If we look back through religion's checkered past, we find all kinds of dates that live in infamy, and today is among them.
In Paul Johnson's A History of Christianity, he writes that "church leadership was discredited by the witchcraft mania at Salem in 1692, and weakened by the powerful backlash of public remorse which followed it."
The Puritans were having a hard time of things just then. The Church of England, to the dismay of the Puritans, had made inroads in Boston. And, to the Puritans, bad times (which included wars with native Americans) were a sign that God was angry at them, so they looked for culprits. Thus, the Salem witch trials. Witch hunts (of which the Salem one was the third and last outbreak) went after the most vulnerable and outcast in society.
Call it Puritan extremism.
In the link I've given you above to information about the Salem witchcraft trials, I especially liked this list of causes, which unabashedly begins with religious concepts. But I do think it's unfair to conclude that each of these concepts automatically lead to abuses, such as the trials. For instance, lots of people have a "strong belief that Satan is acting in the world" and do not, as a result, advocate hunting down women, labeling them witches and killing them.
But I do think it's worth being aware of how some religious beliefs can lead to abuse. That's why we study this kind of history.
(The painting shown here is "Examination of a Witch by T.H. Matteson, done in 1853, and on display at the Peabody Essex Muesum.)
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A PRETTY TONY TEACHER
It's official: Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is now a religion teacher at Yale. I'd enjoy hearing him lecture about his faith but if I really wanted to study religion, I'd prefer a scholar who has prepared academically to teach the subject.
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P.S.: How brave and bold and counter-cultural is your faith community compared with how brave and bold and counter-cultural it's called to be? Here's a story about a North Carolina church that seems to measure up in this regard.
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ANOTHER P.S.: A group called "Clergy for Obama" has formed. Clergy members, as individuals -- not representatives of their faith communities -- are asked to join up. (If there's a "Clergy for McCain" group, I'm not aware of it.) My question is this: Should clergy do this? What are the advantages? What are the drawbacks?
To read my latest Kansas City Star work, click here.