Religion and Crime Policies


Randall G. Shelden


As everyone should know by now, Pat Robertson has reached a new low with his comments favoring assassinating Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.  Yes, you read this correctly.  As noted on (“Robertson: U.S. should ‘take out’ Venezuela's Chavez). Robertson claims that Chavez is determined to export communism and Islamic extremism to America’s shores.  Robertson asserts that if Chavez “thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war.”  Isn’t calling for someone’s murder a crime? In fact, it is a federal crime to kill or attempt to kill a foreign official, official guest, or internationally protected person and also to “knowingly and willingly threaten” to commit the above crime.   

            What does this have to do with relation and crime policies?  Well, for starters one of the foundations of the first legal system in this country was based upon the interpretations of the Bible by religious fanatics known as the Puritans. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Governor John Winthrop expressed a desire to build “a City upon a Hill,” meaning a society that would serve as “an example of godliness to the world.”  Under the Puritan society of New England, in fact, “Puritanism” viewed the state as legitimate “because it was a government confirming to what God had decreed.”  The Puritans in fact viewed themselves “as being chosen by God to represent Him on earth.”  More importantly, however, they viewed their leaders “as being ordained by God” and both the governor and the magistrates “were granted power through devine authority.” Not surprisingly, many laws were taken almost literally from the Bible, including those prohibiting idolatry, blasphemy, bestiality, sodomy, and adultery, all of which were punishable by death.  Even after the American Revolution, which stressed a separation of church and state, many religiously based laws remained on the books, some of which were known as “Sunday Laws” and “Blue Laws.” Some of your most punitive people are also very religious and they have substituted legal punishment for punishment by God. 

In fact, one could argue that orthodox religions are inherently punitive.  This argument has been persuasively made by Helen Ellerbe in her book The Dark Side of Christian History.  She argues that “orthodox Christianity is embedded in the belief in a singular, solely masculine, authoritarian God who demands unquestioning obedience and who mercilessly punishes dissent.” Those who adhere to this belief also believe that “fear is essential to sustain” a “divinely ordained hierarchical order in which a celestial God reigns singularly at a pinnacle.”

With the fall of the Roman Empire the Church took control and in the process instituted what amounted to a reign of terror by introducing the Crusades and the Inquisition.  The Protestant Reformation commenced to terrify people “with threats of the devil and witchcraft” while promoting the idea of one God, separate from earth and in complete control.  Orthodox Christians believed that “fear and submission to hierarchical authority were imperative,” and such a belief saw God as in control “from the pinnacle of a hierarchy based not upon love and support, but upon fear.”  Biblical quotes back up such a belief system, with statements like: “Fear God, and keep His commandments: for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13) and “Fear Him, which after He hath killed hath power to case into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear Him” ( Luke 12:5.). More importantly, perhaps, is that they believe people should also “fear their earthly ruler as they fear God.” Mere mortals could only learn about the teachings of Christ from those few who had supposedly witnessed his resurrection, namely the Apostles, or men who were appointed as their successors. “This confined power and authority to a small few and established a specific chain of command,” writes Elerbe. It is eerie to think that in the early years of the 21st century we have a U.S. President who was “elected” with the strong support of fundamentalist Christians and who himself has said on many occasions that he takes his orders from God.

Are we returning to the Puritan days?  This may not be too farfetched. Another story, appearing on the same day as Robertson’s, is titled “Grooming Politicians for Christ” (Los Angeles Times, August 23, 2005).  At regular Monday meetings on Capitol Hill, they are taught by super-religious college professors and members of Congress to “mine the Bible for ancient wisdom on modern policy debates about tax rates, foreign aid, education, cloning and the Central American Free Trade Agreement.” It is here that “students learn that serving country means first and always serving Christ.” One of the opening prayers goes like this: “Holy Father, we thank you for providing us with guidance. Thank you, Lord, for these students. Build them up as your warriors and your ambassadors on Capitol Hill.”  The story notes that this puts these students “at the vanguard of a bold effort by evangelical conservatives to mold a new generation of leaders who will answer not to voters, but to God.”  The seminars are sponsored by an organization called the Statesmanship Institute, led by the Rev. D. James Kennedy (an estimated 3.5 million).  Kennedy is quoted saying that “If we leave it to man to decide what's good and evil, there will be chaos.”

It is interesting to note that private groups all allowed “to hold events in the Capitol as long as they are noncommercial, nonpolitical and do not discriminate based on race, creed, color or national origin.” The irony is that no one seems to be batting an eye that tax dollars are paying for what amounts to religious indoctrination. 

Myal Greene, deputy press secretary for a Republican congressman from Florida (the Times story does not give his name), has learned a great deal by attending these seminars.  He learned, for instance, that many of the earliest schools in the country were run by ministers. After that revelation, he now vows to fight “for history lessons on the Founding Fathers’ faith, science lessons drawn from the Book of Genesis and public school prayer.” A fact that Green curiously omits to mention is that the majority of the Founding Fathers were called “Deists” (belief that God created the earth but has no role in its everyday functioning, a sort of “absentee landlord”) and ministers in those days called them atheists (Ben Franklin was a self-admitted atheist).

One lecture was given by bioethicist Nigel Cameron, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, who believes that “federal law should be based on biblical precepts.” Some of these religious fanatics are serious about this.  For instance, there’s movement in South Carolina by a small group that hopes to establish a “Scriptures-based government one city and county at a time,” according to a story in the Los Angeles Times.  These people are part of a “Christian Exodus” which aims to “take control of sheriff's offices, city councils and school boards. Eventually, they say, they will control South Carolina. They will pass godly legislation, defying Supreme Court rulings on the separation of church and state.”

Puritan New England has risen again.


© 2005, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.