The Pilgrims themselves were leaving behind an England fraught with spiritual conflict. Initiated in 1536 in response to the Roman Catholic Church's dismissive attitude towards English territorial ambitions (to say nothing of Henry The Eighth's desire for a divorce) Britain had been convulsed with religious turbulence as Henry reconfigured the Church more to his convenience. Strongly influenced by German Martin Luther's unrelated reformation of Catholic scripture, the Pilgrims (also known as "Separatists" due to their rejection of not only Henry's newly established Church of England but the very idea of Romanism itself) represented a further separation from doctrine -- an outright renunciation of the norm.
Unlike far more conservative Christian upstarts, John Calvin's Puritans, the Pilgrim's rejection of the Church of England -- now, essentially, the Episcopalian faith -- and it's symbology and ritual was a complete one. While the Puritans wanted to radically re-construct (as in "swing to the far right") the Church of England from within -- hence their basic adherence to ceremony -- the Pilgrims renounced all of it in favor of a simpler faith allowing for softer interpretations and collective participation.
Reaction to Pilgrim non-conformity was predictable. Much as the Roman Church had done prior, The Church of England assumed obedience of its adherents and dealt harshly with recalcitrants. The two forces (with the Puritans largely on the sidelines) engaged in theological brinksmanship for a time, each arguing conversion to the unconvertible. Negotiations finally collapsed with the execution of two of the Pilgrim's number -- Henry Barrowe and John Greenwood -- for "sedition" in 1603.
The Pilgrims, in response to a growing diet of this, moved lock,stock and barrel to Holland where they planned to settle and practice their socio/spiritual beliefs in peace. The attempt was largely unsuccessful and, after much effort, they ended up on the shores of North America, as part of yet another commercial enterprise, to start anew. First flush with possibility, it wasn't long before the Puritans -- now a larger, more potent force -- saw the advantages of immigration and joined them, inaugurating the social/religious intolerance characterizing the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was everything the Pilgrims were trying to escape... and worse.
Since that time religion (the now dominant Christian/Puritan configuration) has had a strong, if not all-encompassing influence on not only American politics but our very deportment as a nation. And while the Age of Enlightenment might have given us our constitution, the Dark Ages still ruled in most houses of worship -- a sort of Dominion Theory Lite -- with all the accompanying fireworks and tent revivals and hoarse shouters barking about redemption and the collection box -- much like today.
In fact, nascent American Christianity set standards that still regulate contemporary commercial evangelism. Prosecution of sin, specifically sins of the flesh, was pursued with an almost Islamic zeal. Indeed, a sexual offense was considered a more serious breech of ideology than, say, an economic one. This theology also encouraged displays of fervor -- "talking in tongues" is but one example -- physical manifestations of faith as muscular as the frontier ethic it claimed to represent.
It's a natural fit for politicians of all stripes; utilize energy and focus generated by such enthusiasm to suit their own best interests -- the Tea Party in a nutshell. Near standard throughout history, the use of spiritual manipulation -- often with promises of both damnation and/or everlasting glory at the hand of God -- still infects our religious belief systems and, as a consequence, our society and governmental policies as a whole. As a con, it's just about perfect.
God has been both blue and grey in America -- rich and poor, socialist and capitalist, a populist, a prig -- all dependent upon the user's needs at the time of implementation. Successive presidents have evoked God at every turn, using the concept to justify just about everything imaginable.
But, is this God? Is this the great bearded one in the skies above, the omnipotent white male father figure to whom we owe allegiance for reasons purposely obscure? Is this the creature who'll pass judgment on our lives as we enter the gates of heaven or fall screaming into the pits of hell?
There are many who disagree.
One of those people is Richmond, Virginia artist Freddie Salas. A practicing Christian, Salas hews to a New Testament based interpretation of the Bible, its more humane face, as it were. Freddie's relationship with his God seems unusually intimate and grounded, that God a friend as much as anything else. In many ways one might say Salas seems far more interested in imitating the original Twelve Apostles than mimicking the Pharisees the teacher himself cast from the Temple.
While not a Christian myself, I was curious about Freddie's beliefs, especially in light of current Christian political activity. Surely real Christianity can't be Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck and all the rest. Or could it?
I thought Freddie might have some answers to my many questions and he was gracious enough to participate in a phone/facebook interview detailing his beliefs in relation the turbulent, politically-charged world whirling around him, a world whirling around all of us.
Q: What does Christianity mean to you?
Freddie: "Christianity is not about an organized, man-made religion. Christianity is about a 'relationship.' Christianity is about gaining 'spiritual power,' control over the power of the spirit of the flesh. Christianity is about obedience and servitude. True Christianity, in it's purest sense, is about loving God and loving one another, unconditionally, period. Real Christians are in the world, but they are not of the world."