My faith is in freedom
By Lady Liberty
A short story I recently read put a good deal of its focus on some incidents occurring as a direct result of the Inquisition. In the story, a woman was taken into custody and tortured until she confessed to consorting with the devil. Shortly before she died, her tormentors "mercifully" forgave her. Her accuser was a jilted suitor who had no evidence for the inquisitors other than his righteous indignation. The man she truly loved arrived too late to save her; he became her avenger, and he wreaked widespread havoc to ensure her killers paid for her death.
In more recent years, Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany was castigated and vilified for torture it called "medical experiments" and "work camps." Millions died thanks to him and his cruel minions. During the course of the war, though, they remained convinced that what they were doing was righteous and for a "higher" cause.
In the case of individual fates, there may be little difference between the Inquisition and the Holocaust. People were tortured; people ended up dead. Virtually all of them were innocent.
In Hitler's Germany, people were all too often tortured and killed for what was merely an "accident" of birth. If you weren't Jewish (or a Gypsy, a homosexual, or mentally or physically handicapped), you had a reasonable expectation of surviving or even thriving. The Inquisition, though, focused largely on reported unacceptable thoughts of its victims.
It's difficult, of course, to ascertain in the end which was really worse. Hitler's butchers did their dirty work, and no amount of begging, pleading, or confessing would make it stop. The only good news was that if someone were accused of, for example, being Jewish when he wasn't, he had some chance of proving his innocence before the torture or the "disappearing" got underway.
Conversely, when someone was targeted by the Inquisition, there was little the victim could do to definitively prove innocence. When inquisitors conducted their tortures, there was some possibility that a confession might end the agony, so many did just that thus confirming the charges, at least to the self-righteous inquisitors. That "end," of course, was usually death, and sometimes it, too, was tortuous, but at least it did put a stop to the ongoing pain.
In each instance, later generations have condemned their predecessors and rightfully so. There's quite literally no excuse for systemic torture and execution. Neither war nor religious fervor can adequately forgive such things which are inhumane at best, and frankly inhuman all together.
Aside from considerable death tolls (Hitler, of course, outkilled the Inquisition, but a good deal of that has to do with available populations and methods that enabled Hitler to kill hundreds at a time), there's something else these two shameful events have in common: religious persecution. Though Hitler's extermination programs had to do with far more than religion in the end, his initial, tentative forays in that direction stemmed directly from his hatred of Jews. The Inquisition, meanwhile, was utterly intolerant of all but the most fundamental and devout Catholicism.
Other regrettable events in history also had at least some basis in religious persecution. The Spanish conquistadors, for example, brought priests with them and adopted a "convert or die" mentality whenever they discovered indigenous populations (the Aztecs, who declined for the most part the "invitation," were wiped out). The Pilgrims left England for the "new world" because they were tired of being discriminated against on the basis of their religion (they apparently failed to see the irony of it all when, upon their arrival on the shores of what is now Massachusetts, they engaged in some impressive religious discrimination of their own).
It's more than likely that our Founding Fathers took some history into consideration when they crafted the First Amendment which, among other things, says the government is not to interfere with religious worship. It's not to favor any one religion, nor is it to discriminate against any others. While many things under our Constitution are to be decided by votes — whether directly, or indirectly via our political representatives — our religion and the way each of us choose to worship or not isn't one of them.
But now some are either forgetting or choosing to ignore the lessons of history. Though they'd probably not willingly admit that they're working against freedom of religion, that's exactly what they're doing.
Consider those that promote the idea of an "official" government definition of marriage. Many states are considering or have already passed amendments to their state constitutions that prohibit marriage between any but one man and one woman. Congress, though not approving an Amendment to the US Constitution to date, considers doing so on an annual basis. And poll after poll says that the majority of Americans approve.
But consider for a moment what would happen if the federal government approved legislation that prohibited discriminating against same sex couples. Almost everyone would likely stand up and protest — and rightfully so — that the government would dare to interfere with how and to whom churches administer their sacraments. Yet isn't that exactly what they're demanding when they insist on the opposite? They're effectively trying to tell churches that they can't perform gay marriages whether they want to or not. As far as I'm concerned, there's no difference. That more people don't agree with me doesn't bode well for the freedom of religion in America.
Think about the Ten Commandments displays that are so often the object of lawsuits. Most people seem to think that these symbols of Judeo-Christian morality are okay. But must people in this country are Christian. Would they find it less acceptable if morality passages from the Koran were posted? Probably. But then, these same people will point out that this country was founded "on Christian values" and that this is a "Christian nation." Whatever the founders were (and some were, indeed, Christian), they made it clear that the freedom of worship was much too important to individuals to let any kind of majority decision determine the rules.
A soldier from Nevada who died fighting for our country has been subjected to an extraordinary lack of respect for his sacrifice and his beliefs. His tombstone does not bear the symbol of his religion, nor — until recently when the state stepped in — was any symbol engraved next to his name on a display honoring the sacrifices of area soldiers. The soldier was Wiccan, and though the military recognizes Wicca as a religion, the Veteran's Administration does not. There's a symbol, of course, for Christians. There are symbols for Jews, Muslims, and even for atheists. But none for this young man whose faith was just as important to him, and certainly whose sacrifice was just as noble.
Religious issues aren't the only First Amendment right that's under threat, though, and some are even more worrisome. The freedom of the press is under attack with government officials demanding confidential sources, and when various agencies and officials withhold ostensibly information (or deliberately make it difficult to access). The integrity of the media, already under question thanks to both real and perceived political biases, has been further undermined by the discovery that some news sources have been paid and others manipulated into telling certain stories in a certain way (most in connection with the ongoing war in Iraq, but everything from stories on exploding vehicle gas tanks to the "inside scoop" on royalty to the "grave dangers" of assault rifles were proved later to be exaggerated or all out falsified).
Since most of us aren't reporters, this may not sound so bad. But where do most of us get our news and information? From precisely those same unreliable reports written by those same unreliable or unethical or stymied reporters. Propaganda need not be directly written and produced as propaganda. It can, instead, be mere withholding of some facts or added emphases on others that adds up to swaying audiences in pre-determined direction. And certainly withholding enough facts to quash a story all together can't be good for our collective knowledge of what's going on in government!
But of all of these admittedly bad signs, the one that's got me worried the most hearkens back to the Inquisition and the ideas that some thoughts and opinions might not be acceptable. We've already seen the Bush administration keep protesters away from political conventions (relegating them to areas fenced with razor wire in Boston was particularly graphic, but the unwarranted arrests of thousands — only 3 or 4 individuals were ever charged — in New York was at least as bad). We know that officials keep critics out of the President's sight when he travels for speaking engagements. And only recently Vice President Dick Cheney actually said on national television that people who criticized the administration's war efforts are a danger.
When opinions alone become something the government doesn't care to hear — or care to have us express — it's time to be especially vigilant. I don't doubt that the government is monitoring my phone calls, reading my e-mails, and taking a look at my columns every week (no, I don't think I'm that special; I think all of our phone calls, e-mails, and Internet publications are being monitored by computer programs if nothing else), and I have no way of knowing when some particular combination of words or phrases might strike somebody the wrong way. The only thing that I know for sure is that if we stop speaking out, or if we make a point of speaking out only when it's politically correct or expedient to do so, we'll have effectively lost the right to do so without any official prohibition at all.
In a day and age when "majority rule" religion is apparently under serious consideration; when the media is all too often manipulated, and is even more often manipulative; and when the expression of opinions, especially those not particularly popular ones, might get a person in trouble, freedom is in serious danger. And though I'm sure any comparison here to the Inquisition is inappropriate and could only be called alarmist at best, well, I'd also like to remind you that our government is currently headed up by a man who is pushing Congress to codify torture as part and parcel of the "tools" Americans can use in the "war on terror."
Perhaps the greatest lesson we could learn from the War on Terror is that our enemies are those who are — you guessed it! — fighting based on religion. They don't like western society because, according to the mores of their religion, it's sinful. In all honesty, it's fine with me if they think it's sinful. What's not fine with me is that they attempt to enforce their morality on those who don't happen to agree (while Christians, outside of a few abortion clinic bombers, aren't blowing things up, I hope they're taking note of what religious extremism and judgment looks like).
What's not fine with me is the idea that religious freedom isn't a real option in the eyes of those who are convinced that they're right and who consider those who disagree as somehow lesser — having lesser importance, lesser goodness, and certainly lesser rights (ring any bells, Judge Roy Moore? Chaplain Klingenschmitt?).
No, we don't live under the grim shadow of such as the Inquisition or the Nazis. In fact, we're nowhere near that point. Yet each of history's horrors had a beginning before it had an end, and each of those beginnings started with reasons that doubtless made a certain amount of sense at the time.
In the here and now, there are already those out and about who are asking that we watch our friends and neighbors for "suspicious" action. There are more than a few who monitor our conversations and who look askance — or who even pursue at opinions with which they disagree. Some who speak or write of possibilities the government would just as soon we not consider are ridiculed; some have claimed (with some apparent justification) to have been targeted for retaliation for such speech by handy-dandy government agencies like the IRS or the BATFE.
The thought police are alive and well, and if that doesn't give you something to think about, then I don't imagine that much will.
Personal Note: I would like to point out that, just as I finished this essay, my computer crashed (I'm using a Mac which very rarely crashes at all). I'm sure it was just a coincidence.
Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at firstname.lastname@example.org.