Most people know of the Salem Witch Trials that shook the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and led to the execution of 20 people, and the imprisonment of some 200 more. What you probably don’t know is that witch hunts are not merely a thing of the past, they are going on right now. Where? In Africa? In the Deep South? Try Long Island.
According to Newsday, a woman was fired from her job because, and I quote: “Her fingernails, makeup and clothing apparently made her look like a witch in the eyes of the principal at the Hampton Bays school where she taught reading.” The article then goes on to say that “Albano began removing books from her classroom, such as Shakespeare’s plays and the Goosebumps series, which Berrios claims he disliked because they involve goblins, soothsayers and ghosts. Berrios said the paranormal went against Albano’s born-again Christian beliefs.” That’s right, a principal removed Shakespeare and children’s books because they violated his born-again fundamentalist beliefs.
While, thankfully, no one was hurt or killed in our modern-day take on the Good Old Days of Christian oppression, this does illustrate a crucial point of similarity between the two incidents, more than 300 years apart. Both times, the accusers were members of a fringe religious group that thrived on totalitarian control and the ruthless oppression of those who oppose them (If you want the full story, look no further (yes, I wrote that, a long time ago. No, it’s not really “brief” but it’s shorter than all the other histories of the Religious Right, which are book-length). If you want the short version, read on).
The Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony were hardly the poor persecuted souls we know from our history textbooks. In fact, 13 years after the founding of the colony, the Puritan Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads overthrew and executed the King of England, and established what essentially was a military dictatorship. What was Puritan society like? Well, they don’t call them “puritans” for nothing.
The Puritans were postmillenialists- that is, they believed that if they established a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, a perfect land, then they can inaugurate the Millenium, the thousand-year reign of Christ, followed by the Second Coming, and the Judgment Day. Thus, they tried to create what they saw as a utopia- and ruthlessly crushed all those who opposed them. They banned theater, games of chance, and all morality was governed by the Church (if you want to see what Puritan society was like, read Hawthorne’s (absolutely horrible) The Scarlet Letter, which, by the way, has an unintended side effect of making the reader suffer along with the heroine, thus giving it even more authenticity). Members of non-Puritan Christian groups, who came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony to escape religious persecution found themselves persecuted worse than they have been in England, often being imprisoned and executed. The colonies of Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and New Hampshire were founded by people fleeing religious oppression of the Puritans. And, of course, they killed witches. In fact, the first execution ever held in the Massachusetts Bay Colony was that of Margaret Jones, an accused witch.
The Puritans declined in influence, and were largely out of power by the mid 1700-s. However, their legacy lived on. One of the most popular misconceptions about the Christian Right, is that it represents the “original” or “true” Christianity. In fact, it is only around 150 years old.
In the second half of the 19th century, America experienced a phenomenon known as the Great Revival. As traditional society met with the forces of modernity, and the beginning stages of industrialization, a strong anti-modernist reaction was the result. Two things in particular aroused their ire- the theory of Evolution, published by Charles Darwin in 1858, and the beginning of the attempts to analyze the Bible from a historical perspective. A man named Dwight Moody, who believed that such vile things could mean only that the world would end soon, developed the theological theory known as premillenianism- that the world has become sinful, and thus the faithful Christians must prepare themselves for the End Days. There will not be a Millenium, achieved by human means; only the Second Coming would achieve that. Before that, all the Christians would be taken bodily into heaven, an event known as the Rapture, whereas all the rest will have to suffer incredible hardships under the Antichrist (read the hugely popular, but very badly written Left Behind series, if you want to learn more). This was a completely new and revolutionary development. It meant that Christians no longer needed to try to make the world better, only to try to convert as many people as possible, to be saved at the last day.
Christian Fundamentalism is not an isolated phenomenon. Similar developments were taking place in both Judaism and Islam. The latter, known as the Salafism (salaffiyah), Wahhabism, or, as “radical Islam” also was created in the mid 19th century. However, neither movement gained real prominence until the 1920s. After the Russian Revolution and the first Red Scare, the national consciousness was rallied against “godlessness,” and the Fundamentalist movement made significant inroads amongst the American public (around the same time, in the Middle East, an Arab tribal leader named Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud made an unholy alliance with the Wahhabist clerics of Mecca and united the people of the Arabian peninsula, thus creating the center of love and tolerance known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia).
The Fundamentalist movement continued to grow in strength during the second Red Scare of the 1950s, growing in power and prominence with every Republican administration. Today, they comprise 55% of all Americans. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is very, very, scary.
Note: I assume that you’re all familiar with the practices of the Religious Right. If not, drop me a comment, and I’ll tell you (or, simply click here).