Sunday, May 08, 2005


All of the brainy kids in school knew the word "antidisestablishmentarianism", for no other reason than that at 28 letters long, it was one of the longest words in the dictionary, and we knew how to spell it (even if it was rather puffed up with standard prefixes and suffixes). The sole purpose of knowing that word was to be sesquipedantic (that's the "25-cent word" for those who like to show off their 25-cent words), though we may have had some dim awareness that it related to some 19th century English political philosophical dispute. Its meaning was one of those things that seem to live only in musty history textbooks but had no real bearing on our lives except insofar as it might appear on the AP History exam someday.

I have no idea what made me think of it today, but in a flash I realized that that once obscure philosophical debate has found new life here in 21st century America. It seems antidisestablishmentarianism has resurfaced and is frighteningly relevant. Of course, as with all reincarnations, the new form is not exactly the same as the old. To refresh the memories of those who have forgotten (and to inform those who never were precociously sesquipedantic children), antidisestablishmentarianism was coined in the context of a 19th century English debate about the separation of church and state. In England, there had been an "established church" for many centuries, intertwined with the government. Even today, there are bishops who are ex officio members of the House of Lords, and the state government is involved in the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury (the highest ranking prelate in the Church of England). In 19th century England, in the political wake of the American and French revolutions and the philosophical wake of the Enlightenment, there were those who began to advocate for a separation of church and state ("disestablishment"), i.e., disestablishmentarians. And as every liberal impulse stimulates an equal and opposite conservative reaction, there arose "antidisestablishmentarians", who argued for the preservation of the established church. Though disestablishment eventually came about in Ireland and in Wales, there remains a formal established church in England and Scotland, although practically all of the more objectionable aspects have been eliminated and mostly what remains are quaint traditional trappings (like the Prime Minister proposing Archbishop nominees to the Queen).

So here we are in 21st century America, where everyone who went through American elementary school (whether they were sesquipedantic or not) knows that the United States has never had an established church, and that we believe in the separation of church and state as one of our founding principles. But lately, we have seen the rise of people who genuinely believe that we ought to be a Christian nation, and that there shouldn't be such a wall between church and state. (Andrew Sullivan has the goods here, here, and here.) Now one might say that these folks are "establishmentarians", since they are seeking to establish a church where there has been none. But one of the more alarming tactics of this pro-Christian-theocracy crowd is their revisionist history. They actually argue not only that the United States ought to be a Christian nation, but that it is and always has been. They reinvent American history such that separation of church and state is some radical left-wing propaganda that only gained any currency with the rise of "activist courts" (that's code for post-Roe-v.-Wade). Thus, in one of history's bizarre twists, it is their own belief in their revisionist history that makes it possible for antidisestablishmentarians to exist in a nation which has never had an established church to disestablish in the first place. I can only hope and pray (privately, thank you) that the future generations of brainy kids will enjoy the academic thrill of spelling neoantidisestablishmentarianism without any worry of being harmed by its effects.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Googled "neoantidisestablishmentarianism", was not disappointed.