Columns » Ernest Dumas

Theocracy redux

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State Rep. Buddy Blair of Fort Smith, who must be identified right now as a Methodist layman so as to give him cover, is alarmed that the legislature is becoming the state’s ecclesiastical police. “It’s a scary thing,” Blair told the Arkansas News Bureau last week. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it.” He was talking about the religious overtones to what seemed like every debate in the House of Representatives and the proliferation of bills aimed at enforcing a conformity based on church doctrines. So he has introduced a resolution that would have the Senate and House proclaim their adherence to the separation of church and state. It would be reassuring if the legislature acknowledged that secular government, which is what the Founding Fathers created and what the Bush administration hopes Iraq will embrace, is still official policy in Arkansas. Although it is not binding, the resolution is too controversial to pass in this legislature. Blair may not have the votes to get it out of committee. Lots of legislators don’t want to vote on it because a vote for it would not go over well with many congregations back home. The legislature has seemed inordinately consumed by religious wars. The House passed a bill requiring that every school book conform to the biblical references to marriage as the union of a man and a woman, all because a Republican judge in Massachusetts wrote that under that state’s constitution gays and lesbians could not be denied the freedom that others enjoyed. As it does every session nowadays, the legislature has found another way to punish an underage girl who has sex outside wedlock. She will have to go before a notary public to witness her parents giving their consent to an abortion. Legislation in 2007 will require women to publish their pregnancy and intention to get an abortion in a newspaper of general circulation. Needy orphans cannot be reared even for a day by same-sex couples under another bill the House passed, the apostle Paul having implied that it would be a sin. The same fundamentalist Republicans are pushing another old form of religious intolerance by trying to wean undocumented foreigners who come here to work and their children from any form of government help, including prenatal care. Court decisions headed off efforts again this year to discourage the teaching of evolution in the schools rather than the biblical account of human origins. Rep. Blair sees the state headed down a dangerous new path. He was in the legislature for a good span starting a quarter-century ago and he’s seen nothing like it. When historians write about this spell, tolerance and understanding will not be the terms that describe us, but we really have been through this before. After World War I, social change rushed along too fast for Arkansas and the rest of the South. Flappers in their skimpy skirts, evolution, gambling, prostitution, science, labor unions, foreign-born folks with strange religions like Catholicism — it was all too much. The Ku Klux Klan was reborn and became the enforcer of traditional family values. The old Klan hated blacks, Jews and immigrants, but the revitalized Klan had a bigger mission, enforcing Christian morality. Reputed wife-beaters were dragged out at night and beaten. Union leaders, adulterers, bootleggers and other public sinners had to beware the evil eye. Everyone seemed to join the KKK, which was an auxiliary to the church. Preachers often were the leaders. The Klan became so powerful by 1924 that its support was deemed essential to get elected. The Klan-endorsed candidate for governor, Lee Cazort, put out the word and no klavern in Arkansas would give poor Tom Terral a membership. Terral drove to Louisiana and joined a klavern so he could claim to be a Klansman. Confused voters elected him governor, for one term. Morals enforcement filled the legislative hoppers and the chambers thundered with religious debates. Michael Dougan’s “Arkansas Odyssey” records that club women tried to get an all-encompassing morals bill enacted. Much of the monkey business was stymied, just as much of it will be this year, but the legislature passed laws ordering daily Bible reading in the schools and investing portions of the King James Version with the majesty of law. Legislators debated evolution and religion much of the decade but to their credit they would not enact a bill forbidding the teaching of evolution in schools and universities. Methodists and Baptists put it on the ballot as an initiative in 1928 and it became law until the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down in 1968. Former Gov. Charles H. Brough, who was president of Central Baptist College at Conway, was almost expelled from the church and run out of the state in 1928 when he made a speech for Al Smith, the Roman Catholic presidential candidate. It did not help Gov. Brough that he was unsound on evolution and open communion. At the onset of the Depression, the legislature again turned its attention exclusively to temporal matters, and hungry Baptists and Methodists did not seem to mind. That is one way out of the present frenzy.

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