Tuesday, September 29

May "The Seven" Have Mercy! It's Christmas!

skepticDoes anyone besides me miss Sean Bean in Game of Thrones? What I miss most is his … well … his gravitas as Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell, especially when, often in the midst of a festive occasion while everyone else is busy cracking jokes and seducing one another’s spouses and drinking and seducing one another’s sisters and carousing and seducing one another’s brothers and feasting and seducing one another’s second-cousins-four-times-removed and slaying knights and seducing one another’s grand-nieces, etc., all in hi-def video and full-frontal nudity – no money to be made selling erectile-dysfunction meds or estrogen replacement therapy in Westeros! – Lord Stark, apparently immune to the libidinous revels going on around him, would gaze off into the distance with his austere, steely thousand-yard stare and rumble grimly “Winter is coming … “. Well, poor substitute that I admittedly am, in the wake of Lord Stark’s execution, I suppose it is up to your Faithful Skeptic-In-Residence to continue the tradition. So, despite the current absence of a libidinous revel to stand in the midst of -- unless you count a bottle of Angry Orchard cider and a bag of Canadian ketchup-flavored potato chips beside the computer keyboard -- here goes … Christmas is coming … therefore, also – may the Seven preserve us! – allegations of a War On Christmas, courtesy of the White Walkers from north of The Wall a.k.a. the Republican Party, Fox News, the Tea Party, and Mance Rayder … er … I mean Bill O’Reilly … all of whom allege that …


o … the United States is a “Christian country”

If the US is a “Christian country,” then Lord Tywin Lannister is a Maryknoll monk living under a vow of poverty and dedicated to the service of justice for the poor and oppressed. In other words … well … not a whole helluva lot. In a purely cultural sense, of course, this is true. In a purely cultural sense, yes, the United States is a “Christian country”. Christians in the United States do indeed outnumber all other religious, and a-religious, groups combined. But this seems to be not quite what people mean who argue that the Nation is Christian. Beyond purely demographic and cultural considerations, the Christian-America advocates seem to mean that, because the US is culturally and demographically Christian, from the standpoint of policy and jurisprudence, there should be a corresponding bias in favor of Christianity as a matter of law. So when it comes to Christians and Christianity … OK … the argument continues ... the Christian-America apologists usually concede that perhaps there should not be a “Welcome Christians” mat outside every gate through The Wall and into the Seven Kingdoms, nor should there be a Tupperware party thrown by every household in King's Landing every Sunday evening of Advent, with the door-prize being a set of Ginsu knives forged of Valyrian steel … but, for example, there should be Christian prayers and Bible reading at the beginning of every school day.

Problem is – unlike any of the Seven Kingdoms – the US operates under the legal umbrella of a Constitution, more specifically, a Bill of Rights, and most specifically of all, the “establishment” clause of the First Amendment that explicitly forbids the government from getting involved, or even having a say, in matters pertaining to the doctrines and theology of any religion, be the religion Christianity, or the Seven, or the original faith of the Old Andals, or the Fire-God R’hllor. All religions exist, constitutionally, on a level playing field, which forbids any and all governmental preference for one over the other. The government can render limited assistance to religiously affiliated schools only in areas that are non-religious (e.g., math textbooks, since there is no such thing as "Catholic math" or "Buddhist math" or ... etc. ... ) and that do not advocate religious doctrine (e.g., no assistance for catechism texts) – and even then, governments are admonished to avoid “excessive entanglement” (Lemon v. Kurtzman, 1971) with religion.


This does not mean that society must be purged of any and all religious observance, only that all religious groups must be permitted to celebrate / commemorate their traditions equally. So if Christian churches may put up crèche scenes on the courthouse lawn, synagogues must be given an equal opportunity to put up menorahs, etc., etc., etc. This is not – be it carefully noted – a “war on Christmas”. If it is a war at all, it is a war on religious favoritism and triumphalism which, as anyone will tell you who has read even cursorily in the history of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, has consumed more blood than has been spilled so far in the War of the Five Kings by writing in sanguinary letters the lesson that government power plus religious bias adds up to violence, misery, and oppression. To insist on this principle is not to engage in war but its diametric opposite:  to advocate for equality of all faiths before the law.


That is why progressives in the Seven Kingdoms keep “dragon” this point into every such discussion. Yeah … OK … sorry … but, c’mon, you knew that shoe had to drop sometime!

o … purging Christmas from the Nation’s life is merely one step in the aggressive secularization of the society, which will leave us with no moral compass

 In many ways, this is one of the stranger arguments advanced by the White Walkers of the religious right. Whatever credibility it has is only due to the fact that Americans don’t read history, either that of the world or even that of their own country. These days, most people probably are more intimately acquainted with the history of Westeros than with their own. (And Rick Santorum -- a former Senator -- doesn't even read the Constitution, and least of all Thomas Jefferson's paraphrase of the "establishment" clause in his 1802 letter to the Danbury, CT, Baptists.) Were it otherwise, they would know, for example, that ...

o ... Christianity was used extensively during antebellum times, especially during the run-up to the Civil War, to justify slavery and a view of black people that regarded them as only rather advanced apes, primarily through the Book of Genesis account of the curse of Ham -- actually, the Curse of Canaan, Ham's son (Gen. 9:20-27)

o ... the texts of St. Paul were quoted to justify the legal disenfranchisement of women (e.g., I Cor. 14:34)

o ... St. Paul commanded that slaves remain subservient and docile to their masters (Book of Philemon)

o ... the period during which Christianity was in undisputed dominance in Europe -- the 1500s and 1600s -- was also a period of religious warfare and bloodletting that has not been equalled before or since, and that the only reason that period ended was because of the Enlightenment of the 18th century, which comprised rise of science, a renewed regard for human reason, and a consequent emphasis on human autonomy, independent of God and Church ... and of theological principles no one could agree on, anyway -- which disagreement precipitated the bloodletting in the first place

This does not mean that the Bible or Christianity are "bad". It simply means that both share a susceptibility common to all ideologies of being warped and perverted, perhaps 4 millennia after the first biblical texts were written and after bitter experience in the interim has taught us better, to support destructive and pathological ends, especially when used literally and with no critical judgment.  Such uses of the Bible and Christianity to support a system of morality would be like asking one of Daenerys Targaryean's dragons to cool your six-pack:  counterproductive at best; lethal, at worst.

o ... besides, the Founders of the Republic all advocated the practice of Christianity

Well, no doubt the Septons and Septas of the Seven also advocated chastity.  (One King of Westeros, Baelor I, of House Targaryean, actually was both pious and chaste -- no mean accomplishment given the lyrically lascivious culture of Westeros!)  But they are also smart enough to know that making chastity mandatory will only (a) turn, e.g.,  Jamie and Cersei Lannister into hypocrites by giving them additional incentive to conceal their highly un-sibling-like affection for each other, (b) besmirch the escutcheon of House Lannister, (c) brand their late son Joffrey -- who, the Seven know, already had enough problems of his own to comprise a walking and smirking menagerie of psychopathologies without (a) and (b) -- as a bastard, and (d) quite probably earn the offending Septon's / Septa's head a place of infamy on a pike high up on the wall of King's Landing -- where, no doubt, it could enjoy a most stimulating conversation with that of Lord Stark.  Better to not go there.


Similarly, we know from their own papers and public statements that, while people like James Madison, personally and as a private citizen, advocated and recommended religious observance and practice as a means of inculcating public order and civic virtue, they were also smart enough to know that attempting to write such a recommendation into the statute books as "hard coded" law would entail results analogous to (a)-(d) above. That is why references to God are almost totally absent from George Washington's public utterances, even when purely ceremonial, and are even extremely sparse in his private papers -- and this despite President Washington's membership in the vestry of Falls Church Episcopal Church.  Indeed, the history of Europe in the 2 centuries prior to the Founding leads one to conclude that, if you want a sterling example of the nature and consequences of incest, forget Cersie and Jamie Lannister and look instead at the imperial incest between the States of Europe and the Church prior to the Enlightenment.

As Qoheleth says along toward the end of the Book of Ecclesiastes "Let us hear the conclusion of the matter" (KJV).  The White Walkers who see a "war on Christmas" embodied in every school board's insistence on non-sectarian prayer and religion-neutral celebration are about as objective as judges of the constitutional propriety of religious observance as is Stannis Baratheon of who should sit the Iron Throne. Or the late Robb Stark.  Or Daenerys "Stormborn" Targaryeon.  Or ... etc. Looking on the bright, "glass-half-full" side, we can hope that someday Westeros will evolve toward something like a republican government or a parliamentary  monarchy founded on a constitution that permits a peaceful transfer of power, secular government, and religious tolerance. There might even be a thaw -- so to speak -- in relations with the White Walkers north of the Wall, or at least a condition of 1970s-style detente.  We might someday even envision a universal health-insurance system called DaenerysCare ...

... for, you see, my money is on the young blonde lady with the 3 dragons ... so ... Valar dohaeris!

Happy Holidays -- yes, that includes Christmas! -- to all!

James R. Cowles

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