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Native Americans, religious liberty and Rick Santorum

David Colburn
Posted 4/28/21

“We came here and created a blank slate; we birthed a nation from nothing. There was nothing here. Yes, we had Native Americans, but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in …

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Native Americans, religious liberty and Rick Santorum

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“We came here and created a blank slate; we birthed a nation from nothing. There was nothing here. Yes, we had Native Americans, but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture. It was born of the people who came here pursuing religious liberty to practice their faith, to live as they ought to live, and have the freedom to do so.”
Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, April 23 speech “The Fight for Religious Freedom” to Catholic school students
Step back for a moment, if you possibly can, from the sheer arrogance and absurdity of Rick Santorum’s glorification of the architects of one of history’s greatest and yet most culturally destructive experiments. Ignore, for the moment, his dehumanizing and denigrating characterization of the rich and complex Indigenous cultures that predated the arrival of white European Christians by hundreds if not thousands of years.
Set it aside if you can, because it is but one outrageous snippet among many from a speech to young Catholics that advocates abandoning the very Constitution Santorum and his fellow Christian conservatives claim to hold so dear.
Santorum’s comments above are but 30 seconds of an hour-long exposition that I took the time to listen to in its entirety. It’s a speech that lays bare the truth that for Santorum and his wing of the GOP, “the fight for religious freedom” isn’t about freedom at all. It’s the fight for conservative Christian dominance to the exclusion of the religious beliefs of others, including those Christians who would oppose them.
Santorum’s sanitized and whitewashed version of history would have you believe that America was “born of the people who came here pursuing religious liberty to practice their faith,” and while true in the beginning for a majority of those who settled many of the northern Colonies, his omissions are glaring. He leaves out the vast numbers of people who came to the New World to seek not faith but fortune, doing so through ruthless devastation of the land’s Indigenous cultures while importing British criminals sold as “servants” (estimates range as high as 120,000 such souls) and Africans sold as slaves in numbers that made them one out of every five people who lived in the Colonies in 1776.
Even more egregious, Santorum conveniently fails to mention that those who came seeking religious freedom were often as intolerant as the English church they sought to escape. Puritan minister Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson were banished when they questioned established practices. People were imprisoned, tortured, and executed as witches for behaviors outside the restricted religious norm, and Indigenous people were characterized as “bloodthirsty savages” by Puritans who had no qualms about killing Native women and children.
If it were true, as Santorum wrongfully claims, that there “isn’t much Native American culture in American culture,” why would that be? Because it doesn’t fit his narrative, Santorum skips over all of the well-documented history of decades of oppression intended to accomplish that objective.
Instead, he jumps ahead from the Colonies to reflect on a time when his parents were children, 1920s America, when “They grew up in an era where the country was much more affirming of the values we believe in.”
Ah, yes, the values of the 1920s, including 1926 when four out of five Native American children—about 61,000— were warehoused in 357 boarding schools and stripped of their traditional clothing, hair, personal belongings, and Native cultures in order to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” The 1920s, when the once nearly defunct Ku Klux Klan experienced explosive growth among white Protestant males throughout the South and Midwest by expanding its targets beyond blacks to encompass Roman Catholics, Jews, foreigners and organized labor. Yes, those values…the ones formally embraced by five to six million Klan members, and held by many, many more Americans at that time.
Santorum’s speech to these students provides ample evidence of his belief that the country is in a spiritual war of “religious liberty” that must be won by conservative Christians by crushing the religious liberties of differing Christian sects as well as Jews, Muslims, and others.
“We’re engaged in a struggle as to where our rights come from and who controls,” Santorum said. “The fight for religious liberty is the fight for the soul of America.”
Ignoring the evidence from a 2019 Pew Research study showing that over half of Democratic voters are Christians and nine percent are members of other religions, Santorum glibly parrots the conservative line that the left is an enemy bereft of faith.
“People on the left hate competition, they like to decide and enforce,” Santorum said. “They are intolerant of other points of view. The vast majority of these people are not people of faith. They don’t want faith and freedom anymore.”
What Santorum and his like-minded lot can’t fathom, or stomach, is the fact that millions of American have thoughtfully, prayerfully found that their faith in God embraces practices Santorum roundly rejects. And in the truest form of intolerance exhibited by his colonial forebearers, Santorum would legislatively force his religious beliefs on all, the complete antithesis of “religious liberty.”
It runs exactly counter to what Santorum said in the very same speech about why people came to America.
“Why did they come? They came because they saw freedom, but also the ability to live their lives and to practice what their conscience tells them,” Santorum said. Yet he would readily legislate away that precious practice of conscience from those who don’t share his beliefs.
It also runs counter to the document he professes to hold so dear, the Constitution. Santorum would like for folks to forget part of what the Founding Fathers so thoughtfully embedded in the First Amendment.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” it reads, and it’s that last part he so blithely ignores, and wants others to as well. Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion. THAT, not the nonsense Santorum spews forth, is religious liberty. Note that the Founding Fathers explicitly chose the word “religion” and not “Christianity.” Conservatives who have long harped on the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted in the plain language it is written in should take note and back away from their misguided attempts to establish their own religious beliefs as the law of the land. Doing so is, in plain language, unconstitutional, denying others of differing beliefs the “free exercise” of their religions.
Santorum would do well to study the words of one of those he held in such high esteem, the Puritan minister and leader Roger Williams.
“God requires not a uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state, which enforced uniformity (sooner or later) is the greatest occasion of civil war, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus and his servants, and of hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls,” Willams wrote. “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.”
The Puritans expelled Williams because they could not tolerate his faithful criticism of their maltreatment of Native Americans and the theft of their lands, a colonial Christian example of “It’s my way or the highway.”
Winston Churchill famously said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” The revelation and study of our historical shortcomings are not intended to tarnish the nation’s legacy, they are intended to preserve its future. Santorum’s willfully incomplete, mythical, whitewashed view of history leads nowhere other than conflict and strife, and in quite the opposite direction from the “religious liberty” so plainly defined by the authors of the Constitution.

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