Preachers, politics and patriotism

Published 2:01 am Sunday, March 9, 2014

To the editor:

In 1959, Linus, a character in Charles Schulz’s comic strip, Peanuts, famously observed that, in America, “There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people:  religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.”
He might also have included money.  As evinced by Pastor Thomas Olson’s opening prayer at the Feb. 17 meeting of Polk County Commissioners, we’re not following Linus’ advice.

As a historian of colonial and Revolutionary America, I’m always astonished at the shameless expropriation of Revolutionary symbols and our founding fathers, no women here, of course, for political causes.

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For example, George Washington, the father of our country, the first and richest president of them all, a deist at best, a slave owner and cautionary politician who despised factions and polarizing ideologues as well as foreign entanglements in the name of exceptionalism, now has become a model not only for the dollar bill but also for right-wing fundamentalists and ideologues like Olson.
Take a close look at his farewell address and see how little it reflects religion, never mentions God but deistically “the Almighty,” and, instead, refers to civility and “cultivating peace and harmony” using “religion and morality” to “enjoin this conduct.” Olson did the opposite.

Consider Abraham Lincoln, another of Olson’s “models,” ostensibly the father of the Republican “Grand Old Party,” perhaps the most radical in our history, that saved the nation, freed the slaves, and helped pass the Homestead Act that gave free land to small farmers.

That original Republican coalition consisted of blacks, mill workers in the northeast, small farmers in the Midwest, and radical abolitionists and civil rights advocates. Lincoln thought that the Constitution enshrined slavery and inequality, and he worked tirelessly to change it through the Thirteenth Amendment, the subject of “that Hollywood liberal,” Steven Spielberg’s movie of the same title. In truth, I don’t imagine OIson would like the leadership provided by Lincoln or Washington, but they’re handy to expropriate as icons.

Yet perhaps nothing could be more astounding to a historian than the idea that the Founding Fathers somehow wanted to establish a faith-based “Christian nation.”
Any serious scholar of the Revolutionary period likely would agree that Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Payne, Mason, Hancock and Hamilton were children of the Enlightenment who passionately followed thinkers like Hume, Rousseau, Locke and myriad other philosophers. Reason and not blind faith guided their lives.

Lastly, why did our county commissioners deliberately choose someone like Olson from the Lutheran Missouri-Synod, one of the most bedrock, fundamentalist, radically evangelistic churches in the nation, to give such a provocative invocation?

Do our commissioners mask Olson and genuinely hate those in Polk County who happen to be divorced, gay, unchurched, living together, single men and women who chose not to marry, and married couples who don’t Biblically reproduce?   They must be haunted by the idea that somewhere, somehow, someone in Polk County might actually be enjoying sex.

Finally, I fully expected most of the commissioners to pick up an American flag, run around the room humming “God Bless America” while Olson spoke, and, afterward, constantly thumb their Bibles and prayerfully put their hands together during the meeting.  Nothing is more artificially and patently patriotic and pious than such displays, all designed to shield against criticism and stifle debate.  After all, who could possibly be against the Bible, the Constitution and America?

While all of us passionately debate what the Constitution and the Bible says, our commissioners gleefully dismantle things like the UDO and engage in old and new forms of corruption like favors for political supporters, creating and funding more positions, and, in modern fashion, being more closed, secretive, evasive and distractive.
We deserve better, more respectful government.

– Milton Ready, Tryon