Sects, Lies and Videotape

Party animals, both Democratic and Republican, are freaked out by the campaign of 2016. Their parities seem to be fragmenting with the most popular candidates – Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump – far from the traditional mainstream.

Get a grip! This is the American way. Parties evolve constantly. Since World War II there have been Taft Republicans, to whom Eisenhower was a suspect character, McCarthy witch hunt Republicans, Rockefeller Republicans, Goldwater Republicans, libertarian Republicans, hawkish neocon Republicans.

Democrats? Same story. New Deal Democrats, Great Society Democrats, McGovern Democrats, Clintonian, DLC Democrats and so forth. Politics is not just about power or even philosophy but about a belief system, a faith. This has a long pedigree.

In James Shapiros’s “1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare,” he discusses the Elizabethan situation where Protestants and Catholics were far from reconciled. The day Elizabeth became Queen was celebrated as Accession Day each Nov. 17th. But followers of the old religion and some dissenting Protestants regarded this as sacrilege or idolatry. Holidays were supposed to be Holy Days. Treating the queen as if a saint was anathema.

Much of the grim 17th century, which included a regicide in England, was given over to sectarian battles between Protestant and Catholic factions in which some three to eleven million lives were lost. But who was counting? On a lesser scale these antagonisms were imported to the New World. Pennsylvania was a Quaker colony, Massachusetts a Puritan stronghold, Cavalier Virginia hewed to the Church of England line, while Maryland was Catholic.

In my family’s genealogy, Quakers had to flee New England where members of their sect were disallowed and in extreme cases were executed. Others in Virginia were also officially unwelcome and slipped across the border to North Carolina where they could practice their faith unmolested.

Seventh Day Baptists and members of other dissenting sects in New Hampshire and Connecticut chose to move when the New England Puritan regime became oppressive. They decamped to New Jersey which was hungry for settlers and attracted them by offering free land and promising the free practice of one’s religion – a notion enshrined a hundred years later in the Bill of Rights.

We no longer have Quaker states and Puritan states and Catholic states, but we have red states and blue states. We have evangelical voters and liberals who are evangels for their own beliefs.

In a country that made room for Muslims and Jews and an array of fissioning homebrew sects including Mormons and Christian Scientists, it’s hardly surprising that our other belief systems – democracy and capitalism for instance — are anything but static. Believers in their old time political religion –- right or left — are as horrified by innovations as some Catholics were by Vatican II.

But reinvention is the American norm. The party of Lincoln long ago embraced views that would have made Lincoln retch. Much in the party of FDR and Truman would seem bizarre to those gentlemen.

Sanders and Trump may strike many of us as little better than the political equivalent of televangelists offering salvation on the cheap, and an order of snake oil on the side, but what’s new? Hamilton, Adams and Jefferson were political and philosophical antagonists but would all have probably agreed that Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson or Richard Nixon were the spawn of an alien, Un-American devil.

Today, we all find ourselves like the Elizabethans, as Shapiro describes them, on the eve of the great queen’s death,”in the bewildering space between familiar past and murky future.”

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