Ramblings, Season 1, Episode 1

The One with the Journey From a Vanity Project to Reflections on the Separation Between Church and State

Out of curiosity (or perhaps vanity) I recently compiled an academic genealogy with the help of the Mathematics Genealogy Project, Geneagrapher and some other sources. I was kind of disappointed (although not really surprised) to find just one woman in there. This was Anscombe, from whom I descend via Thomas Sattig, one of the three people who wrote reports on my dissertation.

I recognized some of the names, but had no clue about many others. While I was thinking that it could be fun to look up some random unknown academic precursor, my eyes landed on a name: “Anne du Bourg”. That sounds like it could be a woman, I thought. So I opened up Wikipedia and surprise, surprise, it's a dude's name. He is an interesting character though. Apparently, he mentored the young Étienne de la Boétie, whose Discours de la servitude volontaire (also known as Contr'un) I admire, and was a protestant martyr.

Now, I have a copy of the Martyrs Mirror which I flip through occasionally, especially in difficult times. I grabbed it and searched for du Bourg's name in the index of martyrs from 1525 to 1660. It was not there. OK, that makes sense, since the book focuses on Anabaptists. From what I could gather, Anne du Bourg rejected transubstantiation (perhaps even the Lutheran “real presence” doctrine), but there is no record of him being baptized as an adult. Besides, he signed a somewhat empty recantation (although he latter withdrew it) and there was some violent reactions from his supporters. All of which would not sit well with most Anabaptists. Still, du Bourg was executed mainly because of his faith (and partly because he embarrassed Henry II), despite the pleas of Margaret of Valois (not to be confused with her niece, Queen Margot).

But I digress. “Wait. Isn't that the point of this whole series of posts? It's called Ramblings after all”, I can hear you all saying. Well, yes. At least, that's how it is supposed to look from the outside. Just like religious conflicts are supposed to be about religion, but are often about something else.

Speaking of religious conflicts, the execution of Anne du Bourg was an important event in the escalation of tensions leading up to St. Bartholomew's Day massacre when one Margaret of Valois (now we are talking Queen Margot) helped some protestants evade death. Now, if you read up on this conflict, or the Crusades, or the Münster Rebellion (or... you know, there are countless, take your pick), you soon realize that secularism, or the separation of church and state, is a much underappreciated blessing.

It was a hard lesson, assimilated over the course of much human suffering. Today, secularism is enshrined in the legal apparatus of many modern democracies. However, that's no guarantee that politics is immune from the influence of religion and vice-versa. You see, most modern democracies work by amassing support from various segments of the population, while large concentrations of power try to keep meaningful changes with majority acclaim from entering the political spectrum. There's nothing barring religious groups from engaging in this game. And it could be argued that it would be wrong to bar them, at least in principle. So, here we are today. Religion and politics often intertwine. Not anymore by necessity, but by opportunism and convenience.

I think it is kind of ironic that, although the Christians in the Martyrs Mirror were the persecuted, many Christians today are actually the persecutors. They pressure their legislatures to codify supposedly christian morals into law. For instance, many oppose gay marriage, even in countries where some rights and social benefits are closely tied to it. So, although it may not be the intention of those Christians, surviving spouses of gay couples may not get the pensions they deserve. Is this really qualitatively very different from the old edicts curtailing the rights of Protestants, or Jews, to own property?

In today's secular nations, there are still some religiously motivated legislation. Sure, these laws are not enacted because the State itself has a religion, but because some politicians needed the support from some religious groups. For the people targeted, I don't think this is much consolation, though. Do you?

I admire the perseverance of many christian martyrs of old. Sadly, however, I am incapable of feeling the same towards most contemporary Christians.

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