Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween, Or Lemuria, Or Samhain

Halloween, or Hallows eve, is the evening before the celebration of All Saints Day in the Catholic Church. Hallow, of course, is an old English word meaning holy or saint, as in the passage from the Lord's Prayer “hallowed be thy name.” All Saints Day, or All Hallows, originated when when Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon at Rome to Saint Mary and all the martyrs of the church on May 13, 609. It set aside that day to remember those who died in faith. The Pope probably chose this date in an attempt to suppress a Roman pagan day of the dead called the Feast of Lemures. In this pre-Christian holiday, Roman citizens cleansed their homes of spirits of lost souls by an offering of beans.

Later Pope Gregory III began a tradition of remembering the faithful dead on November 1. Many decades passed, however, before Europe more uniformly recognized this new date. Interestingly, November 1 fell on the same day as a Celtic day of the dead festival called Samhain. This marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of the Celtic new year. The Irish recognized the day with the burning bonfires, lighting candles in hollowed out turnips, and dressing is disguise to ward off spirits of the dead. Adults and children practiced “guising” by going house to house costumed in disguise offering entertainment in return for food and money.

In North America this tradition continues with the lighting of pumpkins and children “guising” door to door requesting “treats” with the implied threat that a “trick” may follow if the one does not comply with the demand for a treat.

(Now that we are "empty nesters," we no longer participate. After years of providing treats, I now personally prefer to execute the trick. I put out a small card table with a sign informing the “guisers” that I had to go out of town, that on the table I have provided two large bowls of candy, and that they should be honest and only take one piece so everyone can enjoy a treat. Then next to the sign I place a couple of  empty bowls.)

Now some mainline Protestant denominations retain All Saint's Day on their calendar of religious holidays. Other more traditional reformed churches instead recognize Reformation Day. On October 31, 1517 that Martin Luther posted his protests on the door of All Saint's Church in Wittenberg.

Many American fundamentalist and Pentecostal bodies who believe they derive their theology straight from the bible and know next to nothing about church history hold “Harvest Festivals.” Christians kids can avoid the pagan habit of dressing up in costumes and “trick or treating” door to door by, well, dressing up in costumes and “trick or treating” at the church gymnasium.

And then there's those churches who use the season for evangelism by creating their own versions of haunted houses . These houses usually sport the name "Tribulation House" or "Hell House" and  dramatically portray the "Good News" of the great tribulation and damnation. Below is the trailer for one from last year.

So happy halloween! Or Lemuria. Or Samhain.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

And Now, On to Election Day

The third and final Presidential took place Monday night.

A few not especially  insightful observations:

Because the primary topic of the debate was foreign policy, this debate seemed less important. The most important issue in the minds of voters is the economy. And the most important issue Romney accentuates on the campaign trail is the economy. Only the recent tragedy in Libya elevated foreign affairs into the public

Moreover, unless some extremely divisive issue arises overseas (like the war in  Viet Nam  during the 1960s,) most candidates share a general consensus about American security. Candidates tend toward agreement and quarrel over the details.

Consequently, all Romney really had to do was agree, specify some differences in the details, and avoid any egregious errors.

On all three of those grounds, Romney proved a success. ( I write this with some reservations. I wanted a candidate that disagreed with the interventionism and nation building that too many in both parties embrace. But it did lead to Romney's best barb: "we don't dictate to nations; we free nations from dictators."

Of course, winning a debate requires more than just ideas. It also involves organization, presentation, and rhetoric. Obama scored on rhetorical flourish with comments about the "1980s are calling" and "we also have fewer horses and bayonets." This revealed the aggressive stance lacking in the first debate. I was not certain how Romney would handle that kind of pressure. I wondered if he might tackle Obama and cut his hair. Romney remained poised, however, and kept on message. As opportunities presented themselves, he turned the foreign policy debate back to the economy, the topic that concerns most voters.

Obama won the debate in most viewers eyes, but it seemed to be unraveling a bit now that the fact checkers began focusing attention on Obama's comments about "bayonets and horses," sequestration, and the auto bail out.

It may be too late to stop Romney's momentum.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

America's Religious Origins

Americans were from their very beginning a religiously diverse people. Pockets of non-English settlers such as the Swedish Lutherans in the Delaware Valley, Dutch Reformed Christians in the Long Island area, and the Presbyterian Scotch-Irish and western Pennsylvania and the backcountry contributed in varying degrees to the religious mosaic of British North America. More important, however, was the religious diversity among the English people themselves who constituted the first and most numerous of the North American colonists. They reflected the religious diversity of England.

England's religious diversity emerged from the spread of the ideas of the Protestant Reformation and crude power politics.

Like most of Europe, England was a Catholic nation whose rulers enforced the commonly accepted idea of religious uniformity. For reasons of both “truth” and “social order,” the English government enforced conformity to Catholic worship and the annual religious holy days. And, like most of Europe, England also faced the challenge of the Protestant Reformation sparked by Martin Luther and John Calvin. King Henry VIII of England earned an informal title of “Defender of the Faith” for his own writings in opposition to Luther.

Disputes with the Pope over his request for divorce and the question of the extent of the Pope's temporal powers led to the break from Rome. In 1534, Parliament passed an Act of Supremacy declared that Henry Tutor was “the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England.”

After Henry's death in 1547, advisers to his minor heir Edward VI continued the gradual process of creating a new state church. The Act of Uniformity of 1549 replaced the traditional Catholic Latin Missal with the Book of Common Prayer. A second Act of Uniformity in 1552 replaced the original Book of Common Prayer with a revised, more Protestant version.

When Edward died, his Catholic sister Mary inherited the throne. She sought to roll back these changes. Upon her own death, however, the Reformation continued.

Under Elizabeth, I, Parliament enacted an Act of Supremacy (1559) that reinstated the English monarch as head of the Church of England. It also required an oath recognizing that fact from anyone who served in a church or public office. Another Act of Uniformity (1559) set the order to be followed in the Book of Common Prayer and required attendance in church every Sunday under penalty of fines. The Church created the 39 Articles expressing the general doctrines of the Church of England.

Some English remained unhappy with the progress of reformation. The self-styled Church of England retained an episcopal structure and preserved many traditionally Catholic worship practices. Many dissenting groups began forming independently, applying their own version of Protestantism. Some of these, especially Presbyterians and Congregationalist followers of John Calvin's theology, became generally known as Puritans. In addition, groups of General Baptists, Particular Baptists, Quakers, and large numbers of Catholics dissented from the Church of England.

Government persecution of Puritans led to tens of thousands of them to settle in the Massachusetts Bay colony of North America. It also contributed to the outbreak of the English Civil War which resulted in the triumph of the Army loyal to Parliament and dominated by Puritan officers. Puritan officer Oliver Cromwell led a new English commonwealth called the Protectorate. Parliament replaced the Church of England's episcopal structure with a Presbyterian one. They replaced the Church of England 39 Articles of Faith with the Westminster Confession.

The brief period of Puritan rule came to an ignominious end in 1660 with the restoration of the monarchy. After the Restoration, Parliament clamped down on religious dissenters and reestablished the uniformity of the Church of England. It passed several laws that restricted their religious liberties:

The Corporation Act (1661) required that all office holders to take Anglican communion in order to retain their offices. This effectively purged Puritans from public office.

The Act of Uniformity (1662) reestablished the Church of England and required the use of a new Book of Common Prayer.

The Conventicle Act (1664) prohibited private worship meetings of more than five persons who were not part of the same household. It basically abolished dissenting or non-conforming religious churches from meeting.

The Five Mile Act (1665) prohibiting dissenting ministers from living within five miles of any incorporated town or their former congregations.

Only after the Glorious Revolution of 1689 did the government grant toleration to religious dissenters. The Act of Toleration permitted worship by dissenters along as they registered their meeting houses, kept the doors unlocked during worship services, and licensed their ministers through the local justice of the peace. They still remained responsible for payment of tithes to the Church of England parish to which they legally belonged.

English settlers brought the above traditions with them to the New World: religious diversity (and sometimes hostility) accompanied by a belief that governments should enforce religious uniformity. While attempts at religious uniformity were attempted on the local level with varying degrees of success, the early diversity of religious beliefs among the inhabitants of British North America stood as an insurmountable barrier to anyone who envisioned establishing national uniformity in the newly independent United States. This partially contributed to the idea of "separation of church and state."

Thursday, October 18, 2012

America's Constitutional Origins

The last post described English society as a graduated hierarchy ranging from landless laborers at the bottom rising to the monarch at the top. The most fundamental division in the layers of this hierarchy separated the nobles from the commoners. This division was mirrored in the constitutional arrangement of England.

The contemporary understanding of the word constitution, especially in the United States, suggests a written document described the structure and powers of government. Often it is used merely to describe the composition or structure of something, regardless of whether or not that composition is described in any document. Such is the case with England's constitution. England has no written constitution.

It's constitution, or structure of government grew from historical developments going back to to the eleventh century. English kings occasionally assembled a great council of advisers consisting of bishops, earls, and barons. In the thirteenth century, kings began inviting those he deemed the "knights of the shires" to meet with the great council and the monarch to discuss financial matters. In 1341, the nobility began meeting separately from the knights. The former eventually evolved into the House of Lords, Temporal and Spiritual. The latter evolved into the House of Commons.

As is often the case, the "theory" of government followed and justified the historical development of the government. The English saw their government as mirroring or better yet embodying the people. The House of Lords represented the nobility; the House of Commons represented the English people as as whole.

The English also conceived of their constitution as a "mixed regime" that included the three fundamental types of constitutions. Aristotle classified constitutions into three fundamental types: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. English political theorists saw all three of these forms in the English constitution. The king represented monarchy, the House of Lords represented aristocracy, and the House of Commons represented democracy.

When the English colonist set up their provincial governments, they patterned them loosely on the English Parliament. In fact, colonial assembles were often spoken of as "little Parliaments." After independence, the Americans established state governments and a national government under the Constitution of 1787 that preserved the structure of English government but assumed a whole new meaning under American social conditions.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

America's Social Origins

I devoted my last post to Christopher Columbus. Although other Europeans (and maybe some Polynesians) made it to the Americas before him, his voyages led to the European colonization of the “New World.”

The next few posts will look a England on the eve of colonization. The first will survey English society.

Most English saw themselves as a traditional society. They conceived society as an organic whole, perhaps derived from Paul's biblical language comparing the church to a body. As a Christian society, it was seen as possessing the same unity and wholeness as a body.

Unity did not imply uniformity. Society revealed a delicate hierarchy from the highest monarch to the lowest pheasant. Very little movement occurred within this hierarchy. Relations between people in different degrees in the social hierarchy were marked by the concept of deference. The lower orders deferred, or gave way, to those of a higher order, whether this involved a tip of the hat or stepping aside to allow a social superior to pass. It also involved deferring to the leadership of “the better sort.” What began as customs later became law. English law eventually formalized the social hierarchy and enacted laws that distinguished between members of the social hierarchy. The law created distinctions in both forms of address and legal rights and privileges.

The most fundamental division separated the nobility from the commoners.The term nobility derived from the idea of “notables.” The English nobility was itself divided into the peerage and the landed gentry. The peerage consisted of those who possessed formal titles in the descending order of status of Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount, and Baron. These titles were awarded by the monarchs. The title became part of their name or they were simply addressed as “Lord” of “Lady.” They were hereditary; the sons inherited the title from their fathers. And the status of peer entitled one to sit in the House of Lords. As might be expected, these individuals devoted most of their political influence in the court in London.

The landed gentry referred to those who derived income from land rents and did not have to labor. They, too, sometimes possessed titles such as Baronet, Knight, or Esquire. They were usually addressed as “Sir.” Mostly influential out in the shires (counties) as justices of the peace, they also sometimes represented their localities in the House of Commons.

English laws sought to perpetuate a landed nobility and gentry. Primogeniture laws required that landowners passed down land to the first born son. Entailed land required that land be passed down intact; landowners could not divided their holdings between children. This meant that many younger sons remained dependant upon their oldest brothers and had to seek a living in law, the priesthood, or in the growing mercantile opportunities in England.

The remains of English society consisted of the commoners. Although the term “middle class” was unknown, sometimes references were made to “the middling sort.” These included yeoman in the country and skilled craftsmen of the cities and villages such as smiths, tailors, carpenters, masons, etc. Yeoman were small landowners who worked their own land. They were addressed as “Goodman” and “Goodwife.”

Below the property owning yeoman and skilled craftsmen were the tenants, who worked someone else's land for wages and day laborers, who roamed from place to place to secure whatever work they can. Sometime local parishes assisted in finding employment for what they called “the able bodied poor.” They were sometimes house in cottage or poor houses.

The bottom, of course, consisted of the unemployed beggars and petty thieves. Local authorities resorting to flogging and banishment from the parish. Some of these people eventually ended up in the gallows.

This is the social world that the first English colonists brought to North America and that persisted in varying degrees for nearly two hundred years after settlement.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Columbus Day

Columbus Day honors the European discovery of the New World—at least the discovery which led to European settlement.

Cristoforo Colombo was born in the Republic of Genoa around 1451. His father worked as a merchant and small businessman. Columbus first gained experience at sea while working as a business agent for a merchant family in Genoa. In addition to acquiring some experience in seamanship, he educated himself in astronomy, geography, and cartography.

One one of his many business oriented journeys in 1476, he became shipwrecked on the coast of Portugal. Some fellow Genoese merchants heading for England picked up the stranded Columbus. He lived a couple of years in England, where he learned about some recent English explorations of the North Atlantic.

He returned to Portugal in 1479 and settle in Lisbon where his brother lived. He learned of Portuguese efforts to reach Asia by sailing around the southern tip of Africa. (Because of the expansion of the hostile Turks into Central Asia, European trade had become much more difficult than in earlier years.) He event participated in at least one exploration of the coast of west Africa.

In 1481, he learned about the contents of letter written back in 1474 by another Italian, a Florentine astronomer named Paolo Toscanelli. In this letter, Toscannelli proposed that Europeans could reach the East by sailing West. This letter had been forwarded to King Manual of Portugal, but Portugal persisted in their efforts to reach Asia by the southern route.

Columbus put together a plan to reach the east by sailing west and presented it the King of Portugal. He showed no real interest, especially after Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias successfully reached the southern tip of Africa. He presented his case to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain as well, but they put him off because they were engaged in driving the last of the Moors out of southern Spain. Columbus even directed his brother to broach the idea with the King of England while on a visit there. Finally, with the victory over the Moors, the Spanish monarchs agreed to fund his journey.

The Pinzon family provided two Portuguese style caravels, the Nina and the Pinta. He hired a third, larger ship called the Santa Maria. On August 1, 1492 Columbus set out for Asia. After nearly twelve weeks, his crew began to grow restless. Finally, the crew saw a flock of birds and turned south. On October 12. 1492 Columbus landed on what we now call San Salvador Island in the Bahamas.

After conducting additional exploration, the Santa Maria ran aground on Hispaniola. Columbus left its crew on the island to start the first Spanish colony. (They were never seen again.) He returned to Spain. After three more voyages by Columbus and additional voyages by other explorers, Europeans recognized that they stumbled upon a New World.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Mitt Romney: Chairman of the Board

Mitt Romney surprised everyone except himself (and friend Chris Christie) by overwhelming President Barack Obama in the first presidential joint press conference debate held last night.

Without analyzing the entire debate (embedded below), here are few very general observations.

Jim Lehrer laid out the format. Because so many topics are inextricably linked, however, the candidates found it difficult to stay within the debate parameters. The first five minutes pretty much introduced the topics about which the candidates argued.

Obama opened by noting the difficult problems that he inherited from the Bush administration and listing the efforts he made to address those problems. Obama failed to acknowledge that his first four years pretty much consisted of  Bush III--continuation of bailouts, expansion of healthcare entitlements, and  Instead, he redirected the focus from the last four years to the future: it is not important "where we have been, but where we are going." He listed five areas he planned to address in his next term: education reform, energy independence, tax reform to help small business, rebuilding the infrastructure, and reducing the deficit.

Romney opened with an anecdotal introduction to the impact of the last four years on average Americans to enhance his credentials as a man who cares. He presents a five item bullet point presentation of his agenda if elected. He pretty much mirrored Obama.

1.) Exploit domestic sources of energy to move to energy independence. (He wisely made the link between energy production and jobs.)

2.) Expand our trade, especially with Latin America. ( He should have linked this to the illegal immigration problem. That problem is not that our immigration system is broken; it is Mexico that is broken. We can't blame the immigrants. Perhaps if the government provided financial incentives for companies to invest in Mexico rather than in China, the immigrants might stay home.)

3.)Improve our education system and the skills acquired by Americans.

4.) Balance the budget.

5.) Champion small business through sound regulation and taxation policies.

The debate returned again and again to these topics, even when Lehrer moved on to health care and philosophy about the role of government.

Did we learn anything new about the issues? Not much. Partly owing to the debate format and partly because they are both political trimmers, the candidates proved to be short on specifics.

Even liberal analysts noted, however,  Romney won the debate. He seemed much more knowledgeable and articulated his positions with more clarity and conviction than the President. He responded to every challenge offered by the President. He fended off distortions of his positions. And he mixed his presentations with humor, segments of which received repeated air time on cable news. This may go a long way in enhancing his candidacy as more than just the "Not Obama."

He took control of the event and established himself as chairman of the board.