'How democracy beat back lies, fear-mongering and conspiracy theories — in 19th-century Connecticut'
[T]here was [a] time ... when America threatened to come apart — and believe it or not, it was New England, not the South, that threatened to secede. That largely forgotten episode was entwined with a longer forgotten history: How religious freedom, once it was established in the U.S. Constitution, finally triumphed over theocracy in the intransigent state of Connecticut (as implausible as that may sound today). That story is told in a new book by author and researcher Chris Rodda, "From Theocracy to Religious Liberty," which uses contemporary sources to trace the narrative that led from Thomas Jefferson's famous 1802 letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, to a state constitution that enshrined religious liberty.
What a story it is! It's a tale of two clashing partisan identities that's strikingly similar to our world today, especially as Rodda describes the "Party of God," circa 1800:
The Federalists may not have had social media in the contemporary sense, but they definitely had viral memes, vicious rumors and conspiracy theories, often ruthlessly spread by the men in the pulpits of the largest and most powerful churches. Of course, they had voter suppression laws too. Arguably they had far more in common with us than contemporary Americans have with our own recent history — at least back when we still had the FCC's "fairness doctrine" ensuring some degree of balance in major media.The Federalists, like today's Republicans, were the conservatives, the party that believed the rich should rule, feared that more people being able to vote would put them out of power, regarded immigrants with contempt, and hypocritically boasted of having "all the religion." The Federalist clergy, like the right-wing clergy of today, were outspokenly political, preaching that it was a religious duty to vote for Federalists.
So the story of how Connecticut moved from a colonial-era theocracy to a modern pluralistic democracy is more than a historical curiosity. It's a source of inspiration and instruction for all of us in the midst of our own very dark time. There is light ahead, if we make it so. It's been done before.