the positions of the Catholic Church and is
now ordered to resign as editor of the Catholic journal, America - forced
out by no less an authority than the office of doctrinal enforcement,
called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on an edict issued
by - again - then-Cardinal Ratzinger, now pope.

One major issue to cause the resignation order involved the magazine's
critique of the church's "Dominus Iesus," a document directly insisting on
the supremacy of Catholicism over all faiths. The church document had been
issued by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, resting on the
dogma of infallibility of the pope, while the critique considered it a
setback to more respectful interfaith relations.

The magazine also strove to present opposing views of issues of same-sex
marriage and Catholic relations with Islam, as well as the pernicious issue
of whether Catholic politicians who support freedom for women should be
excommunicated. The "Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith" was
previously known as the "Office of the Inquisition" in the Catholic Church.

Always throughout history, religious zealotry at the political helm leads
to horrible injustices. Among the worst of many excesses of zealotry in
Catholic history was the Inquisition, when tens of thousands of people were
tortured, burned to death and expelled from their home countries and their
properties confiscated on a "religious" basis.

American Indian people well remember how that institution would cause
Indians throughout the Caribbean and Mesoamerica to be slowly burned while
dangling from their hands, 13 at a time, to commemorate the holiness of
Christ and his 12 apostles. In the Americas, the killing of Indians for
supposed "paganism" was wanton and widespread. In Old Europe, the
Inquisition's enforcers killed thousands of women healers and herbalists as
"witches," and in particular targeted heretics for torture and execution.

The concept of heresy as a cause for torture and death is particularly
identified with the Catholic Church. It was a main reason for the rejection
of the church among many populations who chose to disagree with the class
of men-priests who ruled the institution and who wielded great and fearsome
power.

Religious fervor that borders on zealotry, always suspect in a democratic
society, is perhaps tolerable if encompassed in the much larger
open-society discourse, bent on real goals of productivity and prosperity
for all citizens of the nation. But this is not what is happening. A much
darker form of religious zealotry has been ushered into all levels of
American government. The objective is to break down the wall between
religion and state, so long a revered and fundamental principle in America.

Freedom of religion has always also been freedom from religion; freedom
from having arguments and issues completely taken on faith and framed in
Biblical terms, wrapped up as "the word of God" to be interpreted and
mouthed by preachers (and now politicians).

Ratzinger, as author Jane Kramer reported recently in The New Yorker, is
well-known within the Catholic Church as a force against dissension or free
thinking of any kind that might possibly question, much less contradict,
Catholic dogma. A tough enforcer of the imperative by all Catholics - and
by extension of a proselytizing faith, all human beings - to bow to the
authority of the magistrate of the church, the new pope has alarmed many
with his history of ultra-conservatism and zealous guardianship of dogmatic
Catholic authority.

A number of commentaries on the cardinal's recent ascension pointed out
that as Pope Benedict XVI, he might project a more tolerant attitude to
other faiths and other points of view. We hope this will be so and we hope
the force of reason and secular common sense will prevail over American
politics. But we can never forget the substantial collusion between the
Church hierarchy and boy-rapers masquerading as spiritual men-priests, nor
that it was precisely the office of Cardinal Ratzinger that imposed the
transfer of sexual abuse cases - and all related evidence, in secret
archives - to the Vatican's jurisdiction. Nor can we forget that in the
same letter, the young victims are directed to keep the "pontifical secret"
under threat of excommunication. The hiding of truth and the protection of
the perpetrator rather than his victims characterize the action of the
Catholic Church in this sordid affair.

There was a time when America's foreign and domestic policy was not
dictated by the ignorant literal biblical interpretation of current
affairs, when America's sense of the world was not dictated by a
tunnel-minded ideological misunderstanding of other places, other major
religions and cultures. Most Americans would also like to believe that
there was a time when rapaciousness, greed and political spin had not
completely replaced reality. But Indian country knows otherwise.

The problem with all this religiosity in our public life is that it
introduces a whole new degree of manipulation of important voting blocks
that will ultimately define national life in this country for decades to
come. We tend to recoil from true-believing attitudes when it comes with
dealing with the powerful, both in government and in private sector issues.
It reeks of flimflam rather than of sincere illumination of problems and
issues, for which the country has long enjoyed a useful working press and
active academic research bases that could study and discern issues
intelligently with many-sided analyses that will inform serious, long-term
decisions.

Anybody willing to trade this most wonderful principle of American freedom
- the guarantee of a free and independent intellectual tradition - for the
strictures of theocratic institutional dictum needs to rethink their sense
of the nation. To chose ignorance by free will may yet become the best
working definition of social insanity.