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Divine Right 

America would be smart to heed lesson from history

In my country, the last ruler who claimed to govern by God's authority had his head chopped off. This was King Charles I, who was deposed from the throne of England after nearly a decade of civil war, tried by Oliver Cromwell's parliament, and decapitated in 1649.

Charles inherited the concept of "divine right" from his father, King James I. This doctrine maintained the monarch was appointed by God, ruled in his name, and was answerable to God, not the people. In a society taking early steps towards what is recognizable to us as a modern democracy, this provoked huge anger and stress across the nation, which became divided against itself. The conservative Royalists, generally the more wealthy classes, rallied round the King, defending their privilege against the Parliamentarians, predominantly derived from the newly forming middle class of merchants and businessmen who were pushing for democratic reforms. This volatile mix was further fueled by religious polarization: The Royalists were high church and often Catholic, while the (ultimately victorious) Parliamentarians were hard line Protestants, a division that had racked England since Henry VIII broke away from Rome in 1534 to set up the independent Church of England.

Religious zealotry and violence continued to dominate English life and politics until the Protestants established firm control in the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 that overthrew the Catholic King James II and installed the Anglo-Dutch Protestant duo of William and Mary. Within the British Isles, religious hatred continued to inflame Ireland for another three centuries, but in England, Scotland and Wales, the passion to impose a specific view of God upon one's friends, neighbors and enemies gradually receded.

Religion in general slowly ceased to be a driving force in British national life from the 18th century onwards as my countrymen and women sought a reprieve from the murder and cruelty carried out in the name of Jesus. Instead, they began to embrace the secular rationalism of the Enlightenment that has shaped modern Europe with its concepts of natural law, universal order and scientific progress. While the church lives on in the minds of a minority, most lingering religious yearnings in European thought were trampled by the brutality and horror of the two World Wars that ravaged the continent. For my parents' and grandparents' generations in Britain, it became hard to believe in a God who would accept the carnage of innocents by the million.

I've regaled you with this mini-lesson in British history, because I recently read the letter sent to President Bush II by Bob Jones III, president of the so-called university that bears his name in Greenville, SC. This gloating, intolerant epistle creates chilling parallels with the religious bigotry that bedeviled my nation during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Jones' letter could have been written 400 years ago. Its sentiments are similar to those once expressed by fanatics on both sides of the religious divide in historical Britain. Jones claims that God and Jesus have placed George Bush in the White House and granted him four more years to govern in Their names. This is exactly the same attitude espoused by Kings James and Charles of England (and by the ill-fated French monarchs across the Channel) to validate their oppressive policies against their subjects.

Jones urges Bush to disregard the sentiments of Americans who don't share the Southern preacher's harsh and fundamentalist view of the scriptures. The President, in Jones' opinion, needs only the approval of God. In as many words, Jones urges Bush to become a prophet carrying out God's will, speaking with a voice "like the clear and certain sound of a trumpet." Perhaps worst of all, Jones vilifies all Americans who didn't vote for Bush as "pagans," creating a pernicious division of the country between the righteous and the damned, in much the same way as religious persecutors in previous times separated out their victims. This cruel, dogmatic view of the world was precisely what spurred the original settlers to leave the religious hatred of 17th century Europe to found a new nation in America, but this tragic irony is lost on Jones and, apparently, on most of the 59 million Americans who voted for Bush's crusading agenda.

One basic tenet of rule by divine right is the importance of succession, creating a dynasty blessed by God. We already have Bush I and Bush II. The logic of this theocratic America is to anoint Governor Jeb Bush of Florida as Bush III in 2008. This may seem crazy, but the parallels with divisive theistic rule in England centuries ago and modern day America are troubling. As the supreme product of the Enlightenment, this nation was founded in profound opposition to doctrinaire rule by divine right. We can only hope today that common sense and rational thought will once again triumph over religious zealotry and loathing.

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