On September 14, 2006 the Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State gave James Green and Sharon Nichols our "Constitutional Heritage Award" for their courage and conviction in standing up for the First Amendment in the suit against the Haskell County Ten Commandments monument. Our annual meeting was held in the fellowship hall of Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City. Below is the electrifying acceptance speech that Sharon gave at that meeting.
Tyranny of the Majority
by Sharon Nichols
Charles A. Beard, historian (1874-1948) said,
“One of the best ways to get yourself a reputation as a dangerous citizen these days is to go about repeating the very phrases which our founding fathers used in the great struggle for independence."”
We live in dangerous times. It is a sad paradox. Never have we known so much nor had the full panoply of freedoms to deal with life’s many ambiguities, yet not since the Middle Ages have so many yearned for religious absolutes and Biblical verities served up to them on a silver platter. We are learning the deepest secrets of the Universe and can view its spectacular beauty through the Hubble telescope, yet we can’t seem to see the tendency toward tyranny which lurks just beneath the human surface. We are living in an age of incredible advances on the medical front, treating and curing what once was untreatable and incurable, yet we can’t seem to cure human ignorance. We live in the Information Age with a veritable explosion of knowledge. That knowledge can reach more people than has ever before been imagined, yet inexcusable ignorance and apathy abound, endangering science and knowledge, our rights under the Constitution, and the very survival of our nation as a secular democratic-republic. Attention must be paid! Sadly, too many attention deficit Americans are in a veritable mad-dash to turn their backs on the historic meaning of America, as embodied in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. For extreme religionists, there is a desperate urgency to their desire to turn back the clock—back toward some imagined earlier Eden in American history when we were allegedly a “Christian nation”—which never actually existed. But it is in the imagining of it and the working towards “restoring” the U.S. to that mythical age that place not only our rights and liberties, but the very Constitution itself in a very real “clear and present danger.”
The intentionally divisive placement of Ten Commandment monuments on courthouse lawns is a flagrant in-your-face proclamation, a staking of claim by extreme Taliban-like Christianists that they’re taking over! Even though the Ten Commandments and the Bible were never the foundation for our federal government, they will be when they take control! There goes democracy; but there also goes America’s rich religious diversity. It’s not for nothing that famed sociologist Eric Hoffer warned, “Beware the True Believer!”
Indeed. There are troubling forces at play here. Cadres of True Believers are working diligently to spread their doctrines in the night. Their’s is a movement complete with a manifesto and a timetable. The movement has a political structure with sophisticated access to the national media and control of the seat of government itself: the Whitehouse and Congress. The movement includes those Christianists who practice incredible tenaciousness in their will to win. In the absence of an informed public as to the danger their cause represents, coupled with an intellectually lazy and apathetic citizenry, the clock of freedom is ticking down. And just like global warming, we don’t know what the “tipping point” is on the erosion of the Constitution and the attendant rise of religious Reconstructionist-nationalism. Those of us who see the movement’s tentacles frequently feel that we are voices calling out in the wilderness, but whose message falls upon deaf ears and barren ground. It’s as if Judge William O. Douglas (1898-1980) was speaking to the present when he said,
"As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air - however slight - lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness."
In this twilight between our remaining a democratic republic with the Constitution and Bill of Rights still intact, and our becoming an American theocracy, there comes a time when people of good conscience have to stand up. As a child, when I first learned about the Holocaust, I always asked myself, “What would I have done?” I have always thought that I would have spoken out and acted against Hitler’s rise to power and his hideous Final Solution. If I am to be consistent, I am compelled to act now, to fight the Christianists’ intentional erosion and corruption of the Constitution, for failure to do so is surely an abandonment of the principles upon which this nation was founded. Senator Sam Ervin (who headed the Watergate hearings) said, "Political freedom cannot exist in any land where religion controls the state, and religious freedom cannot exist in any land where the state controls religion."
We should have learned the lessons long ago that in the absence of religious freedom, the other “freedoms” (free speech, free press, right to assemble, etc.) won't matter a whit, because to be a heretic to the established religion is to face prejudice, discrimination, oppression, persecution, and genocide. This is why the Founding Fathers placed the Separation Clause at the very beginning of the very First Amendment. It’s that important. They knew that to secure the rights of all, they had to secure the rights of even the loneliest minority from the tyranny of the majority. To allow any erosion of the wall of separation’s guarantee of religious liberty invites, indeed, virtually guarantees that very tyranny. Such tyranny, if allowed to flourish with government sanction and support, is the most insidious tyranny of all—and leads to the worst oppression. It gives a sickeningly insidious “green light” to the ethnocentric, self-serving tendency to believe that only we are right and that those who do not agree with us deserve neither rights, nor consideration. It is this very tendency toward tyranny, which leads quite ordinary people to willingly participate in individual and state-sponsored oppression—even unto pogroms, concentration camps, and genocide. The only inoculation against this tyranny is to follow Thomas Paine's injunction that “We must protect even our enemy from oppression, for failure to do so will assure that such oppression reaches even unto ourselves.”
We must keep Church and State separate, as the Founders intended, so that no minority group, however much detested by the majority, will ever fall victim to the tyranny of the majority. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights provide us the greatest protection from that tyranny; therefore, protecting the Constitution is our greatest duty as citizens, for it is all that separates us from despots and dictatorships.
Sharon Nichols, Sept. 14, 2006
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”
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