Saturday, October 13, 2012

Culture Wars, 1870s Style

The dominant narrative of the modern-day culture war is that the politicized secular/Christian showdown is a somewhat recent phenomenon in American politics. Yet, shades of the coming contest could be seen as far back as the 1870s.  Exactly one-hundred years before Roe v. Wade, the so-called Comstock Law (1873) was passed by the U.S. Congress. The law, named after New York purity crusader Anthony Comstock, banned circulation through the mail of obscene literature, abortifacients, and contraceptive devices. While Roe v. Wade has been credited with helping to galvanize a conservative political movement, the Comstock Law had the opposite effect - it led to the creation of the National Liberal League, a loose collection of free thought, free love, and free speech advocates who believed that the Comstock Law was unconstitutional and that the role played by the Christian religion in American government was the same.

The National Liberal League devoted its post-1873 energy to eliminating the Comstock Law, but the Republican-leaning northern Protestant establishment (particularly the clergy) lauded its positive effects on society. Their support had reverberations in Washington, especially with the nation’s Republican president from 1877 until 1881 – former Ohio governor Rutherford B. Hayes. As a devoted admirer of transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hayes himself was certainly not a staunch evangelical. Later in life, he referred to himself in a diary entry as a “non-church member, a non-professor of religion” who was closely tied to Methodism mainly because his wife Lucy’s affinities lay with that sect. However, Hayes’s razor-thin victory in the disputed 1876 election and his subsequent attempts at civil service reform angered both Democrats and fellow Republicans. He could ill afford to drive away the support he received from his northern Protestant base, who viewed him as an upright, moral leader representing their interests.  To appear weak in support of the Comstock Laws during the 1870s would be comparable to appearing to be weak in support of anti-abortion legislation today. In both cases, the conservative moral establishment would not let such a perceived lack of moral fortitude go unchallenged.

Hayes was well aware of the desires and values of evangelical Protestants. He knew, for example, that temperance was an issue dear to their heart. As a result, the Hayes family rather famously elected not to serve alcohol at White House functions, a move which provided the impetus for the oft-repeated and perhaps apocryphal quote that “water flowed like wine” during the Hayes administration. The alcohol ban was very much a political move. Hayes even left a memo for his successor, James Garfield, exhorting him to continue with the alcohol ban, partly because “five to ten percent” of Republican voters could be “diverted to Temperance candidates in the great States of the North” if Garfield reverted back to the dark days of free-flowing alcohol at the White House.  

Hayes’s acute sensitivity to the proclivities of his Protestant base made it all the more surprising that he issued a pardon, in December 1878, to Ezra Heywood. Heywood was an anarchist, a prominent member of the National Liberal League, and an outspoken advocate for free love.  In short, he was the embodiment of nearly every ideological threat feared by the evangelical Republican base. In a book titled Cupid’s Yokes, Heywood expressed his free love ideology by declaring that the institution of marriage was unconstitutional, in part because it left women without the same freedoms and rights that men typically enjoyed in public life. Despite Heywood’s rather lengthy and prosaic academic prose, the book was deemed a threat to children and, by extension, society.  Anthony Comstock declared it to be obscene and thus (per the terms of the Comstock Law) ineligible for circulation through U.S. mail. When in 1878 Heywood mailed the sleuthing Comstock (under the guise of a fake name) a copy of the book, Comstock had Heywood arrested and convicted. 

Immediately, the National Liberal League viewed the conviction as an opportunity to strike a symbolic blow to the Comstock Law. Even though Hayes viewed Heywood’s ideas on marriage as absurd, the National Liberal League knew that the magnanimous President Hayes had been quick to pull the pardon trigger in his days as Ohio's governor. They petitioned the President, and Hayes did not disappoint. After considering Heywood’s case, he judged that it was no crime to express the views, no matter how mistaken, found within Cupid’s Yokes.  He issued Heywood a pardon, unaware of the violent and stormy reaction his decision would bring.

On one hand, Hayes’s pardon was an isolated case whose effects applied to one specific individual. It did not change national policy, nor did it eliminate the Comstock Law so precious to Protestant clergy who believed it was their moral duty to protect the youth from corrupt influences. Yet, no one possesses more symbolic power than the President of the United States. Or perhaps “possess” is not the right word, as once a token presidential decision has been unchained and released into the wilds of public perception, the symbolic power is no longer controlled by the President. Instead, it can be shaped and molded to fit into the various narratives promoted by the nation’s culture warriors. In the case of Ezra Heywood, the pardon was portrayed by the religious press as a betrayal by the President, and an indication that infidels and secularists were infiltrating even the highest office of the United States.

That such a minor presidential decision could cause such a firestorm is certainly not a rare occurrence. In recent times, one needs only to think back to President Obama’s decision to invite evangelical pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration. Supporters of gay marriage felt betrayed by the President, even though the decision itself did nothing to change national policy, much less reflect an endorsement of Warren’s views by Obama (although it did reflect an attempt to reach voters who held Warren’s views). In that sense, Obama and Hayes were in very similar situations. Each had made a minor decision that gained enough symbolic power to cause uproar within their political support base.

It remains to be seen whether or not Obama will get a second chance to appease his base with the selection of an acceptable (read: “non-evangelical”) invocation-giver. In the meantime, Obama has seemingly cleared up any ill-will that supporters of gay marriage may have felt towards him by making it clear that he supports their cause. For Hayes, a second chance was foist upon him a few months after his pardon of Heywood when a nearly identical case involving D.M. Bennett was brought to his attention. Bennett, the editor of Truth Seeker, a highly-regarded free-thought weekly, was arrested for selling Heywood’s book, Cupid’s Yokes. He was convicted under the Comstock Law for distributing obscene material, and immediately the National Liberal League launched a nation-wide campaign to garner another pardon from President Hayes.

On the surface all signs seemed to point towards another pardon. For example, Heywood, the author of the very book condemned under the Comstock Law, had been pardoned, and Bennett was merely a distributor of the book. Furthermore, stalwart Republican Robert Ingersoll (the Great Agnostic) personally lobbied Hayes on Bennett’s behalf. Ingersoll, who supported free thought and constantly criticized the (perceived) bigotry of the Protestant establishment, nevertheless was a traditionalist in terms of morality, and he had refused to help the more radical Heywood.

Yet, the decision had become more complicated for Hayes. As he wrote in his diary, “the religious world are against the pardon, the unbelievers are for it” and both sides applied “great heat.” If the Heywood decision caused noticeable furor, then a pardon for Bennett, even if consistent, would have further alienated the now-suspicious Protestant establishment. Thus, on July 19th, 1879, Hayes made his bed on the side of the religious party. Bennett would receive no pardon. Ingersoll and the National Liberal League were furious. Some called for the creation of a new Liberal political party, arguing that the Republicans were controlled by “Comstockery” and the Democrats were too cozy with the Catholic Church. The religionists, on the other hand, were pleased, and they quickly forgave Hayes for his misstep with Heywood. Anthony Comstock praised Hayes, arguing that “a person of less character, less moral courage” would have capitulated to the intense pressure from the secularists.

Fifteen years after deciding not to pardon Bennett, Hayes reflected on his decision, noting that he “was never satisfied, as I would wish, with the correctness of the result.” Such statements were no doubt much easier to make when separated by the chasm of time from the pressures of political life.  Caught in the moment itself in 1878 and 1879, Hayes found out the hard way that the culture war between politically active religious and secular communities was a very real thing in the 1870s.  Not wanting to betray his base, the course of action for Hayes was to correct his decision to pardon a secularist by refusing to pardon a second secularist in a nearly-identical case.  As so often happens in politics, Hayes bowed to the demands of his more vocal political supporters.

The cases of Heywood and Bennett still resonate because they provide clear evidence that religiously-motivated political constituencies fearful of the secularization of America were powerful in Gilded Age America, just as they are today. In the 1870s, the confluence of evangelical Protestantism and politics within the Republican Party influenced Hayes’s seemingly minor decision of granting (or not granting) a pardon.  The cases also are a reminder that every President and politician must be aware of the consequences of symbolic decisions. Even minor political decisions contain the potential to create intense reaction from the self-professed guardians and shapers of America’s cultural and religious values. 

The cynic will readily note how politicians use religion to gain favor amongst voters. Let us not forget, however, the long history that the voters themselves have in prodding their political leaders, even in the smallest of decisions, towards an outcome that is deemed symbolically acceptable to their values and beliefs. Now, as in 1879, there is precious little cultural or political ground that can be ceded without a fight.