"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
President Bush treated his final visit with Pope John Paul II in Vatican City on June 4, 2004, as a campaign stop. After enduring a public rebuke from the pope about the Iraq war, Bush lobbied Vatican officials to help him win the election. “Not all the American bishops are with me,” he complained, according to the National Catholic Reporter. He pleaded with the Vatican to pressure the bishops to step up their activism against abortion and gay marriage in the states during the campaign season.
About a week later, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger sent a letter to the U.S. bishops, pronouncing that those Catholics who were pro-choice on abortion were committing a “grave sin” and must be denied Communion. He pointedly mentioned “the case of a Catholic politician consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws” — an obvious reference to John Kerry, the Democratic candidate and a Roman Catholic. If such a Catholic politician sought Communion, Ratzinger wrote, priests must be ordered to “refuse to distribute it.” Any Catholic who voted for this “Catholic politician,” he continued, “would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion.” During the closing weeks of the campaign, a pastoral letter was read from pulpits in Catholic churches repeating the ominous suggestion of excommunication. Voting for the Democrat was nothing less than consorting with the forces of Satan, collaboration with “evil.”
In 2004 Bush increased his margin of Catholic support by 6 points from the 2000 election, rising from 46 to 52 percent. Without this shift, Kerry would have had a popular majority of a million votes. Three states — Ohio, Iowa and New Mexico — moved into Bush’s column on the votes of the Catholic “faithful.” Even with his atmospherics of terrorism and Sept. 11, Bush required the benediction of the Holy See as his saving grace. The key to his kingdom was turned by Cardinal Ratzinger.
With the College of Cardinals’ election of Ratzinger to the papacy, his political alliances with conservative politicians can be expected to deepen and broaden. Under Benedict XVI, the church will assume a consistent reactionary activism it has not had for two centuries. And the new pope’s crusade against modernity has already joined forces with the right-wing culture war in the United States, prefigured by his interference in the 2004 election.
Europe is far less susceptible than the United States to the religious wars that Ratzinger will incite. Attendance at church is negligible; church teachings are widely ignored; and the younger generation is least observant of all. But in the United States, the Bush administration and the right wing of the Republican Party are trying to batter down the wall of separation between church and state. Through court appointments, they wish to enshrine doctrinal views on the family, women, gays, medicine, scientific research and privacy. The Republican attempt to abolish the two-centuries-old filibuster — the so-called nuclear option — is only one coming wrangle in the larger Kulturkampf.
Joseph Ratzinger was born and bred in the cradle of the Kulturkampf, or culture war. Roman Catholic Bavaria was a stronghold against northern Protestantism during the Reformation. In the 19th century the church was a powerful force opposing the unification of Italy and Germany into nation-states, fearing that they would diminish the church’s influence in the shambles of duchies and provinces that had followed the breakup of the Holy Roman Empire. The doctrine of papal infallibility in 1870 was promulgated by the church to tighten its grip on Catholic populations against the emerging centralized nations and to sanctify the pope’s will against mere secular rulers.
In response, Otto von Bismarck, the German chancellor, launched what he called a Kulturkampf to break the church’s hold. He removed the church from the control of schools, expelled the Jesuits, and instituted civil ceremonies for marriage. Bismarck lent support to Catholic dissidents opposed to papal infallibility who were led by German theologian Johann Ignaz von Dollinger. Dollinger and his personal secretary were subsequently excommunicated. His secretary was Georg Ratzinger, great-uncle of the new pope, who became one of the most notable Bavarian intellectuals and politicians of the period. This Ratzinger was a champion against papal absolutism and church centralization, and on behalf of the poor and working class — and was also an anti-Semite.
Joseph Ratzinger’s Kulturkampf is claimed by him to be a reaction to the student revolts of 1968. Should Joschka Fischer, a former student radical and now the German foreign minister, have to answer entirely for Ratzinger’s Weltanschauung? Pope Benedict’s Kulturkampf bears the burden of the church’s history and that of his considerable family. He represents the latest incarnation of the long-standing reaction against Bismarck’s reforms — beginning with the assertion of the invented tradition of papal infallibility — and, ironically, against the positions on the church held by his famous uncle. But the roots of his reaction are even more profound.
The new pope’s burning passion is to resurrect medieval authority. He equates the Western liberal tradition, that is, the Enlightenment, with Nazism, and denigrates it as “moral relativism.” He suppresses all dissent, discussion and debate within the church and concentrates power within the Vatican bureaucracy. His abhorrence of change runs past 1968 (an abhorrence he shares with George W. Bush) to the revolutions of 1848, the “springtime of nations,” and 1789, the French Revolution. But, even more momentously, the alignment of the pope’s Kulturkampf with the U.S. president’s culture war has also set up a conflict with the American Revolution.
For the first time, an American president is politically allied with the Vatican in its doctrinal mission (except, of course, on capital punishment). In the messages and papers of the presidents from George Washington until well into those of the 20th century, there was not a single mention of the pope, except in one minor footnote. Bush’s lobbying trip last year to the Vatican reflects an utterly novel turn, and Ratzinger’s direct political intervention in American electoral politics ratified it.
The right wing of the Catholic Church is as mobilized as any other part of the religious right. It is seizing control of Catholic universities, exerting influence at other universities, stigmatizing Catholic politicians who fail to adhere to its conservative credo, pressing legislation at the federal and state levels, seeking government funding and sponsorship of the church, and vetting political appointments inside the White House and the administration — imposing in effect a religious test of office. The Bush White House encourages these developments under the cover of moral uplift as it forges a political machine uniting church and state — as was done in premodern Europe.
The American Revolution, the Virginia Statute on Religious Liberty, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights were fought for explicitly to uproot the traces in American soil of ecclesiastical power in government, which the Founders to a man regarded with horror, revulsion and foreboding.
The Founders were the ultimate representatives of the Enlightenment. They were not anti-religious, though few if any of them were orthodox or pious. Washington never took Communion and refused to enter the church, while his wife did so. Benjamin Franklin believed that all organized religion was suspect. James Madison thought that established religion did as much harm to religion as it did to free government, twisting the word of God to fit political expediency, thereby throwing religion into the political cauldron. And Thomas Jefferson, allied with his great collaborator Madison, conducted decades of sustained and intense political warfare against the existing and would-be clerisy. His words, engraved on the Jefferson Memorial, are a direct reference to established religion: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
But now Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay threatens the federal judiciary, saying, “The reason the judiciary has been able to impose a separation of church and state that’s nowhere in the Constitution is that Congress didn’t stop them.” And Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist will participate through a telecast in a rally on April 24 in which he will say that Democrats who refuse to rubber-stamp Bush’s judicial nominees and uphold the filibuster are “against people of faith.”
But what would Madison say?
This is what Madison wrote in 1785: “What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just Government instituted to secure & perpetuate it needs them not.”
What would John Adams say? This is what he wrote Jefferson in 1815: “The question before the human race is, whether the God of nature shall govern the world by his own laws, or whether priests and kings shall rule it by fictitious miracles?”
Benjamin Franklin? “The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.”
And Jefferson, in “Notes on Virginia,” written in 1782: “It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity. But is uniformity of opinion desireable? No more than of face and stature. Introduce the bed of Procrustes then, and as there is danger that the large men may beat the small, make us all of a size, by lopping the former and stretching the latter. Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of a Censor morum over each other. Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.”
The Republican Party was founded in the mid-19th century partly as a party of religious liberty. It supported public common schools, not church schools, and public land-grant universities independent of any denominational affiliation. The Republicans, moreover, were adamant in their opposition to the use of any public funds for any religious purpose, especially involving schools.
A century later, in 1960, there was still such a considerable suspicion of Catholics in government that the Democratic candidate for president, John F. Kennedy, felt compelled to address the issue directly in his famous speech before the Houston Ministerial Association on Sept. 12.
What did Kennedy say? “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute — where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote — where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference … I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish — where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source — where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials.”
Now Bush is attempting to create what Kennedy warned against. He claims to be conservative, but he seeks a rupture in our system of government. The culture war, which has had many episodes, from the founding of the Moral Majority to the unconstitutional impeachment of President Clinton, is entering a new and far more dangerous phase. In 2004 Bush and Ratzinger used church doctrine to intimidate voters and taint candidates. And through the courts the president is seeking to codify not only conservative ideology but religious doctrine.
When men of God mistake their articles of devotion with political platforms, they will inevitably stand exposed in the political arena. When politicians mistake themselves for men of God, their religion, however sincere, will inevitably be seen as contrivance.
As both president and pope invoke heavenly authority to impose their notions of tradition, they have set themselves on a collision course with the American political tradition. In the name of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, democracy without end. Amen.
This story has been corrected since it was first published.
Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.More Sidney Blumenthal.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)