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Gender and Religion in America
The foundation of our society is in peril without both intellectual diversity and centralized pluralism.
When the founders of the United States crafted the Constitution and its early amendments, they sought to balance civil rights, state privileges, and federalism. They designed a reciprocal set of contributions between individuals, groups, and the government in which checks and balances hampered authoritarian overreach, and progress was possible. This document seeks to clarify the conditions that led to the American architecture of rights and responsibilities, with special attention paid to religion and gender. The stakes of the modern predicament include the scientific mindset that led to our nation’s best accomplishments. By exploring this past, I hope to uncover a sliver of how the modern age fits into our history, and what must happen to preserve our nation’s virtues.
In the 1400s, the advent of the Printing Press shook society to its core. No longer could elites gatekeep information from the masses by writing in near-dead languages. In the new frontier that formed, anyone’s ideas could spread far and wide. The Printing Press facilitated the fracturing of belief systems, marking the beginning of an age of intellectual liberation. However, this newfound freedom was not without consequences. The Catholic crackdown included Bloody Queen Mary's reign, during which she burned Protestant heretics at the stake, as well as the Spanish Inquisition.
The switch to Anglican Britain did not result in more open-minded policies for people of outside faiths. Under duress, a hodgepodge of British migrants fled to the American colonies, forming settlements with like-minded people. Consequently, geographic location became strongly linked to belief systems, with Puritans congregating in New England, and Anglicans dominating Virginia. Multidenominational areas, such as South Carolina or Pennsylvania, struggled to balance a wide range of views but often grew uniquely richer for encouraging the competition of ideas. At the time, free-thinking was often affiliated with Quakers or Baptists, groups more open to finding ways for people from different walks of life to get along.
Roger Williams established the Providence Plantations in what would become Rhode Island, and James Madison represented Virginia’s largely Baptist Orange Country District in the House of Representatives. Williams and Madison would prove crucial allies to Thomas Jefferson, helping him to craft and push through his Statute of Religious Freedom, an accomplishment he requested to be put on his gravestone.
The different regions eventually congealed into the early United States, and the need for real leadership resulted in the advent of the Constitution, Congress, the Presidency, and the Presidential cabinet. This foundation would stand for centuries. Franklin Roosevelt coined the term “brain trust” to describe how each advisor was meant to contribute their own predilections, beliefs, and place of origin to form a larger leadership "brain" that balanced them. Rather than letting one impulse control everything, Roosevelt sought to give each representative a voice and prevent any institutional pedestal from vaulting one state (of mind) over another. While Roosevelt faced his own Constitutional troubles, the idea of pooling influences into a leadership brain with checks and balances is in the spirit of the Constitution, and in particular, the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Church and State
Initially, it was not unusual for American towns to incorporate religious values into their moral fabric. If you didn’t like it, you could leave and make your own place, or seek out a place that fit your beliefs better. This wasn’t possible for everyone, but it was more plausible than in countries with a state religion. Separation of church and state, to the degree that it was achieved, was more about having a multiplicity of moral frameworks coexisting rather than one centralized value system (or none). Despite this diversity of beliefs, there was an underlying value that united them all—the notion that each belief system, even atheism, was worthy of a place, even if that place ought to be far from you.
Thomas Jefferson, in his interpretation of the establishment clause of the Constitution, emphasized the importance of separation of church and state:
I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.
Some people believe the term ‘separation of church and state’ has dubious legal standing, given that not everyone shares Jefferson’s interpretations. Apart from its legal weight, there is a growing debate about whether the principle of separation of church and state is still a shared ideal in contemporary society, and how it should be applied.
Jefferson valued scientific thinking over dogmatic thinking. He believed that individuals had the right to their own opinions and that considering outside perspectives was valuable. However, he thought that decision-makers should act as judges rather than lawyers, impartially evaluating the best version of each side’s arguments. He famously advised:
Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.
Jefferson’s stance was not an attack on the concept of God itself, but rather a rejection of the dogmatism of religious zealots. State-sponsored dogma is not a byproduct of religion, but of the abandonment of reasonable checks and balances.
Religious people can recognize the value of scientific inquiry. Albert Einstein (born to a family of Jews), Isaac Newton (born to Christians), and Charles Darwin (also Christian) inherited some moral intuitions and beliefs from their cultural backgrounds, but they approached mysteries scientifically, often proposing ideas that went against the grain of prevailing norms. They engaged in scientific thinking, challenged orthodoxies, and passionately defended their theories, acting as lawyers for their proposals when necessary. However, they acknowledged that their ideas were provisional and subject to change.
Conversely, secularism is not a guarantee of rationality, as people can still adopt Godless dogmas. The debate over religion and reason continues to this day, with modern thinkers like Richard Dawkins and Jonathan Haidt offering opposing viewpoints.
The formation of an Atheism+ movement, in my mind, shifts the conversation in Haidt’s favor. This movement and its collaborators are stapling social justice dogma to places it has no business, like to atheism, which once encouraged being skeptical of officious orthodoxies. Perhaps worse, these views have infiltrated academia, institutions meant to provide a platform for the unwavering pursuit of truth even when it challenged dogmatic beliefs.
The Great Experiment
In the early days of the Constitution, George Washington referred to it as "the last great experiment for promoting human happiness." Washington's language was that of a scientist. For experiments to be successful, people must be free to explore different ideas, measure successes and failures, and keep an eye out for what works in theory versus practice.
Abraham Lincoln, to his credit, noticed that certain freedoms, while supposedly available, went unexplored. In Lincoln’s address on temperance, he pointed out that a man would never wear his wife’s bonnet to church—not because he was forbidden from doing so, but because of social norms and taboos. Lincoln realized that social enforcement mechanisms can be just as effective at suppressing ideas as laws. He knew that changing laws and hearts was necessary to combat injustice.
Not every portion of the American Experiment has been a success story. The freedom to create moral frameworks and communities has been taken to extremes, as seen in the case of Jim Jones and the Jonestown cult. Jones convinced people to join his flock and made a habit of killing his recruits, famously poisoning a drink called “Flavor-Aid” that he gave to hundreds. (This popularized the expression “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid” for keeping your head under intense but ill-advised peer pressure.) A variety of failed cults and self-styled utopias (which restricted freedoms in pursuit of human perfection) have peppered America's past, such as Zion Valley, the Equality Colony, and Holy City. They rarely had much to show for their efforts.
An alternative track was to treat the American political or economic structure as a civic religion. Politicians act as patron idols, and the two-party system can either be seen as a balancing mechanism or a manifestation of good versus evil, depending on one’s perspective. Capitalism's encouragement of free-wheeling consumerism inspired individualism (not necessarily uniqueness, but rather, going off to do your own thing rather than having family-level resource-pooling and decision-making). Humanism rose in popularity, which prioritized human desires, needs, individualism, and dignity.
Government reliance for goods and services often replaced the need for a stable family unit. This made relatives less close and individuals more inclined to seek community elsewhere. Both major political parties contributed to this trend. Democrats portrayed the nuclear family as an old-fashioned conservative hold-out (Think Hillary Clinton saying it “takes a village to raise a child”), while Republicans endorsed philosophies like “greed is good”, promoting selfishness as a moral obligation. With states becoming similar to each other and losing coherence as a community, families losing power as a unit, and Christianity becoming less popular among Democrats, humanity’s moral intuitions increasingly lacked a social structure to rally around.
These trends set the stage for the next chapter of the American experiment: Identity and the Internet.
Democracy for Women
Civil Rights in the United States were largely grown from the seeds of the Bill of Rights (The First 10 Amendments). The First encourages freedom of religion, press, and assembly.
The first and tenth Amendments protect rights of both individuals and groups (such as assemblies and states) from larger groups, like the federal government. The Declaration of Independence (and 9th Amendment) spell out the goal of a flexible, ever-improvable union. Together, civil rights advocates took this to mean that the Bill of Rights is sacred, and that extra civil rights would develop over time.
Women such as Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Diane Nash are household names in the fight for racial equality. Susan B. Anthony, Simone de Beauvoir, and Sojourner Truth became women’s rights idols. Stormé De Larverie, Beverly Jackson, and Audre Lorde helped make homosexual romance an acceptable path in life.
Some men were compassionate towards the cause, such as President Jimmy Carter, who struggled to balance his faith in his church with his strong sense that women deserved full equality of rights. Jimmy Carter’s administration clarified Title IX requirements by establishing three prongs of compliance by which universities could accommodate female athletes, promising that females would enjoy equal access to opportunities if they so desired.
The last century has been a roller coaster for civil rights, with troughs and crests of progress.
While there have been noteworthy external threats to the United States (it has, on numerous occasions, locked horns with other world powers), the greatest threat to the union could well be from within. What happens when an idea comes into vogue that isn’t just tinkering with the Great Experiment–but actively dislikes the entire enterprise, including its scientific ideals?
Postmodernism is a belief system that encourages looking for power dynamics in almost every interaction, then going to great lengths to rearrange any perceived abuses of power. Postmodernists are often tempted into a kind of presentism and catastrophism—the latest news cycle often dominates discourse. History, if it is even to be broached, is the story about why nothing has ever been fixed. There may be nobility in its goals, especially in reasoned doses. But in practice, postmodernism has clashed with the American experiment, especially when taken to extremes that undermine the American system of checks and balances.
Standpoint Theory, at its worst, gives people permission to have their own truth, independent from anything verifiable. It undermines your duty to scrutinize ideas. This is a dead-end for any experiment, American or otherwise. It’s built into the American structure to have the right to file grievances, to criticize it, and to try to improve it. It’s not built-in to require agreement on grievances, to remove checks and balances, to force people to conform and comply with orthodoxy, and to essentially try to turn everyone into new Puritans.
George Orwell, after becoming intensely frustrated with Marxism (a precursor to postmodernism), described the dystopian Oceania in his novel 1984:
Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.
By misrepresenting the past and present, using concept creep to change the definitions of words like gender, fascism, hate, and female, and valuing power above all else—even truth—postmodernists are in the process of realizing Orwell’s nightmare. This sets the ominous stage for the modern age.
Identity and the Internet
The invention of the printing press enabled an eruption of information that was in ways liberating, fragmenting, reactionary, and tumultuous. It put power in the hands of ordinary people, who could just as easily use it to spread scientific proposals as they could to incite mobs, spread pseudoscience, or establish new orthodoxies. However, with the advent of the internet, particularly social media and smartphones, this explosion has become even more powerful, demanding attention and outpacing our ability to provide historical context or think things through. The publicity of like-counts and comments, combined with an impersonal world of screens and keyboards transformed potentially productive conversations into displays of cold showmanship or fiery rage.
The present world allows individuals to craft online personas. Video-game avatars and social media filters immerse people in fictions of their own design, making it easy to create a warped self-image and a bubble of confirmation bias. Self-image has become a central aspect of identity, and identity-driven groups have crystallized online. A postmodernist lens deconstructs anything hindering the new tribe. Liberalism and a scientific mindset are either twisted to validate this new world order or excised entirely as the chafe of a bygone era.
In an individualized world, families and communities have less connective power, creating an opening for new dogma to conquer. Universities, which claim to be multicultural, engender extreme ideological monocultures and become postmodernist hubs of a social media hive mind. When universities value dogma above all else, they lose their scientific mantle. When they are state-run or state-sponsored, they become a threat to the separation of church and state.
Organizations like the ACLU are asleep at the wheel, and have become laser-focused on an identity-oriented and postmodernist interpretation of civil rights, neglecting their promise to defend our constitutional right to free speech and freedom of religion. Once the voice calling for the coexistence of different factions, the ACLU leadership has inverted its purpose of making sure all Americans can contribute to the national brain trust and now train worker bees of a hive to tell you what to think.
The foundation of our society is in peril without both intellectual diversity and centralized pluralism. We need the option to explore different ways of looking at the world and come back to share our unique contributions, building on differences and valuing underlying truth.
On the New York flag, American coins, and just above the Eagle on the one dollar bill, you can find the phrase "E Pluribus Unum" which translates to "Out of many, one." The word "many" refers to both individuals and groups. In order to achieve both intellectual diversity and unity, individuals should have the freedom to explore their own paths, like scouts, but ultimately return and share their experiences in a productive manner, contributing to the community as unique individuals. By embracing differences, including differing opinions, valuing underlying truths, and learning from the stories of our mothers and fathers, we can balance a life of science-like discovery with the wisdom our ancestors saw fit to revere.