I was listening to the soaring soundtrack of The Mission today, and it made me think of you. The film tells the story of a church-state conflict that arises in the 1750s and ultimately crushes a tiny Jesuit mission and the people who built it, members of the Guarani, indigenous peoples who inhabited tribal lands deep in the rainforests of central South America.
In the film, a tiny slice of the larger political fight for power over the Guarani takes place among Spain, Portugal, and the Vatican. The losers are the Guarani believers who took refuge in the mission — one of many that had been established by the Jesuits — in the hope not just of eternal salvation, but of earthly deliverance from the hands of the slave-trading countries that had invaded their lands. The natives’ hope is destroyed as Catholic European soldiers murder the natives as they attend Mass.
At this point, Dear Ohio, you’re probably wondering why the music from this film makes me think of you. As you well know from my previous correspondence, I write to you because you are the bellwether election state. And it seems of late that religion and politics have become welded together in a way that is galvanizing the electorate in Ohio and all other states in the Union. (How ironic to have this happen in a country where it is common to hear people say, “Never talk about politics or religion,” and where we celebrate a history of government and church being separate in order to promote freedom among all believers and non-believers.)
But here we are, fighting about abortion, gay rights, same-sex marriage and topics not yet discovered. Hot-button issues that seem to be driving us apart, because many people see them as an affront to their religious beliefs.
And the people who see things this way want the power of government not just to endorse their particular religious view but to enforce them by forbidding anyone to engage in this conduct. To proponents of such bans, it is not enough that in this great country, they themselves have the right not to have an abortion. They have the right to engage in whatever method they choose to avoid Mother Nature’s diversity. And they have the right to try to convince their relatives, friends, neighbors and countrymen of their views.
These are the rights of people who live in a free country. But these are not the rights sought by those who want government to ban conduct scorned by persons of certain religious views. These are people who want to hold the power of government in their own hands so they can impose their religious beliefs on everyone, no matter if others have their own religion, their own sense of justice, their own sense of tolerance, their own commitment to goodness.
Recently Ohio joined other states in introducing legislation to ban abortion and to punish the women who seek it and the health care personnel who provide it. Supporters of these bills believe they are doing “God’s work” by harnessing the immense power of government – its legislatures, courts, and executive branches – to force Americans of different views to divest themselves of their own truth and adopt someone else’s whether they believe it or not.
All over the world, there are people who believe only their religion is right. They are devout, they seek goodness and salvation, they are devoted to whatever they believe God wants. But if government does not stand between them and others who are different from them, others will become the targets of their persuasion. Who knows how many Christians would be comfortable with the constraints of other religions? How many Buddhists would be? How many Muslims? How many Methodists would be happy with all the requirements of Catholicism? How many non-believers who seek goodness in their hearts would be comfortable conforming to prescribed conduct based on other people’s theologies?
And do we who are now in the dominant religions believe we always will be in the majority? Isn’t that among our fears of today’s immigrants – that someday their religions will prevail as the majority? And if that were to come about, wouldn’t we then want the comfort of a Constitution that guaranteed we would still be treated fairly, no matter what religion was in the majority?
Have we forgotten, by the way, the immense hostility that has existed among groups within the great religions of the world? The early colonists were seeking refuge from religious persecution from other Christians. When the colonists established power in their own like-minded groups, they were just as intolerant as the people who drove them off. It was only the good fortune of a Constitution that protected us all from the very human but profoundly parochial view that we – humble creatures with every imaginable frailty – can interpret perfectly and conclusively every single message of the Source of All Goodness in the Universe.
In every aspect of human inquiry and discovery, that Source, whatever we conceive this to be, has spoken to us in thousands of ways. Little by little, we have discovered more truth about ourselves. As we go forward, we are privileged to peel back layers of mystery, catching a glimpse of the magnificence of all we ourselves will never live to discover. And even as we are awestruck by the unseen hand of a force that has been speaking to us for at least 13 billion years, we are determined to humiliate, harass, hurt, imprison and even kill each other to force one another to accept our personal view of what that Source has meant on every topic.
In the music of The Mission, composed by the brilliant Ennio Morricone, the so-called “savages,” deemed by government and commerce as fit for nothing more than slavery, cry to the heavens for mercy. They are slaughtered anyway because the religious powers will have adopted a power-sharing arrangement that lets their governments, their slave commerce, and their religious institution survive. And this reminds me that in the whole history of the human race, mercy for those who are different has never come from the marriage of religion and government.
Think about it, Dear Ohio. November is coming.