The Episcopal Diocese of Arizona issued a strong statement* last week condemning the anti-gay bill eventually vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer. “Who among us doesn’t want to support religious freedom?” Bishop Kurt Smith wrote, condemning the bill’s dishonest “guise of religious freedom” as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing that masks discrimination under a veneer of piety.”
That’s true as far as the very generic language of “religious liberty” used by promoters of these bills. But as soon as they get more specific about what they mean by “religious liberty,” the sheep costume falls to the side. This is a wolf in wolf’s clothing. The fangs and claws are obvious for all to see. This effort doesn’t appeal to piety or to a love of religious liberty — it appeals to the same instinct that hanged Mary Dyer on the Boston Common.
And it does so proudly.
This new attempt to redefine “religious liberty” is an old perversion of both liberty and religion. It is the same instinct that believed we could become a “city on a hill” only by raising the banner of the gallows as a “flag for others to take example by.”
It is, in other words, a guise of piety that has frightened many, but never fooled anyone. It is a form of piety that surrendered the moral high ground to Charles II, for goodness’ sake.
So since the bishops and the Manhattan Declarers and the Orwellian euphemizers of the “American Religious Freedom” program of the “Ethics” and Public Policy Center are proving so intent on reviving this old-school Puritan perversity, let’s get old school ourselves and respond with an old classic from John Greenleaf Whittier:
Under the great hill sloping bare
To cove and meadow and Common lot,
In his council chamber and oaken chair,
Sat the worshipful Governor Endicott.
A grave, strong man, who knew no peer,
In the Pilgrim land, where he ruled in fear
Of God, not man, and for good or ill
Held his trust with an iron will.
The “American Religious Freedom” project is not a new idea.
He had shorn with his sword the cross from out
The flag and cloven the may-pole down,
Harried the heathen round about
And whipped the Quakers from town to town.
His brow was clouded, his eye was stern,
With a look of mingled sorrow and wrath;
“Woe’s me,” he murmured: “at every turn
The pestilent Quakers are in my path!
Some we have scourged, and banished some,
Some hanged, more doomed, and still they come,
Fast as the tide of yon bay sets in,
Sowing their heresy’s seed of sin.
“Did we count on this? Did we leave behind
The graves of our kin, the comfort and ease
Of our English hearths and homes, to find
Troublers of Israel such as these?
Shall I spare? Shall I pity them? God forbid!
I will do as the prophet to Agag did:
They come to poison the wells of the Word,
I will hew them in pieces before the Lord!”
Endicott’s worrisome consternation can be seen today in his spiritual descendants — the righteous Christians still harrying the heathens, the LGBT, the uppity women, the Satanic baby killers and all the rest whom they fear have come to poison the wells of the Word and sow the seeds of sin. Yet, alas, no matter how many of these troublers we scourge or banish or doom, it seems our pious utopia remains under siege.
“Woe is me,” he murmured, whip in hand.
It’s nothing new. The good news is that this impious piety always comes to the same shameful end. The bad news is that it always manages to do a lot of damage on its way down.
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* The Diocese of Arizona’s statement also quotes these powerful words from former Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning: “There will be no outcasts in this church.”
That’s a beautiful thing, a moving expression of inclusive love — provided you know what Browning meant to be saying. On paper, though, it’s a bit ambiguous, isn’t it? One can picture someone like Al Mohler or Bryan Fischer or Gov. Endicott nodding in agreement and saying, “Amen — cast out all the outcasts. There will be no outcasts in this church!”