Sunday, October 31, 2010

Resistance to Civil Government I

One of my former colleagues used to refer to Henry David Thoreau as a “Quaker without a meeting.” In 1846, guided by the “inner light” of his conscience, Thoreau went to jail for refusing to pay his poll tax. However, because he was not an isolated individual but a part of a community, with friends and relatives, someone else paid his tax for him and he was set free after one night behind bars.

Denied this opportunity for heroic martyrdom, Thoreau settled for a lecture and then an essay, “Resistance to Civil Government,” now commonly referred to as “Civil Disobedience,” in which he asserts the authority of individual “conscience” over that of civil government. It is perhaps the most extreme expression of American individualism ever written. In effect it is Thoreau’s individual “Declaration of Independence” from the State and from society. “A Quaker without a meeting.”

However, while Thoreau rejected the “meeting,” he allowed the “meeting” to claim him. He had, in fact, not paid his poll tax for several years, but Sam Staples, the town jailer, did not enforce the law against Thoreau until June of 1846, because he was going to have to pay the tax himself. Thoreau spent one night in jail before someone else paid the tax for him. Similarly, Thoreau lived at home with his mother until he got permission to use Emerson’s property for his Walden experiment, and, during the two years in his cabin, he regularly went home for Sunday dinner and took his dirty laundry with him to be washed. Thus the community, of which Thoreau was a part, drew a circle that included him despite his repeated attempts to draw a circle around himself that left the community out.

The whole episode dramatizes an enduring tension in American life—that between radical individualism, on the one hand, and the inescapable power of human social bonds on the other.

Thoreau refused to pay his tax in order to protest the U.S. War against Mexico, slavery, and the government’s treatment of Indians. His protest was almost entirely symbolic and accomplished little or nothing toward ending those injustices. However, the influence of his essay stretched through history to inspire such protestors as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., both of whom, ironically, led social movements that accomplished much toward ending injustice. Thus, Thoreau’s individual symbolic gesture of protest, which had little immediate effect, went on to contribute toward major social changes in the next century. Again, he could not escape being included in the human community and participating, however indirectly, in social action.

When the Quaker rejects the meeting, the meeting just moves to the Quaker.

Thoreau was not the first to engage in civil disobedience, nor to defend it. In North America, Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams both suffered much more serious consequences for refusing to conform to Puritan orthodoxy. Both were banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony. They went on to found Rhode Island, but Anne Hutchinson was later killed by Indians. And Angelina Grimke in her “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South” had urged her readers to free their slaves and teach them to read, even if it meant breaking slave state laws. Thoreau’s essay, though, is considered the classic statement and made him famous for a relatively paltry act of protest.

It is possible to view Thoreau as a heroic individualist or as a self-indulgent dilettante, a moral prophet or a spoiled child. In any case, his story and his essay both testify as much to the power of community and society as to the power of the isolated individual, as much to the power of the meeting as to that of the Quaker without one.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

"What's God Got to Do With It? Robert Ingersoll on Free Thought, Honest Talk & the Separation of Church & State" edited by Tim Page

Considering the near hostility with which Robert Ingersoll treats religion, it is amazing that he was such a popular and successful travelling orator in the latter half of the 19th century. Considering the role that religion plays in politics today, it is amazing that just over a century ago Ingersoll, not only got away with his attacks on religion, but made a living doing it.

In the debate between science and religion that, either spoken or unspoken, wound its way through post-Civil War America, Ingersoll was unabashedly and unapologetically on the side of science. One way of explaining his success with popular audiences, immersed as they were in traditional Christianity, might be the same as we explain today’s popularity of adulterous, alcoholic, drug-addicted, wife-beating celebrities; reality TV; or shows like Jerry Springer. We are attracted to that which repulses us.

Another, more serious explanation, though, can be found in a study of Ingersoll’s rhetoric. His attack on religion is balanced by an equally strong patriotic fervor for our founding national documents, “The Declaration of Independence” and the U.S. Constitution. However shocked his audiences may have been at his public pronouncements of agnosticism (some would say atheism), they would have identified with his patriotism, his praise for our founding fathers, and his many honorifics on behalf of such founding principles of our nation as individual freedom, pursuit of happiness, and the absence of state religion.

Of these, the separation of church and state was the centerpiece for Ingersoll. Here again, while his audience might have secretly questioned the idea of a godless government, they would have been reassured by Ingersoll’s defense of their freedom to believe and to worship as they chose without interference from that godless government.

In addition, Ingersoll leavened his religious heresy with colorful language, resounding hyperbole, charming humor, and tender sentiment to win over the pious and entertain the faithful.

The harshness of his tone when attacking religion would have been redeemed by the unmistakable joy he took in Christmas (pagan holiday though it may be) and his praise for human love. His provocative persona was softened by the warmth of his humanity.

From my perspective Ingersoll was an advanced thinker for his time but also shallow and na├»ve. His rejection of religion is wholesale. He points out the harm it has caused but fails to acknowledge the good it has done. He praises secularism without recognizing the dangers of materialism. He upholds freedom of speech as an absolute without consideration for the destructive power of lies, slander, deliberate falsehoods, verbal harassment, and the incendiary effect of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded room.

The breadth and sweep of his thought was greater than its depth and complexity. I would respect his work more had he made some effort to reconcile science and religion, not just put them at odds.