The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Thoughts on Christianity and American Indian Tribal Sovereignty

By Tim Mitchell

“Liberals feel unworthy of their possessions. Conservatives feel they deserve everything they’ve stolen.”-- Mort Sahl
I have come to realize over the years that despite America’s frequent idealization of the individual and individual rights, many movements that support the preservation and advancement of minority rights are often powerless in the face of a hostile or indifferent majority. For as much as Americans idolize and value originality and freedom, our own history of rife with examples of a powerful, uniform majority pushing smaller groups to the bottom of our social hierarchy. Even our Founding Fathers, who wrote that “all men are created equal” in the Constitution, owned slaves and viewed women as second-class citizens. Indeed, for as much as some insist that our personal rights are inherent in the very act of being human, the actual recognition and value of our rights depends all too often upon the support of others--many, many others.

It is in this frame of mind that I approach this article, which I am writing as a response to an editorial that was recently published in the Native American newspaper, Indian Country. The editorial ran on June 21st and it is entitled “Christianity and sovereignty can co-exist”. While I understand that there is a complicated relationship between the American Indian tribes and Christianity, the religion introduced in the Americas by European settlers, I could not help but to wonder what on earth the author of this piece was thinking. I mean, this is CHRISTIANITY we’re talking about, the same religion that instigated or was a willing participant in the Doctrine of Discovery, the Indian Religious Crimes Code, and the Indian Boarding Schools in the U.S. and Canada--all efforts to undermine and ultimately destroy American Indian religion and culture. This is the same religion that accepted money from the federal government to “Christianize” the tribes (the First Amendment be damned), the same religion whose missionaries coined the phrase “kill the Indian, and save the man” and gave slanderous names such as “Devil’s Tower” and “Devil’s Lake” to geographic areas deemed sacred by the “heathen” tribes. During the second Bush Administration, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which has taken on a sizable influx of conservative Christian employees and cases to defend (among other things) “viewpoint discrimination” against evangelical Christians, filed an anonymous “white paper” in 2006 to block Congressional passage of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act (IHCIA) on the grounds that “direct federal funding for traditional health care practices that have a religious component may raise concerns under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.” Christianity has persistently fought against religious pluralism for the vast majority of its history; why would ANY indigenous group want Christianity involved in its fight for sovereignty? To quote the old adage, with friends like that, who needs enemies?

I come to the subject of American Indian tribal sovereignty from the perspective of an outsider; while my wife is of Cherokee heritage, my ancestors are very European. Nevertheless, I have spent much time in my recent articles discussing the status of American Indian religion in the context of Christian missionary and evangelization efforts across the centuries and I found myself puzzled over this editorial. The editorial does question the collective Christian church’s lack of participation in the American Indians’ movement toward self-determination, yet it still concludes that “tribal sovereignty does not exclude Christian beliefs or members ... Christian belief should not exclude the rights and values of indigenous peoples.” In this article, I will review key points of the editorial in light of my understanding of the Christian church’s seemingly endless campaign to convert others and its particular proselytization efforts aimed towards the indigenous cultures of the American continents. In particular, I feel that instead of asking whether Christianity can exist within an indigenous sovereignty movement, the question that should be asked is whether both indigenous religions--and in turn the tribal cultures that sustain them--can survive within an overwhelmingly Christian world.

A Holy Crusade to Homogenize Humanity

Before I begin to examine the “Christianity and sovereignty can co-exist” editorial in detail, I will first discuss my perspective on the nature of religion and culture. While it could be argued that religion and culture are two separate entities, it has been my experience that the two are deeply intertwined. For example, religion is not just about faith in the divine; like culture, it provides people with a sense of history and identity. For that reason, it does not surprise me that there is no such thing as a “secular” American Indian tribe; each tribe’s identity, its sense of origin and purpose, is deeply connected with its unique spiritual belief system. To put it in another light, you could say that spirituality is like language in that it is an inherently human trait, and that all human beings are capable of it in some capacity. Like language, human history has also shown that spirituality is capable of flourishing both in a wide array of conceptual foundations (polytheistic, monotheistic, pantheistic, etc.) and in a wide variety of cultural structures, from basic hunter-gatherer groups to international post-industrial unions.

Christianity can provide individuals with a sense of identity as other religions can, but there is something historically different about it: from its rise to prominence in ancient Rome, Christianity has been--and continues to be--a religion of empire. Whether it is the religion of choice for each of the colonial empires of Europe or the prominent religion of the military-industrial superpower that is America, Christianity’s determination to ensure its supremacy at the expense of others remains undaunted. Most of this is attributable to Christianity’s evangelical nature: its followers spend billions of dollars annually on proselytization efforts around the world--far more than any other religion--with the expressed intent of draining followers away from other religious communities and into Christianity. Where the Christian church chooses to invest its time and money alone should indicate to anyone who is paying attention that it does not place a high value on religious diversity.

In order to sustain its evangelical imperative, Christianity sees itself as being able to effortlessly insert itself into non-Christian communities with only positive outcomes. After all, if Jesus Christ is the true savior for all of humankind, then it would only stand to reason that ALL communities should welcome Christianity no matter how alien its traditions, scriptures and historical viewpoints are to the communities in question. To go back to the language analogy, it would be like arguing that because all people are capable of speaking a language, not only should they be required to speak English but that they all really WANT to be required to speak English. Apparently, not much thought is given by Christians to the question that if all people and all cultures are ultimately supposed to be Christian, then why are there so many non-Christian faiths in the first place? If there is only supposed to be one god in the universe, the god described in the Christian Bible, then how come humanity has worshipped so many gods throughout the course of its collective history? Regardless of what one may say about the foundations of the Christian faith, its understanding of other religions and their place in this world is deeply flawed and hardly conducive to sustaining environments where religious plurality thrives.

One of the means of proselytization that Christianity has utilized throughout the centuries to convert non-Christian, “pagan” cultures is to disconnect their ethnic identities from the religious traditions of their ancestors and connect them to a Christian-centric worldview instead. For example, two of the major Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter, are rife with pagan symbols because as Christian apologists put it, this was done to “win over” ancient pagan peoples to the Christian faith. You’ll hear this explanation repeatedly in various discussion forums whenever questions are asked about the origins of these “traditions”, since painted eggs, decorated indoor trees and anthropomorphized rabbits clearly have little to do with the historical Christian events Christmas and Easter are designated to celebrate. It always makes me bristle to hear this explanation, to hear representatives of a conquering religion blithely discussing the symbolism of the religions they subdued as nothing more than tools in the theological equivalent of a commercial marketing campaign.

I’ve examined Christianity’s recurring tendency to “hijack” other cultures away from their ancestral faiths in greater detail in previous articles, such as “The Not-So-Great Commission” and “Evangelizing Evolution”. While I will not do so again here, I will emphasize my own concern that Christianity’s rapacious evangelical agenda has caused, and will continue to cause, incalculable damage to humanity’s spirit. Because of its steadfast conviction that it is “universal” and that it can transplant itself into any culture at any time and any place, as if it were somehow making things they way they should be, Christianity fails to recognize the damage it is inflicting upon religion as a collective human experience when it compromises the integrity of other faiths. Just as industrialization has caused countless environments across the globe to erode due to overpopulation, pollution and massive clear-cutting efforts, I believe that Christianity’s ruthless evangelization efforts that resulted in the destruction of countless religious traditions has caused a spiritual erosion of sorts around the world. Indigenous populations that are fighting for their sovereignty should not take this idea lightly when courting the Christian church’s support.

Civil Rights, Religious Wrongs

The “Christianity and sovereignty can co-exist” editorial begins with a summary of the Civil Rights Movement in America during the 1950s and ‘60s and how Native American leaders were attempting to engage Christian churches in the movement for tribal sovereignty. As the editorial states:

The Civil Rights movement was strengthened and supported by Christian churches from many denominations. Indian leaders and intellectuals, many of them Christians, believed the churches would play a significant role in the struggle for American Indian self-determination. However, the churches did not play a significant supportive role in the self-determination movement.

The editorial begins to compare how the Christian church helped the black community more than the Native American community in the area of civil rights:

In the black community, and in the Civil Rights Movement, churches were often the main way in which black people were organized into communities. Furthermore, the Civil Rights Movement was aimed at individual political and economic inclusion into American society. The Civil Rights Movement upheld central American values, goals and law. The problem was the United States was not implementing its own values and law in ways that were consistent with the Constitution or the values it expressed. Disadvantaged minority groups wanted inclusion, acceptance and entry into full U.S. citizenship. Generally, the Christian churches were supportive of the goals and values of the Civil Rights Movement and the changes in U.S. society and law that resulted. ... The movement toward American Indian self-determination, however, gained less support from the churches.

The editorial is correct that the Christian church did indeed play an important role of the Civil Rights Movement, but it completely overlooks the fact that for many black Americans, their ancestors were brought into the Christian faith under the dark shadow of slavery. Through slavery, the black community’s adherence to the non-Christian faiths of their African ancestors was largely beaten out of them--or, to be more exact, beaten, tortured, raped and murdered out of them for several consecutive generations. Christianity was a major supporter of the slave trade in its beginning, and slavery was justified in the minds of many as a way of bringing Christianity to the so-called “dark continent” of Africa. In fact, even though the African religion of Voodoo received official recognition from the Haitian government in 2003, the Catholic church, to quote The Los Angeles Times, “reacted with alarm at the moves to empower voodoo practitioners to conduct rituals with legal significance, especially baptisms, which the church contends are an exclusively Christian domain.” Haitian Voodoo adherents had to practice their faith clandestinely before such recognition due to Christianity’s violent oppression of it, an oppression that included at least three purges of Voodoo during Haiti’s early history. (In a strange twist, evangelical Christians in Haiti believed that the legal recognition of Voodoo, which gives it the same legal status as Christianity, would somehow threaten THEIR religious freedoms.)

In addition, the relationship between Christianity and black culture has not always been an amicable one even after slavery was ended. For example, some black scholars such as Hubert Henry Harrison and John G. Jackson rejected and openly criticized Christianity for its extensive participation in the slave trade and the ongoing suppression of blacks. Even the holiday of Kwanzaa, a holiday created by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966 to celebrate black American culture, is not above controversy within the black community. Kwanzaa is rejected by some black Christians as a challenge to Christmas, including a national campaign entitled “Merry Christmas, Not Happy Kwanzaa!” by the conservative Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny (BOND). “Kwanzaa is a phony, wicked holiday created by an ex-con who hates God, Christians, Jews, and blacks,” warns Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, BOND’s founder. “Blacks, particularly black Christians, need to stand up for Christmas and reject Kwanzaa. If they refuse, they will be helping to stamp out the true meaning of Christmas, and allowing evil to have its way in America.”

Personally, I never could understand the relationship between Christianity and black American culture. I once heard a black Christian gospel choir singing a song with a chorus that repeatedly proclaimed “We Are God’s Chosen People” to a lively, calypso-like beat. What blew my mind about this particular song is that it was sung by people whose ancestors were enslaved by another group of people, white Christians, who thought that THEY were God’s chosen people--an assertion made by a religion derived from yet another group of people, the Jews, who thought that they were God’s chosen people. (There are even some modern conservative Christians who consider Civil War Confederate General Stonewall Jackson to be “The Black Man’s Friend” because he taught his slaves to read so they could learn their Bible lessons.) In light of such a history of multi-generational forced conversion, I can only wonder: would progressive Civil War-era Christian abolitionists have been as willing to help the southern slaves gain their freedom if the slaves would have expressed a desire to revert back to the non-Christian religious traditions of their ancestors once they were freed? Would the abolitionists have continued to help, or would they have seen granting freedom to a possible non-Christian end as encouraging Satanism? Would the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. have openly marched with black practitioners of Voodoo and other traditional African faiths, or would he have viewed such an action as compromising the credibility of the Civil Rights Movement?

In another instance, I read an article entitled “When My Light is Almost Gone” by Debra J. Dickerson in the December 2005 Mother Jones “God and Country” issue. The article was part of a pictorial essay of the southern black churches that were devastated by recent hurricanes. What baffled me was her repeated use of the word “apostate”, a term that suggests disloyalty, betrayal and desertion, when talking about members of the black community who have left the Christian church and criticize Christianity and its negative impact on black American history. She referred to the Christian church as the “center of black strategy and agenda” and lamented the “wedge between African Americans and God” while the article included a picture of the late Rev. Martin Luther King as the opening image, thus making the unnerving insinuation that blacks who leave the Christian church and are critical of it are somehow undermining the stability of the black community and the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement. “Only an apostate, someone who rejects deities and blames Christianity for inuring blacks to their oppression, would not-so-subtly (be) trying to separate blacks from the God and the church to which they’ve clung for centuries,” Dickerson wrote. Yet for blacks to attain the same level of freedom as other Americans, shouldn’t they be free to embrace other religions and ideas such as Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Voodoo, atheism or agnosticism? Suggesting that all American blacks should always remain indebted to and non-judgmental of the Christian church because of its connections to the Civil Rights Movement and black American history is an argument for the very opposite of true equality. (Heck, by Dickerson’s rationale, the Haitians who practice Voodoo and supported its legal recognition by the Haitian government are among the “apostates” who blame “Christianity for inuring blacks to their oppression” and are “trying to separate blacks from the God and the church to which they’ve clung for centuries.”) If Christianity becomes more involved in the tribal sovereignty effort and ends up playing a decisive role in the struggle, will we be seeing accusations of American Indians being “apostates” when they choose to abandon Christianity in favor of traditional religious beliefs and practices and criticize its role in undermining tribal religions? Would this really be a victory for the American Indian people?

Confusing Conversion with Compassion

The Indian Country editorial makes its case that Christianity can co-exist with traditional religious practices within American Indian tribes in this paragraph:

While many American Indians have converted to Christianity, most tribal communities and governments are not organized around Christian belief. When American Indians convert to Christianity, they often do not give up their identity as Indians, or ties to their community or government. In some communities, the introduction of Christianity created cultural and often political breaks with non-converts. Christianity, ultimately, demands a cultural transformation of the individual with internalization of Christian values and lifeways. Converts are often asked to give up traditional values, ceremonies and traditional ways of living; which also translate into preferences for Western or U.S.-style community and political organization. In some communities, Christianity introduced cultural and political conflict over future directions. Nevertheless, many Indian communities found ways to reconcile the inclusion of Christian groups. In some communities, Christianity is seen as one of several paths to the sacred. In these nations, some spiritual leaders practice a Christian religion, often Catholicism, as well as the Native American Church, and participate in the Sun Dance. One is only enjoined not to mix the doctrines of the various religions. Other communities respect the decisions of individuals and villages to take on Christianity or to practice the traditional spiritual path and ceremonies.

This defense of Christian Indians is seen again in the editorial’s conclusion:

Nevertheless, there are many prominent Christian Indian leaders who are devoted to American Indian issues and future welfare. Despite the official positions of the Christian churches, most American Indian Christians are strong defenders of tribal sovereignty. The churches should listen more carefully to the spiritual and worldly needs of their Indian members, and develop a rationale for the Christian defense of indigenous rights. Christianity and tribal sovereignty are reconcilable for many Indian people.

I’m sure that the editorial is correct in asserting that many tribes have found a way to accommodate Christianity within their cultures and that many Christian Indians are actively and positively involved in American Indian causes. Nevertheless, the persistent, competitive evangelical nature of the larger, collective Christian church must not be ignored. There’s a reason why this editorial is not entitled “Judaism and sovereignty can co-exist”, “Buddhism and sovereignty can co-exist”, or “Hinduism and sovereignty can co-exist”. With its endless dispatch of missionaries, translations of its Bible into every known language, and past and present cooperation with the U.S. government and industry to undermine indigenous rights, Christianity has made it utterly impossible for tribes in each of the American continents to NOT deal with the rapidly growing presence of the Christian faith over the centuries. The tribes should be congratulated for their efforts at accommodating religious diversity; in fact, I think the American Indians have been far more tolerant of Christianity than Christianity has ever been of the indigenous tribal religions (both in the Americas and around the world). In a sad, ironic twist, you could say that the American Indians have been more respectful of the freedoms recognized in the First Amendment than white Christian America ever has, and that simply should not be. The First Amendment was intended to protect the religious beliefs of minorities, not majorities, and no minority should feel compelled to tolerate a majority that has such a blatant history of disrespect and hostility towards other religious traditions.

For example, if you go to, an Internet resource for indigenous cultures around the world, click on the “Religion & Spirituality” listing towards the bottom of the page. On the “Religion & Spirituality” page, you will find many links to pages with information about traditional indigenous religious practices. But intermixed with these links are many other links to Christian evangelical groups specifically targeted to indigenous cultures. Here are a few of those groups, with their descriptions:

  • Bible Mission to Native Americans: The purpose of Bible Mission to Native Americans is to minister to the spiritual needs of our Native People in all fifty states, plus the U.S. Possession Islands in the Pacific.
  • Native American Baptist Ministries in Oklahoma: Inter-tribal website with information for Native American Baptist Ministries and Christian events in the state of Oklahoma.
  • Warriors for Christ: Discipleship Training for American Indians: Christian ministry for urban and reservation American Indians/Native, set up to encourage and strengthen spiritual growth of Native Americans through evangelism and discipleship training and to strengthen and plant Native churches on Indian reservations and urban areas throughout North America.
  • Without Reservation: Discover Native North Americans following Christ Without Reservation. Aboriginal people sharing stories of faith and culture from a First Nations perspective.
  • These groups, of which there are many outside of those listed on, are far more interested in entering tribes to add members to the Christian faith than in preserving tribes’ traditional non-Christian faiths, and they show no signs of slowing down. Some even have extensive databases that track the number and locations of “unreached” people around the world. To make matters worse, this doesn’t even begin to cover the rapidly growing Christian offshoot of Mormonism, whose practitioners were shocked when DNA evidence in the 1990s proved that the American Indians and Polynesians are not related to the Jews, a claim made by the Book of Mormon. This belief was used by Mormons since the beginnings of Mormonism as a way of persuading American Indians and Polynesians to convert to the Mormon religion. However, according to William Lobdell in “Bedrock of a Faith Is Jolted”, his February 16, 2006 article for The Los Angeles Times:

    Critics want the church to admit its mistake and apologize to millions of Native Americans it converted. Church leaders have shown no inclination to do so. Indeed, they have dismissed as heresy any suggestion that Native American genetics undermine the Mormon creed. ... Officially, the Mormon Church says that nothing in the Mormon scriptures is incompatible with DNA evidence, and that the genetic studies are being twisted to attack the church. “We would hope that church members would not simply buy into the latest DNA arguments being promulgated by those who oppose the church for some reason or other,” said Michael Otterson, a Salt Lake City-based spokesman for the Mormon church. “The truth is, the Book of Mormon will never be proved or disproved by science,” he said.

    Such competition for indigenous adherents by Christianity and its derivatives reminds me of comments made by Roy Brown in his July 1998 article, “Fundamentalism as a Destroyer of Cultures”, for the Alabama Freethinker newsletter:

    I just received a magazine covering Amerind art ... inside was a story about a Navaho who abandoned his native religion to become a born-again fundamentalist, and in the process, violated the Navaho taboo of rendering human images by carving statues in wood. And he has the effrontery to remain on the reservation. He has been so brainwashed by these fundamentalist beliefs that he fails to see that he has destroyed his own religious conviction ... Ever since the Baptists and Methodists of the nineteenth century went abroad to share their gospel, they have succeeded in destroying every culture they have come in contact with. Look at Hawaii, where the native rituals are now shown merely as tourist attractions. And observe the mission schools here in our own land, where Indians were taught that their pagan ways must be forgotten, and that their Great Spirit was purely a myth ... An African has said, “When the missionary came he had the Bible and we had the land; now we have the Bible and he has the land.” ... There was also an article in the latest Smithsonian about a woman photographer in Mexico who devoted herself to showing the decay in local traditions through their being corrupted by the Catholic Church. She felt her country ended up with a blend of both, becoming utterly ridiculous.

    Doing the Math

    Matters of religious belief and freedom of conscience aside, the mere math of the American Indian situation speaks loudly as to why the Christian church’s involvement in the tribal sovereignty movement is a bad idea. The Native American population was horribly decimated by the arrival of Europeans, through disease, forced relocation and violent conflict, resulting in a modern day Indian population that is a very small percentage of the total U.S. population. Christianity has a global membership that totals at around 2 billion followers, with majorities in most of the industrialized world; so, while Christians are the majority in America, followers of traditional American Indian beliefs are the smaller minority within an already diminutive minority. (Indigenous issues aside, to just lump Christianity together with other religions when discussing religious civil liberties is patently absurd, given its massive, disproportionate size in comparison to other faiths.) Furthermore, religions survive by passing beliefs, teachings and traditions from generation to generation. Christian efforts to force the American Indians away from their traditional religions, such as the Indian Boarding Schools, caused extensive damage to the tribes’ efforts to keep their faiths alive across the generations, deliberately stacking the deck in favor of a growing Christian presence in the tribes and a shrinking base of traditional religious practitioners. If the Christian presence continues to grow while the non-Christian traditional religions continue to shrink within the tribal cultures that have sustained them, can they survive at all in the future?

    Oddly, the Indian Country editorial does feature a paragraph that clearly identifies why there have been recent tensions between American Indian activism and the Christian church:

    When self-determination activists started to look to reservation communities for spiritual guidance, they started to view the Christian churches and their views as assimilationist. The churches and church activists withdrew from the movement, in part because of the religious revival and veneration for the traditional religions, and because the churches never seemed quite comfortable supporting American Indian political and cultural autonomy. In recent comments, Pope Benedict suggests that renewal of indigenous culture and beliefs are a step backward.

    For me, here is where the editorial’s argument falls apart. Self-determination activists regarded the Christian churches and their views as assimilationist because all available evidence proves that they ARE assimilationist. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, and there are many tolerant, open-minded Christians all over the world; but as an institution, the Christian church sees its supremacy over other religions as both deserved and inevitable. For example, the comments of Pope Benedict that are referred to in the editorial are those that were said during his appearance in Brazil last May. “Christ is the savior for whom they were silently longing,” Benedict said about the indigenous, pre-Columbian people of Latin America. He went on to say that, “In effect, the proclamation of Jesus and of his Gospel did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbus cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture.” Also, Benedict did not SUGGEST that the renewal of pre-Christian religious beliefs among the indigenous people would be a step backwards, he ACTUALLY SAID that it would be a step backwards. Benedict’s assumptions, like the assumptions of many Christians like him, verify my analysis of Christian thinking in “Living in a Missionary World”:

    It is as if Christ’s Great Commission--his command to his followers to spread the faith in him to all corners of the world--has permeated every aspect of Western thinking, no matter how secular some say it has become. Mind you, this does not make very citizen of the Western world (let alone every Christian) a dedicated evangelist, but it does encourage an atmosphere of acceptance (or at least indifference) when it comes to Christian evangelism activity, regardless of what that activity may be, where and when it takes place, and to whom it is done. Furthermore, such deliberate exclusion of non-Christian, non-monotheistic faiths indirectly suggests that when any culture is given the choice of either following Jesus Christ or following the non-Christian faith of its ancestors, it will always choose Christ. In other words, the suggestion is that everyone innately WANTS to be a Christian, even if he or she is not consciously aware of such desire, or that everyone is ultimately destined to become a Christian. Then again, this belief must be maintained to accept Christianity’s assertion that it is “universal” for the entire human race. While this doesn’t explain the ongoing existence of other religions such as Judaism or Hinduism and overlooks situations of indigenous resistance to encroaching Christian interests, such an assumption is necessary to accept the pro-Christian view of world history. In this history, there is only one true, monotheistic religion that is the pinnacle of morality and progress, and all other religions are nothing but exercises in empty superstition, chronic ignorance, questionable sanity, and/or remorseless evil. This kind of interpretation of history runs parallel to Christian Creationism itself, as if all of human history revolves around the Christian Bible’s view of history.

    Benedict’s remarks took me back to another time when his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, visited Mexico in 2002. As part of that visit, John Paul II beatified Juan Bautista and Jacinto de los Angeles, two Zapotec Indians who died at the hands of their fellow villagers as “martyrs” for the Catholic Church in September 1700. What the Catholic Church does not readily admit is that Bautista and de los Angeles were informers working for the Spanish colonial church to help stamp out non-Christian religious practices. These Indians were killed by the villagers in retaliation for telling colonial police about an Indian religious ceremony that the police then raided. In response to the deaths of Bautista and de los Angeles, Christian officials decapitated and quartered 15 men whose body parts were then staked by the roadside as a warning.

    John Paul II also canonized Juan Diego, the Indian to whom the Virgin of Guadelupe revealed herself in 1531, making him the first Indian saint. Naturally, this canonization overlooks the fact that there is no solid evidence that Diego ever existed, or that the so-called “Guadelupe miracle” was in reality a ploy to substitute a Catholic icon for the Aztec goddess Tonantzin Koatlikwe. Think about it: the word “Guadelupe” is in reference to the Guadelupe River in Spain, where a wooden image of a small, brown-skinned woman (probably carved by one of the Moors who were occupying Spain) was found by a Catholic Spaniard in the 13th century. This image became “Our lady of Guadelupe”, a “sign” from the Christian god of Spain’s victory over the Moors. After Columbus arrived in the Americas, the king and queen of Spain declared the Virgin to be “protector of the Indians,” since their skin color was similar to that of the Guadelupe image. Isn’t it more than a little suspect that the Virgin Mary would appear to an Indian in a fashion that happened to fit the one chosen for the Indians by the king and queen of Spain and was avidly worshipped by Hernan Cortes, one of the brutal conquerors of New World who made the Virgin of Guadelupe part of his military banner?

    What I found particularly jarring in reading articles about these papal visits is how article after article framed the issue in terms of competition--not competition between pre-Columbian indigenous religions and Christianity, but Christianity competing with MORE Christianity. Both the 2002 and 2007 papal visits were intended to stem the Catholic Church’s growing losses of followers to charismatic Protestantism in both Central and South America. The Catholic Church’s competition with Protestant evangelists is nothing new, and it did become more noticeable to me as I read about these papal visits and as I was doing research last year for my article on the movie Apocalypto. (Pope Benedict just recently approved the release of a document that emphasizes the “universal primacy” of the Roman Catholic Church and that other Christian denominations are not true churches.) Nevertheless, religion should ideally be about an individual’s expression of spiritual belief and devotion within the context of a particular religious tradition/community. To see terms such as “competition” and “defection” in articles about the relationship between Catholicism and Protestantism (or Christianity and any other faith) suggests a process that is far more bureaucratic, economic and political than spiritual--or, for that matter, spiritually healthy. Yet regardless of whether Catholicism or Protestantism succeeds in establishing a majority, the non-Christian faiths in the region lose. Sadly, like John Paul II and Benedict, the articles about the visits largely ignore the blood-drenched genocidal colonial history behind the Catholic Church’s ill-gotten gains and what such outcomes mean to religious freedom and diversity.

    As a result of such intra-Christian competition, both popes beatified and canonized Indians to increase Catholicism’s appeal to the indigenous communities in Latin America, even though such acts are little more than religious marketing campaigns akin to the Christmas trees and Easter eggs I referred to in the beginning of this article. Yet no matter how transparently self-serving these tactics are, they still work. Here is an excerpt from “Bolstering Faith of the Indians,” an article written by Frank Bruni and Ginger Thompson that ran in the August 1, 2002 edition of The New York Times, with emphasis added:

    During a lavishly staged Mass that mingled flourishes from the ancient Aztecs with traditional hymns, Pope John Paul II made an emphatic appeal today to the indigenous people who have abandoned the Roman Catholic Church and presented them with a saint they could call their own. As the pope canonized Juan Diego, an Indian convert to Catholicism in the 16th century, Indians in feathered headdresses blew conch shells and danced through the Basilica of Guadalupe here in celebration of what the pope called “the gift of the first indigenous saint of the American continent.” ... “Christ’s message, through his mother, took up the central elements of the indigenous culture, purified them and gave them the definitive sense of salvation,” the pope said in Spanish, according to the official Vatican translation of his remarks. The pope added that Juan Diego “facilitated the fruitful meeting of two worlds” in the wake of the conquest of Mexico by Catholic Spaniards and “became the catalyst for the new Mexican identity.” ... “It gives me satisfaction to know that Juan Diego is now equal to all the other saints in our church,” said Gloria Estela Gonzalez, a Purepecha Indian from central Mexico. “He shows that humble and simple people like us have a place at the altar.”

    This is the most chilling aspect of Christianity’s colonial history. The Christian church willingly and violently persecutes a population for its religious beliefs and then makes token acts of contrition for such actions once it secures a majority of followers within the population, to suggest some kind of “equality” within the ranks of the church. This can even reach the point where, as this example demonstrates, followers dress in traditional pre-Christian drag as a facade of mutual tolerance. (Such duplicity is more suggestive of Stockholm syndrome than genuine religious faith.) Indeed, it is a tragedy for all when true religious equality is supplanted by this warped and deceitful alternative, which supports forced conversions of entire cultures and demands that minorities must have a member achieve sainthood to receive better recognition from an international religion such as the Catholic Church. Yet it has happened in Latin America and it has happened within the black community of the U.S. Does the indigenous community in North America want it to happen in their tribes as well?

    Ironically, even though the indigenous populations of Central and South America were converted to Catholicism by the Spanish, membership in the Catholic Church in modern-day Spain is dwindling. The rate of recent departures among the Spanish has reached a point where the bishops have even gone to court to stop them from leaving.

    Sovereignty of the Tribe, Freedom of the Spirit

    As I said before, not all Christians are harshly opposed to other religions or are obsessed with ensuring Christianity’s dominion over all by whatever means necessary. Most of my family and friends are Christians. They are not raving, violent fanatics, they don’t feel compelled to intrude on the religious practices of other faiths, and they are just as bothered by the Christian Right’s recent ascendancy in American politics as I am. Many of these Christians would read what I’m writing now and argue against the actions taken by aggressive, intolerant Christian evangelists, saying that Jesus Christ himself would deplore such behavior. But as I have articulated in my recent articles, I’ve grown up living in a culture that far too often looks away from Christianity’s crimes, crimes committed on scales that no other religion could achieve simply because of its insatiable imperative to convert and its international reach. These crimes and their lasting, damaging impact to other faiths and cultures should not be disregarded and Christianity should not be left unaccountable simply because it is a majority religion or can sustain tolerant, progressive followers as part of its total membership.

    I can understand the Native American community’s plea with the Christian church for support. Christianity is the majority religion in the U.S., and thus it wields considerable social, political and economic clout. But the closing comments in the Indian Country editorial, that “In practice, tribal sovereignty does not exclude Christian beliefs or members” and that “Christian belief should not exclude the rights and values of indigenous peoples”, emphasize the very problem with relying on the Christian church when seeking control of one’s political destiny. True, Christian beliefs SHOULDN’T exclude the rights and values of indigenous peoples, but the Christian church’s history, both past and present, unmistakably shows otherwise. It must never be forgotten that the Christian church has been actively involved with the suppression of traditional Indian religious practices since its arrival in the Americas, in addition to the undermining of indigenous non-Christian religions around the world throughout the centuries. On the basis of its history, I cannot imagine the Christian church as a united institution supporting any endeavor where it cannot assume a lasting dominance. I would argue that the Christian church will remain withdrawn from the American Indian tribal sovereignty movement until it can be certain that it can secure a permanent majority of believers within the American Indian community. As long as traditional non-Christian religious beliefs and practices remain a viable choice among the American Indians, along with a possibility of their resurgence at the expense of Christian supremacy, the Christian church as a whole will not regard the tribal sovereignty of the American Indians as a worthwhile investment, no matter how morally justified such support would be.

    True tribal sovereignty will encourage the survival of traditional, non-Christian religious beliefs. It should not completely exclude Christianity or other religions, but it should foster an atmosphere of religious tolerance on the terms that best fit the tribes and NOT the Christian church. Traditional tribal religions are unique expressions of spiritual wisdom that are to be cherished and protected, particularly because these minority religions are sorely misunderstood and unappreciated by the general American public and they have no stable, safe haven outside of the tribes--as opposed to Christianity, which is in abundance. The teachings, rituals and holy lands recognized by such traditional beliefs are anchored on this continent and nowhere else; if such practices and beliefs are lost here, they are lost forever. As history proves (such as in Latin America), letting a hyper-competitive, evangelical religion such as Christianity play an integral role in the tribes’ campaign for sovereignty will most likely put the survival of traditional tribal religions at risk. If true freedom is to be attained, the tribes must not allow Christianity and its legions of well-funded, overzealous missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, to exploit the political weaknesses of the American Indian community to further compromise the survival of the traditional religions.

    In a larger context, it will be a major victory for religious freedom for indigenous and minority religions everywhere if the American Indians are successful in achieving sovereignty without the help of the Christian church. Minorities should not have to look to another religion for approval and support when it comes to establishing their sovereignty. Doing otherwise suggests that the First Amendment is not a valid, sustainable political concept, that civil rights and political autonomy of a minority group mean nothing if the majority religion does recognize and support such efforts. While establishing tribal sovereignty without the support of the Christian church will be difficult, it will be worthwhile in the long run for both American Indians and others who seek to protect their religious freedoms from an intolerant majority.



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