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Rod Miller: Thanksgiving And The Separation Of Church And State (What The Mayflower Really Brought To The New World)

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By Rod Miller, Columnist

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that Thanksgiving is NOT the favorite holiday of Neo-theocrats and Bible-thumpers, like those religious zealots in the Wyoming Republican Party. Sure, they love turkey and pumpkin pie like the rest of us, but the real message of the Pilgrims must make their skin crawl.

As it must do for anyone wanting our civic life to be controlled by religious dogma. I, for one, am thankful for that.

The Puritans who waded ashore at Plymouth Rock, with their funny hats and guns that resembled trombones, were escaping an oppressive system in Europe wherein kings and queens exercised both civil and religious control over their citizens. This “Divine Right of Kings” concentrated total power in the sovereign who could, with impunity, tell citizens how to act and worship.

Dissenters were tortured either into submission or into the grave. The individual, and her or his will, meant nothing in the face of this oppressive Church/State.

William Bradford and his Puritan amigos were thorns in the flesh of the Tudors, Hapsburgs and their religious enforcers in Rome and Canterbury because their beliefs did not mesh with those of the state. Hence, they were persecuted and chased around Europe until they decided they had a bellyful of theocracy and set sail for America.

Scarcely had Europe disappeared sternward before Bradford and his company crafted a new way of doing business among themselves. They put each decision about the ship to a popular vote, and all agreed to follow the will of the majority.

By so doing, they removed from their shoulders the sovereignty of the palace and assumed that power over themselves. They made themselves the state, instead of some inbred hereditary monarch in London.

It goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway, this act sent shockwaves rippling through the Crowned Heads of the Old World.

Bradford & Co. called these democratic shipboard agreements among themselves “covenants”. And, since they were written by God’s people by agreement, they represented God’s will aboard the Mayflower.

By so doing, they shirked off centuries of church control over their lives, and removed the old barrier between God and themselves. This act sent tremors through ranks of the political Princes of the Church and knocked their mitres askew.

But wait, there’s more!

No sooner had a deckhand hollered “Land Ho” and the coastline of their new home came into view than the Pilgrims went to work again. Together. While still aboard the Mayflower, they wrote the rules for their colony in the New World. They incorporated the shipboard covenants into a charter for their colony.

This document, the Mayflower Compact, is the great-grandfather of our own Constitution. In its rejection of hierarchical control over the sovereign individual, it instructed both our own and the French Revolution. It influenced the thinking of Denis Diderot when he said, “Mankind will only be free when the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”

That’s why I feel pretty safe to say that Thanksgiving is not the favorite holiday of the evangelical right in America today. Or, if it is, they don’t have the first clue what is being celebrated.

But that’s cool. Let them gorge themselves on pecan pie and fall asleep watching football.

Those of us who understand what motivated the Pilgrims, and who cherish the freedoms that they brought ashore with them, can celebrate a pretty revolutionary holiday. And we can give sincere and humble thanks for that gift.

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