By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
No, the title of this article is not a reference to a Charlie Daniels song. That was The Devil Comes Down to Georgia, a whimsical song about a Georgia musician and the Devil competing on the fiddle, in the same vein as the Stephen Vincent Benèt’s short story, “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” and nothing to get concerned about. What I am referring to is an actual proposal from a New York-based group of Satanists to build a seven-foot-high statue of Baphomet, the goat-head pagan idol representing the Devil, on the grounds of the state capitol in Oklahoma.
Most commentators are taking the proposal to be a publicity stunt by the New York Satanists, one that even the Satanists think will go nowhere. Which well may be the case. The Oklahoma legislature has been ignoring the proposal as if it is not worthy of a response. For which the Oklahoma lawmakers deserve praise.
But I am not convinced that the Satanists will not take this at least a step further to make their point, perhaps by initiating a formal request for equal protection under the law under the First Amendment. You know how the wording would go: “Oklahoma has a memorial of the Ten Commandments on the capitol grounds. The state is supposed to be neutral about matters of religion. Christianity and Judaism cannot be given preferential treatment.”
It is the argument that has succeeded in getting Nativity scenes and crosses removed from public grounds all over the country; and resulted in public schools prohibiting Christmas songs at their “winter assemblies.” It is why the taxpayers have to pay for sex-change operations for prisoners and Wiccan chaplains on military bases; why same-sex marriages are on their way to becoming the law of the land. It is all rooted in the proposition that Christian beliefs cannot be made part of the law or public policy. If the Ten Commandments are permitted, why should the Satanists be excluded?
Because Satan is evil? They have an answer for that. They’ll tell us that is only one interpretation of Satan, and one definition of evil. Who says it should be imposed on everyone? Because the Ten Commandments represent the broad moral consensus of the American people and Devil-worship does not? They’ll shoot back that what makes America special is the manner in which we protect minority rights, including minority religious beliefs. Muslims are a minority and we have public recognition of Ramadan these days. African-Americans are a minority and we celebrate Kwanzaa in our schools. Why do you Christians feel threatened by the thought that some of your fellow citizens worship the Devil? They are likely to be some of your neighbors. Blah, blah, blah….
Unfortunately, we can no longer shrug and say, “Blah, blah, blah” in response to these matters, unless we are willing to have Christianity driven completely from the public square. There has to be a way of saying that there is nothing wrong with Christianity being recognized in public as the core religious belief of the great mass of the American people; that doing that would be as American as apple pie.
Do I think there is a way of doing that? Maybe not. Maybe that horse has left the barn. But there was a time not that long ago when it was broadly accepted that the public recognition of Christianity was something good for the country. There was a reason why there were the so-called “blue laws” in most of the states of the union. When I was a boy, in the middle years of the 20th century, supermarkets and large stores were closed on Sundays; alcoholic beverages could not be sold in the local delis until after noon.
Beyond that, major league baseball games had to end before dark because the lights were not permitted on Sundays. Censorship and obscenity laws were seen as essential elements of a healthy society. Porn was sold “under the counter” or delivered by mail in “plain brown wrappers.” The Christian understanding of sexual propriety was the law of the land. No one blinked an eye when FDR joined Winston Churchill to sing Onward Christian Soldiers on the British battleship The Prince of Wales during World War II. There was a Nativity scene on virtually every American public green during the Christmas season.
How did all that prevail? Didn’t Americans know about the First Amendment until the last decades of the 20th century? They did, but their understanding of it was different from the ACLU’s and the anchors at MSNBC. More important, their understanding was the understanding of the Founding Fathers. The intention of the Founding Fathers when they wrote the First Amendment was to permit the various Christian churches in the newly formed country to go about the business of shaping a Christian society as vigorously as they could, by assuring them that no one Christian church would be made the established church with the power to stand in their way.
How do I know that? Because you will find that none of the Founding Fathers were aghast at the blue laws, obscenity laws, and public expressions of Christianity mentioned above. Indeed, several of the states continued to give recognition to one Protestant denomination or another as the established church of that state after the Constitution was ratified, without a peep of protest out of the Founding Fathers.
Willmoore Kendall, one of the giants of the early days of the conservative movement, is worth reading on this topic, especially his analysis of the work of Richard Weaver. (It can be found in the anthology Willmoore Kendall Contra Mundum on pages 388-402.) Kendall begins by conceding that the Constitution does not contain the religious references so prominent in the Declaration of Independence, the references to “Nature’s God” and the “unalienable rights” conferred upon us by our “Creator.” He concedes the Constitution is “agnostic” on these religious matters.
But, Kendall insists, that is because the Founding Fathers expected the Christian churches in the newly created country to deal with the “kind of ‘people,’ or ‘society’ we are going to be.” The Constitution did not have to do it. The Founders relied upon the premise that “we the people” would “be virtuous.” And why would they expect that? Kendall is convinced that Weaver intuited correctly that the Founders expected a “select minority” of cultural and religious leaders, outside of government, to “assume responsibility for the people’s culture, in which virtue must be rooted,” teaching Americans “those lessons that the people must learn if they are to operate in a society in which a sound and healthy culture is possible.” Specifically, these leaders “must teach” Americans “the correctness of the Christian picture of man.”
The goal was for American society “to keep alive within itself, and develop in the people, ‘historical memory,’ i.e., knowledge of their own traditions — lest, in ignorance of them, they forget like madmen, what and who they are.” And, I would add, go off with straight faces contemplating the appropriateness of erecting statues to Satan at their state capitols.
One can’t prove Kendall’s thesis, of course. A tacit understanding is tacit. The Founding Fathers did not speak specifically to this “understanding” of how America would remain a Christian society with the First Amendment in place. But if Kendall is correct, and I am convinced he is, the Founding Fathers felt no need to speak openly on this vision of America or to enunciate it in the law of the land. They took it for granted that Christian beliefs were central to how Americans defined themselves in their personal and societal lives. They saw no more need to state it explicitly in the law than they felt it necessary to give constitutional recognition to decency, fair play, kindness, compassion, and love of one’s neighbor.
They understood that a society is not defined solely by its constitution; that a society’s key beliefs are expressed in an equally important manner in its local pieties, its customs and traditions, its literature and folklore, its prejudices (properly understood), and its religious beliefs. They would have thought it a clumsy satire written by a college sophomore if someone suggested putting up a statue of Satan on public grounds.
They would have greeted it with a horselaugh; or perhaps by running to get some tar and feathers.