NOTIONS: Failing to learn from the past, condemned to repeat it

January 16, 2006

It was raining in London the morning before New Year's Eve. As we emerged from the St. Paul's tube stop to a gust of wintry air, my friend Cheri wrapped her black topcoat a bit tighter, I buttoned my Navy blue, and we pulled on our gloves and scarves, and opened umbrellas to ward off the cold and damp.

We walked briskly past the north churchyard of St. Paul's Cathedral, turned the corner and climbed the front steps.

Inside, we looked up in awe at the magnificent Church of England structure built 300 years ago-long before our own nation was even imagined. And we recalled to one another the pageantry we'd witnessed on television on the fairy-tale day that Prince Charles and Lady Diana were wed in this historic space.

After paying the 9 pound per-person admission fee, we set about on a self-guided tour of St. Paul's. What we found was surprising and disturbing to us.

Certainly, St. Paul's is rife with history. As its tour brochure boasts, it's hosted the funerals of Admiral Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington and Winston Churchill; the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria and the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. John Donne wrote poetry here. Martin Luther King preached here.

Then there are the tombs of and memorials to famous political and martial figures, architects, artists and scientists. It was the military monuments (along with some eerie contemporary paintings of an emaciated Jesus' life) that triggered our discomfort.

Strolling about St. Paul's, and the crypt that lies beneath it, we found carved tributes to regiments and battalions, generals and admirals: for their courage in battle, their victory over enemies, their commitment to the royal cause.

Over lunch at a bistro across the street, we decided these celebrations to war and conquest-erected in a seemingly spiritual place-had left us off-kilter. This jarring mix of church and state seemed more historic than holy, more political than sacred.

As the vicar of another Church of England parish wrote in his newsletter last year, "You never quite know in St Paul's whether it is built to the glory of God, or to that of the British Empire ... Whenever I walk around St Paul's, I am always fascinated by the inscriptions and monuments to our national heroes, but never entirely comfortable with their dominance in a house of prayer."

A few hours later, after a cab ride across the Thames, we sat in the chilly balcony of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre (a recently created reproduction). Rain poured into the open area between us and the stage, as an actress and sometimes-tour guide named Emily related the history of the Globe.

Among other things, she explained that the Puritans-a group of devout, radical Protestants who wanted to do away with the pomp and ceremony of the Roman Catholic Church-didn't approve of theater, and some of the other things, including gambling, that went on there.

She said that during Elizabethan times, the Puritans believed that theater epitomized the moral decline of the country.

So they tried, unsuccessfully at first, to get the government to ban such activities altogether.

Eventually, Emily said, the Puritans convinced government officials to ban theater within London's city limits. The troupes, including Shakespeare's, packed up and moved south of the Thames, and their audiences followed. Not satisfied, the Puritans eventually convinced Parliament to suppress all stage plays. A few years later, she said, the Puritans demolished The Globe.

During the rest of our London vacation, we visited many museums, palaces and historic sites. Along the way, we got a refresher course in European history, including painful reminders of death and destruction through the ages as various leaders sent troops into battle, "traitors" to the Tower or former favorites to their deaths-often because someone was at odds with the "official" religion imposed upon and embraced by the masses.

When we returned home, I scanned the newspapers to see what I'd missed while away.

I read that a federal court judge had upheld his ruling that sectarian prayer in the Indiana House of Representatives is unconstitutional.

I read that the speaker of the House plans to appeal (presumably using the public's tax dollars to do so).

I read lots of letters to the editor from citizens who don't understand (or appreciate) the difference between their right to pray in public, and the government's endorsement of particular religions.

I read of religious people who think theaters should ban a film about two cowboys who loved one another, and that network affiliates should yank a TV show about an eccentric priest, because such productions epitomize the moral decline of the country.

And after reading all that, I had to wonder, when it comes to the historic rationale for separating church and state, if we've learned a damn thing in the last 400 years.

Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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