Colonial Baptists, over some 150 years of bloodied backs and prison time, played an instrumental role in establishing America as the world's first nation that, through governing structures, placed primary emphasis upon human rights, freedoms and welfare. To be certain, the ideals of our nation's founding fathers - in no small part inspired by Baptists' insistence upon full religious liberty and separation of church and state - are yet being worked out in the realm of reality: slavery was legal until the 1860s, racial discrimination was legal until the 1960s, gender discrimination was long a part of our nation's history, and to this very day the anti-American spirit of inequality remains embedded within the hearts, minds and souls of many Americans.
Much of American history has revolved around a narrative of individuals who were (and are) far more concerned with their own well-being than that of their fellow Americans. This pattern began in the colonial era, when established state churches (theocracies) respected only those who were of their particular religious faith. For this reason the heretical, liberal, radical Baptists were beaten, whipped, jailed and suffered many other persecutions at the hands of theocratic colonial governments. That Baptists emerged triumphant in the Revolutionary era is a testimony to their perseverance and their unselfish commitment to the championing of equal rights for all persons: their victory in securing America's founding as a secular nation committed to religious liberty for all and separation of church and state was a victory for all Americans. The colonial theocracies lost their power and control, and state churches could no longer use government to force religious compliance, as the United States Constitution created a nation of citizens with legal equal rights and privileges (with the exception of blacks and women, admittedly, for many years).
And yet ... in addition to, and alongside of, racial and gender issues, the colonial-era legacy of power and privilege that refuses to recognize the equality of citizens remains embedded within America.
The opening years of the 20th century witnessed the ascent of corporations to the seats of power and privilege formally occupied by colonial theocrats. By the 1930s, corporate leaders, playing to fears stoked by the Great Depression, convinced many American citizens that any government policies designed to further the "general welfare" of the citizenry as stated by the U.S. Constitution, were in reality attempts to turn America into a socialist or communist nation. This perverse misuse of the Constitution, spearheaded and stoked by corporate interests and fanned into flames by many (primarily) majority white citizens (including many conservative Protestant Christians) who feared immigrants and (later) opposed equal rights for blacks, in the ensuing decades erupted into full blown rage. Opposition (often violent) to Social Security (1935), minimum wage laws (1938), the Civil Rights Act (1964), and Medicare (1965) - all of which were enacted to further the general welfare and equality of all American citizens - was led (to varying degrees) by a combination of corporate interests and white religious indignation claiming (in each instance) that the legislation was either socialist or communist (or both).
While corporate America (increasingly aligned with white conservative Protestants) proved unable to prevent the enactment of the four landmark social legislation achievements noted above, by playing upon the fears of majority whites, corporations further consolidated power and control over America under the guise of free markets (with unfettered free markets held forth as the righteous alternative to godless socialism and communism). By the early 1970s, ongoing fear-fueled fallout from three decades of social legislation reached a tipping point as unfettered free market ideology gained enough influence and power within the national political sphere and on main street to nudge government toward redistribution of the nation's wealth to the rich. And by 1980, the final marriage of corporation, white conservative Protestantism, and federal government was consummated: Ronald Reagan served in the U.S. presidency and enacted policies further transferring the nation's wealth to the rich, while Jerry Falwell formally aligned the nation's white conservative Protestants with the morality-cloaked economic agenda of Reagan Republicans (in the 1960s, Falwell had opposed civil rights as a communist agenda; now he led the rising Religious Right to oppose the "communist" agenda of Democrats and religious liberals).
For the next three decades, corporate America ruled virtually unchecked, served by government. The era of far-reaching social legislation came to an end; government's championing of the "general welfare" of the citizenry was mothballed. White conservative Christians (many increasingly voicing theocratic overtones), having been convinced of the godliness of unfettered free markets, cheered as their money was redistributed to the wealthy, convinced that their Republican allies would reward them by enacting their religious agendas into federal law. The alliance of corporation, religion and government received an additional boost when in 1996 Republican strategist Roger Ailes formed the Fox News Channel to assist in the furtherance of the Corporate/Republican/Religious Right agenda.
Under Republicans, the first decade of the 21st century witnessed an even greater acceleration of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. By 2004, the richest Americans were taxed at a federal rate well less than half of that of 1970, while the remaining population was stuck with a higher federal tax rate than in 1970. By 2007, the 400 richest Americans owned more wealth than 1/2 of the entire United States population (that is, the 150,000,000 least wealthy Americans). And at present, the United States is now the equivalent of a third-world nation in terms of the disparity between rich and poor.
And then along came Barack Obama, America's first black president, in 2009.
Immediately angry white Americans formed the "Tea Party" movement. Suddenly indignant over deficit spending (the trademark of Republican administrations from Reagan forward, and especially under George W. Bush) and tax increases (never mind that Reagan enacted the largest peacetime tax increase in American history), and claiming that Obama was a socialist and a communist - and Hitler reincarnate - and would ruin America through health care reform, the Tea Party movement set out to drive Obama out of office. The racist nature inherent within much of the white Tea Party movement is readily evident: they resort to the same arguments antebellum southern whites used in defending slavery (states rights and freedom only for themselves and like-minded persons) and they repeatedly put white supremacists front-and-center stage in their rallies (both local and national).
Now, with the passage of health care reform (a goal sought by U.S. presidents since Teddy Roosevelt), the hatred of large-scale government actions on behalf of the general welfare of the citizenry - a hatred with colonial precedent in the persecution of religious heretics such as Baptists, its antebellum expression rooted in defense of slavery, and 20th century expressions driven by corporately and religiously-stoked fears of socialism and communism - has again erupted full-scale.
Specifically, Tea Partiers and allied Republicans, serving America's corporate interests, are frenzied with rage (also see here and here) against extending health care access to all Americans, a rage that has also revitalized the Religious Right in the post-George W. Bush era. At least one Southern Baptist pastor is calling upon God to kill all the Democrat lawmakers in Congress, while another insists that in offering health care access to all Americans, the United States has become equivalent to “Nazi Germany, Communist USSR, Communist Cuba, and Iraq under Saddam.” Yet they are only following the lead of Southern Baptist leaders such as ethicist Richard Land, who back in October labeled national health care as Nazism (and continues to rage against health care access), and theologian Albert Mohler who (falsely) claims that health care reform legalizes federal funding of abortions, (falsely) claims that Christ is unconcerned with social reform, and expresses no concern for the tens of thousands of deaths and millions of ruined lives each year that result from America's current system of corporately-controlled, rationed health care.
In short, it has been a long, sordid journey to the present day where many white American Christians (including some national Southern Baptist leaders), now long married to unfettered capitalism and the extreme wing of the Republican Party and politically selfish-minded, are spewing anti-American hatred, venom and lies in their rage against health care access for all Americans.
Yet I am hopeful that David Leonhardt is right in his contention that putting an end to corporately-controlled rationed health care marks the beginning of pulling America out of its descent into third-world wealth-gap status, by reversing decades of economic stagnation and wealth redistribution to the rich, and refocusing government to serving the general welfare of all Americans.
And I want to believe that today's Baptists (in particular) who are at the moment so enraged that America once again is ready to serve all her citizens, will in a future cooler moment reflect upon their own faith heritage of championing equal rights for all, and recognize that selfish individualism is a barrier to America's greatness.