Scapegoating: An Old Religious Excuse for Persecution

After receiving widespread criticism, Christian fundamentalist leaders Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson gave so-called apologies for blaming liberal groups for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But other people continue to echo the same theme.

They say God may have been angered by the beliefs and acts of some Americans, and therefore withheld divine protection from the nation on Sept 11.

Those people are promoting a dangerous philosophy. Similar thinking led to the persecution of many groups – including Christians – throughout history. It could happen again.

The ancient Romans often believed that natural, political, or military disasters were caused by the anger of the national gods. So afterwards, they conducted inquiries as to what had incited the divine wrath.

On two occasions, the Romans concluded that calamities had resulted from the gods being offended by unchaste behavior of the vestal virgins. These priestesses attended the sacred fire in the temple of the goddess Vesta. After taking the rap, several of them were executed to appease the divinities.

At other times, the Romans thought disasters had been caused by the refusal of Christians to offer sacrifices to the gods. This idea was a reason for the sporadic persecution of Christians. For many years, the Romans viewed Christians as enemies of the gods.

The early Christian leader Tertullian complained: “If the Tiber ascends to the walls, or the Nile does not overflow the fields, if heaven refuses its rain, if the earth quakes, if famine and pestilence desolate the land, immediately the cry is raised, ‘The Christians to the lions.'”

Despite the biblical teaching to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” Christians often made the same arguments against their opponents. Even Tertullian did. He blamed catastrophes on the Almighty’s fury at either the idolatry of the Romans or their persecution of Christians.

When the Church wielded power during the Middle Ages, a similar rationale was used to suppress and execute religious dissenters. The victims included thousands of Albigenses, Waldenses, Franciscans, Hussites, witches, and others.

Such persecution went on for centuries in Christian Europe. Historian Salomon Reinach says it “is only to be explained by the idea the Church had implanted in the hearts of the people, who thought heresy, the crime against God, to be the worst of crimes, one which exposed a city, a province, or a nation to the divine anger, and to such punishments as floods, pestilence, and famine, if it were not promptly and sternly suppressed.”

Jews in Europe were additional victims of scapegoating during the Middle Ages. The belief sometimes arose that God was sending diseases and other troubles because of society’s toleration of them.

The historian Andrew White explains the manner in which the Bible was employed to support this anti-Semitism. He says “the biblical argument was the same used in various ages to promote persecution; and this was, that the wrath of the Almighty was stirred against those who tolerated his enemies, and that because of this toleration the same curse had now come upon Europe which the prophet Samuel had denounced against Saul for showing mercy to the enemies of Jehovah.”

Sometimes Moslems received the blame and victimization. This happened in Spain in the seventeenth century. A belief spread that Spain’s toleration of Moslems had caused God to become so incensed that he allowed England to defeat the great Spanish Armada.

Consequently, King Phillip III ordered all of them expelled from the country. A million Moslems were forced to leave. This was in addition to the expulsion of the Jews, who had been kicked out of Spain at the end of the fifteenth century.

The same superstition was transported to the New World. Historian A. Hyatt Verrill states that in Peru, the burning of religious dissenters was viewed as an “efficacious means of pleasing the Almighty and averting threatened calamities.”

The founders of the U.S. knew this tragic history and were determined to prevent its reoccurrence. So they separated religion from government and made all religions equal before the law.

In regard to Spain, the founders saw that the expulsion of Jews and Moslems had not caused the country to receive divine blessings. Rather, the policy caused Spain to lose many of its most intelligent, talented, and energetic citizens. The result was the mental and physical impoverishment of the nation.

The founders also understood history’s lesson that attempts to compel religious conformity were what actually caused disasters. Thomas Jefferson said: “Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.”

Further, most of the founders were deists. Deism says there’s a God who established the laws of nature but does not interfere with their operation. It is inconsistent with this worldview to claim that God suspends natural laws to punish people for their religious or political views.

The founders’ rejection of that claim is shown most clearly by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. If they had thought a nation invites divine wrath by tolerating minority religions and political groups, they would have been acting senselessly and self-destructively in protecting freedom of speech, religion, and political dissent.

Instead, the founders were convinced that religious and political freedom strengthens America rather than causes divine punishment. When equal rights are granted to those holding minority views, they are likely to support the U.S. in times of national crisis. And the rest of the time, they can provide many other valuable contributions to the nation.

Moreover, the founders’ experiences in the colonies taught them that religious liberty enables people of all religions to live peacefully together. The founders also knew that if diverse religious and political views are allowed to compete in an open marketplace of ideas, the best of those ideas can eventually be recognized and adopted.

History shows that in times of crisis or disaster, there’s often a tendency to unfairly hold religious or political minorities responsible. Too many people resorted to this type of thinking after the Sept. 11 attacks.

It’s important for Americans to remember that the U.S. was founded on the principle that tolerating minority views is not a cause of hardship or divine anger. It is instead a great and essential source of national strength.