It was 300 years ago this month, on Sep. 19, 1692, that Giles Corey
was ceremoniously pressed to deaththat is, rocks were piled on top of
him until he died. It was the last and most picturesque of the 20 Salem
witchcraft executions and, as you've already guessed, it has
It gives us an insight into the religious right that influenced
much of the Republican national platform last month. I'm talking about
Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition that met in Dallas shortly after the
Republicans met in Houston, and I'm going to resist saying that I
couldn't always tell where one convention left off and the other began.
Like George Bush, who has enough trouble, I don't intend to read
the Republican platform either, but I watched enough of the Christian
Coalition convention on television to see that these folks have some
pretty bizarre fears. One of them is that the witches are coming.
Right next door in Iowa, too, Robertson says, if that state passes
an equal rights amendment in November. It's a measure he thinks is part
of "a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to
leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy
capitalism and become lesbians."
Right there in River City.
Robertson's other great fear is that we're forgetting that our
founding fathers meant us to be a Christian country. By "founding
fathers" he means those Puritans who tried, apparently without complete
success, to stomp out witchcraft 300 years ago.
They came here seeing themselves as 17th century Israelites: God's
new chosen people being led by all kinds of divine intervention from the
bondage of Anglican England to a promised land where they'd be free to
practice their particular form of Calvinist Christianity.
That didn't mean they favored religious freedom for non-Christians
or even for Quakers and Catholics and others who might disagree about
the number of angels who could dance on a pinhead. Garrison Keillor
wasn't just making a joke last year when he told a Senate committee that
his own Puritan ancestors "arrived here in 1648 in the hope of finding
greater restrictions than were permissible under English law at that
It was theocracyrule by a deityrather than democracy they were
after. And if you prefer theocracy to democracyas I suspect Robertson
does, assuming he gets to choose the ruling deityit's natural enough
to look back wistfully at the Puritans and see them as the founding
fathers we ought to imitate.
But if you mean our political founding fathersthose people who
nearly a century after the witch trials led our revolution against
England and established the government we have todaythen you need a
The Truth, Mainly
Those founding fatherspeople like Ben Franklin, Thomas
Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, and Tom
Painecouldn't stand theocracy. Many of them were Deists who believed
God wound up the universe like a clock and let it run with no further
need of divine intervention. If Pat Robertson got into a religious
dispute with these guys, you'd have to haul him off in a gunny sack.
Franklin, for example, grew up a Puritan, but bailed out when he
was 15 years old because Deist arguments seemed more logical. He
stopped going to church and spent his Sundays reading. As an old man,
he was a distinctly non-Puritan bon vivant who wrote scandalous pieces
like the one about why a young man should choose an older rather than a
Jefferson, after he wrote the Declaration of Independence, said the
effect of religious coercion is "to make one half the world fools, and
the other half hypocrites." He liked Jesus as a moralist, but believed
him to be only human, and rejected supernatural underpinnings like the
Trinity, Virgin Birth, and Resurrection.
But Tom Paine was the real hell-raiser. He's the man credited with
coming up with our new nation's name, the man who wrote the lines about
summer soldiers and sunshine patriots which Washington read to his
troops before they crossed the Delaware.
And he also wrote "I do not believe in the creed professed by the
Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish
church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My
own mind is my own church."
To Pat Robertson such people must sound like mad-dog secular
humanists running rabid in the streets, but they are the founding
fathers of our democracy and they meant what they said about keeping
church and state separate.
The least we can do on the 300th anniversary of the witch trials is
to stop confusing those lower-case democrats with the theocrats who
piled rocks on poor Giles Corey's broken body.
Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.