The Truth, Mainly - 09/28/1992

Which founding fathers? Theocrats?
by Leon Satterfield

It was 300 years ago this month, on Sep. 19, 1692, that Giles Corey was ceremoniously pressed to death—that 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 contemporary relevance.

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 time."

It was theocracy—rule by a deity—rather than democracy they were after. And if you prefer theocracy to democracy—as I suspect Robertson does, assuming he gets to choose the ruling deity—it'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 fathers—those people who nearly a century after the witch trials led our revolution against England and established the government we have today—then you need a different scorecard.

Those founding fathers—people like Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, and Tom Paine—couldn'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 younger mistress.

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.

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