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Jeffrey Dvorkin

Saturday, February 25, 2012

US Politics and the (Unfinished) English Civil War

An English Roundhead c. 1642
While many Americans look to the Civil War (1861-1865) as the seminal historical event that defines much in modern American political, social and cultural life, not much ink has been spilled during this political season about the source of religion in American politics. It occurred to me (not for the first time) that Rick Santorum was born too late. Instead of being a fierce cultural warrior in the early 21st Century, he more properly belongs in the 17th Century Army of Oliver Cromwell, fighting alongside his fellow Puritans (aka the Roundheads) against the Royalist elites (aka the Cavaliers).

 Most recently quotes from former Governor Mike Huckabee (described in a campaign ad as a “Christian Leader”) and Senator John McCain (claiming the Constitutional affirms that America is founded as a “Christian nation”) remind us that not only does the Civil War define America today. The English Civil War (1642-1651) has also left important marks on American culture and politics.

The persistence of religious sentiment in US political life is commented on frequently by European journalists and other visitors. They claim, with some astonishment and occasional disdain that their religious disputes ended centuries ago. And they wonder why religious disputes in America have managed to retain their power and fervor after all these years and why they are always invoked during election campaigns.

Some of the connections to the past may be difficult to see. But if the statements by the candidates are any indication, the Democrats have become the Cavaliers (the King’s Men) and the Republicans play the role of Roundheads or Puritans – those religious radicals and Parliamentarians who initially triumphed in the English Civil War in the seventeenth century.

Perhaps the real answer can be found in the nature of the English Civil War which was finally resolved militarily after much bloodletting. Politically however, it was settled through the unique ability of the British to compromise: the Monarchy was eventually permitted to rule, but only with the consent of Parliament. What made that compromise possible was the absence of the more radical elements who had been purged from the English body politic and physically expelled from England.

The long-term significance of the dispute between the factions was that it was an early form of ethnic cleansing. The expulsion of the Puritans (the losing side) from England went largely to three places: Northern Ireland, Holland (and from there, subsequently to Southern Africa) and to the eastern seaboard of the Thirteen Colonies. In those places, the wars of religion continued to be fought with differing levels of violence – even today. 

Exact historical parallels can be elusive, if not fraught with distortions. Some direct links between England’s struggle between Parliament and King, and today’s efforts to define a better relationship between society and religion can be useful.

In brief, the English Civil War involved a series of conflicts between Parliamentarians and supporters of the King. Ostensibly, the issue was whether Parliament would passively agree to supply King Charles I with money so he could fight a series of foreign wars against Catholic forces on the European continent. (The Bush administration’s incessant demands for funding for the War in Iraq come to mind).

But religion was the driving force behind the political intrigues of the day.

Protestantism had recently triumphed over Roman Catholicism as the state religion of England and Scotland. But suspicions bordering on mass hysteria were rife in both countries. Charles I claimed to support the Protestant side. But he married a French Queen who continued to practice her Catholicism. That caused tongues to wag and doubts expressed about the King’s true religion. Was he a secret Papist?

Charles was also astonishingly politically inept. He used an English force to attack a French Protestant garrison as a favor to the King of France. He also tried to impose an Anglican prayer book on Scotland; when the Scots resisted, he declared war on them, but had to raise heavy taxes in England to pay for campaigning. That triggered the Civil War in England. None of this sat well with Parliament who loudly questioned the value of the wars along with Charles’ loyalty to the Protestant cause.

The Roundheads’ political fervor was combined with a religious zealotry known as Puritanism. In America, the Puritans today have a benign aspect that is celebrated at Thanksgiving, but their forebears were anything but benign when they confronted the prospect of a return to foreign entanglements and Popery (see Arthur Miller, “The Crucible”).

Compounding this was the fierce and particular Protestantism of the Scots who were increasingly violent advocates for their form of religious practice. Known as “Coventanters,” they blended their Presbyterianism with a rising sense of Scottish nationalism combined with deep suspicions against Charles and his Catholic wife.

At the same time Parliament was composed of what might today be described as evangelical Protestants. As a voting bloc, they were doubtful of King Charles’ commitment to the Protestant cause, especially when the King threatened to bring an Irish Catholic army into Scotland to deal with the Covenanters. When English Parliamentarians refused to vote any more money (which they correctly assumed could be turned against them), the King demanded that he should predominate over Parliament (executive privilege). He accused Parliament of disloyalty and imprisoned some of their leaders in the Tower of London (an early version of Guantanamo). Many died there and became martyrs to the Protestant and Roundhead cause. A series of clashes between Cavalier and Roundhead armies ensued over a nine-year period throughout Northern England and Southern Scotland.

The Civil War ended with the Parliamentary victory at the Battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651 and the execution  by beheading of Charles I (French pre-revolutionaries took close note...).

The Civil War also led to the replacement of the English monarchy with a dictatorship under the personal rule of Oliver Cromwell. The monopoly of the Church of England on Christian worship in England came to an end, and allowed for the rise of a number of new Protestant sects. The victors consolidated the Protestant church in Ireland and sowed the seeds of centuries of conflict. Constitutionally, the wars established a precedent that British monarchs could not govern without the consent of Parliament, although this concept only became firmly established in 1688 when the monarchy was restored and Charles II became king.

By the late 17th century, the excesses of the Protestant cause had begun to diminish, but not among the Protestant settlers who found that a re-established monarchy and Church of England was still too close to European Catholicism for their liking.

Many of the prominent Parliamentary Puritans were involved financially in ventures to create settlements in Ireland, New England and the Caribbean. They were also early anti-taxation radicals, (Tea Party-ists?) determined to insure that their Puritan outlook would find more fertile soil than was possible in England and hopefully without the burden of royal taxation.

Much of that anti-tax sentiment found fertile ground in the Massachusetts Colony where it was easily combined with pro-revolutionary and anti-British sentiment leading to the American Revolution.

Many Puritans left England to settle in Holland, where a strong form of Protestantism under the royal House of Orange seemed welcoming for a time. But the Dutch with their traditional phlegmatic tolerance of outsiders such as the Jews, found the religion tended to get in the way of commerce. By the late 18th century, many (now Dutch) Protestants found themselves as settlers again in New Amsterdam - New York or as Boers in South Africa, often in competition with the British colonial presence and engaged in violent oppression of the indigenous people.

Once again, the resolution in Southern Africa between Puritanism and the local culture have left a dangerous legacy of violence and racial conflict as it has in Northern Ireland.   

In America, the Puritan legacy of conflict between Cavaliers and Roundheads may be less obvious and less overt, but is, in many ways, still present.

Instead of a fear of foreign Romanism and Popery, Americans today confront a foreign ideology of Radical Islam. Issues around immigration renew the Puritan conflict of whether Americans are a unified culture or whether to promote the Biblical injunction of welcoming strangers.

Cavaliers and Roundheads may not exist as such in America today. But if you listen closely, you can still hear echoes of that 450 year-old dispute inside both the Democratic and Republican Parties.

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