Election Section

UnderCurrents: Tracking Down the Rats of America’s Intolerance

Friday May 28, 2004

The exterminator receives a call to return to the scene of recent work. Upon arrival, he is confronted by the angry customer. 

“I thought you said that once you killed the rats, they ain’t coming back,” the woman scolds him. 

“That’s true, ma’am,” he answers. 

“Then what’s that I keep hearing?” she asks, pointed an accusing finger at the baseboard. 

He listens for a moment, intently, to the sound of furtive scurrying from behind the walls, then rises to confront her, thoughtfully. “Puppies,” he answers, without blinking. 

Having loudly announced the ridding the premises of the beast, it becomes difficult to explain its continuing presence. 

America was founded on the principle of freedom of religion, we are told, and, thus, religious intolerance does not exist between our shores. And so, in the midst of the Iraqi sinkhole, Americans continue to vehemently deny that which is readily apparent to everyone else. 

The country’s founders never actually declared religious intolerance abolished, of course. Instead, they opted for a level playing field. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” they declared in the first sentence of the Bill of Rights. Under that big tent, they figured, the various denominations could duke it out on equal terms. 

Except, as in Orwell’s Animal Farm, some of the animals were ink-quilled in as more equal than others. In America, the ban on prohibiting the free exercise of religion was gotten around by the convenient artifact of labeling other beliefs as “Not Religion.” 

And so came the Africans to America—in chains—with their religious practices older than Christianity and Judaism combined, beliefs more complicated than those which only recognized a monotheistic god, poles apart from either Abraham’s covenant or redemption through the blood of the Christ. Alarmed that these captives might organize around their various African religions to win their freedom, the slavers and slavemasters set out to attack those religions on all fronts. At times, they used the same familiar battle terms handed down from the old Christian wars against the ancient European pagans. Witchcraft, the German-based term that had devolved by the 1600s into a widely-accepted pejorative, was applied to the distinctly non-German beliefs and practices of the Mende and the Wolofs brought to American shores, in the process becoming as American a tradition as, well, apple pie. The Salem witch trials—from which, after all, comes our modern political term “witch hunt”—began in no small part with the charge that Tituba, an African servant-woman from Barbados (a “witch,” in the formal indictment) had introduced the devil and all his worship to two young Christian girls. To this day, in many circles, African spirit-practitioners still carry the label “witch doctors.” 

In time, as more Africans were kidnapped and brought to America, the elder African religious beliefs grew important enough to make themselves a particular target of denigration. Voodoo, based upon the Ewe and Fon words for spirits and deities of all types, became synonymous with wild, insane practices suitable for all ridicule. “Deceptive or delusive nonsense,” the American Heritage dictionary still carries it as one definition, also describing voodoo as the “animism and magic of slaves from West Africa.” The god of Christianity performs miracles. The practitioners of vodún must, alas, resort to magic. We all know the difference. The use of the term voodoo as an object of ridicule still has applicability in American belief and language, to this day. 

Meanwhile, of course, ridicule of the descendant beliefs of European paganism continues, unabated, down to the present. 

Having thus had long practice against the more ancient African and European pagan beliefs, many Americans find an easy transition to the dissing and dismissing of the more modern Islam. 

In World War II, despite our avowed enmity toward the godless bolsheviki of the Soviet Union, America had no trouble drawing distinctions and lining up side by side with Russia in our battle with the Germans, the Italians, and the Japanese. Attacked at Pearl Harbor, we did not send B52s over Moscow. 

But somehow, in a fit of collective confusion following Sept. 11, 2001, America ended up invading the nation of Iraq. We have since more or less come to our senses, and the majority of Americans look upon the earlier Bush administration assertions—Hussein was in close cooperation with Al Qaeda, and helped (in some way) in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks—as both self-serving and more than a little shabby. Still, it raises the question, why was America so willing to send our troops to make war on such shaky grounds? 

There were winks and hints all along, of course. On Sept. 16, 2001, less than a week after the terrorist attacks, President Bush pronounced terrorism “a new kind of evil. … And the American people are beginning to understand. This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while.” The use of the term “crusade”—a reminder of the late Christian wars to take the Holy Land “back” from the Muslims—was later withdrawn by Bush aides and treated as an unfortunate error. The president is prone to errors, true, but generally in the direction of obfuscation, rarely towards clarity. This reference more looks like a designed notice to the radical Christian right as to where we were going, and why. Gird your loins, boys and girls. We’re marching on Jerusalem, again. The beachhead will be Baghdad. 

Last year Lt. General Jerry Boykin, the deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, a veteran of the Somalia campaign and one of the men charged with leading the pursuit of Osama Bin Laden, was more clear, quoted at various times as saying that Islamic terrorists hate Americans “because we’re a Christian nation, because our foundation and our roots are Judeo-Christian ... and the enemy is a guy named Satan. … We in the army of God, in the house of God, kingdom of god have been raised for such a time as this.” Talking about what gave him confidence in a battle with a Somalian Muslim commander, Boykin explained, “I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real god and his was an idol.” 

The general’s words, from all I can gather, have never been retracted, or officially repudiated. 

It does not even take a good ear to hear the sound of scratching feet, scurrying around in our collective closet. The rats of our religious intolerance remain.