Fay Ce Que Voudras

From the (historical) ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ file, we remember today the Brotherhood of St Francis of Wycombe, founded in 1749 by Sir Francis Dashwood. You are forgiven if you thought that the ‘St Francis’ referenced is he of Assisi, of Caricciolo, of Paolo, of Sales, or of Xavier – all recognized and venerated hallows of Christendom. Instead, it references the founder, Dashwood, which may suggest that this organization is not one’s standard religious order.

Other suggestions that this group was far from standard includes their motto, fay ce que voudras, which translates to “do as you please,” along with their initial meeting place, London’s George and Vulture pub.

This fraternity was dedicated to debauchery, the Enlightment’s anti-clericism meeting Animal House.

This wouldn’t be so notable were it not for the fact that, over two decades, many prominent member of British society counted themselves as members, and regularly attended the conclaves.

There was Dashwood himself, 15th Baron le Despencer, Chancellor of the Exchequer. There was John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, Postmaster General and First Lord of the Admiralty. There was George Dodington, 1st Baron Melcombe, close friend and financier of the Prince of Wales who also ran a highly-regarded anti-Jacobite spy ring. There was John Wilkes, a prominent member of Parliament who was an early radical pamphleteer and supporter of the American colonies. There was also another well-known MP, Thomas Potter, an accomplished attorney who also happened to be the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Members referred to themselves as ‘brothers,’ the leader as ‘abbot,’ and the women of loose virtue in attendance as ‘nuns.’ The group ate, drank, gambled, and fornicated at will, always a winning combination when trying to recruit add’n converts. As the brotherhood grew, Dashwood, no longer satisfied with the pub, leased Medmenham Abbey, a rundown former haunt of the Cistercians, close to his ancestral home and residence. He proceeded to rebuild the ruin, and excavated an extensive network of caves and tunnels that reached over 1500 feet into a nearby hillside. This honeycomb came to be known as the Hellfire Caves, where the group – by then sometimes called the Order of the Monks of Medmenham – conducted, er, business. It was over the caves’ entrance that was found the motto carved into a granite cornice.

In Nocturnal Revels (1779), a two volume anonymously-authored work on Georgian nightlife and prostitution, there is a contemporary if wordy description of activities of the meetings:

“They always meet in one general set at meals, when, for the improvement of mirth, pleasantry, and gaiety, every member is allowed to introduce a lady of cheerful lively disposition, to improve the general hilarity. Male visitors are also permitted, under certain restrictions, their greatest recommendation being their merit wit and humour. There is no constraint with regard to the circulation of the glass, after some particular toasts have been given: the ladies, in the intervals of their repasts, may make select parties among themselves, or entertain one another, or alone with reading, musick, tambour-work, etc. The salt of these festivities is generally purely antic, but no indelicacy or indecency is allowed to be intruded without a severe penalty; and a jeu de mots must not border too much upon a loose double entendre to be received with applause.”

Or as parliamentarian and Brother John Wilkes said more succinctly, the club was “a set of worthy, jolly fellows, happy disciples of Venus and Bacchus, got occasionally together to celebrate woman in wine and to give more zest to the festive meeting, they plucked every luxurious idea from the ancients and enriched their own modern pleasures with the tradition of classic luxury.”

While rumors grew of Satanist rituals being conducted, other than their general licentiousness, there is no evidence to support that anything darker was actually occurring. Interestingly, Dashwood was a major benefactor and protector of the nearby St Lawrence’s Parish, a real house of worship that had fallen on hard times.

Dashwood may have been a most convivial host, but he was tone-deaf in his respectable professional role. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, he imposed a tax on adult beverages by passage of the Cider Bill of 1763, an act which resulted in riots and his hasty resignation… odd for a man who threw alcohol-fueled bacchanals in his free time, albeit for a very limited and well-heeled crowd.

The aging of the attendees, and Dashwood’s resignation, spelled the end of the Order. By 1766, the Hellfire Caves were silent, stripped of their scandalous adornments, and the wild rumpuses had ceased. But not, it should be noted, before a diplomat and scientist from the Colonies, one Benjamin Franklin, was documented to have attended a number of the meetings when he was in London on, er, business.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Piety and the Oval Office

“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful” ~Seneca the Younger (5 BCE – 65 CE)

Anyone who has been following this election cycle knows that with very few exceptions (e.g., Bernie Sanders), our current crop of politicians tend to trip over themselves to declare their faith in, and commitment to, perceived Judeo-Christian values. One only needs to hear the uber-capitalist Donald Trump state that the Bible is his favorite book to realize that affirming ones piety has become a prerequisite to aspiring to higher elective office.

[sidebar: ongoing defamation of Barack Obama aside, there is not a single known/ admitted atheist currently holding national-level elected office. The last two were Rep Pete Stark (D-CA) who left Washington in 2012, and Rep Barney Frank (D-MA) who left the following year. It is particularly interesting to note that Frank felt more comfortable admitting to his same-gender sexual orientation decades earlier in his career than his non-theism, which he admitted only AFTER he left Congress.]

In looking back at our collective history, there were the administrations of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR, times during which the nation faced truly existential crises that might reasonably have called for some divine intervention. And yet none of the three wore their devotions on their sleeves.

Certainly those Presidents – probably all Presidents – have invoked some religious imagery in their public statements. But until comparatively recently, any such invocations have fallen into the category of what Dean Eugene Rostow of Yale’s Law School first described in 1962 as “Ceremonial Deism,” an observation later legitimized in Supreme Court decisions by both Justices William Brennan (Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668) and Sandra O’Connor (Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, 542 U.S. 1). Ceremonial Deism describes a nominally religious statement made by a public official that has been watered-down to mere rote by reflexive habit or long-standing precedent. In short, it’s meaningless tradition, the political equivalent of the non-ecclesiastic amongst us uttering “bless you” when a stranger sneezes in public.

With Western Europe and Japan – other advanced and developed democracies – becoming less overtly religious during recent years, how is it that America’s modern leaders have all set a far more spiritual tone for the body politick?

It seems to be the handiwork of Dwight Eisenhower.

The Eisenhower Administration (1953-61) did occur during the height of the Cold War. Perhaps Ike saw his first landslide win as a mandate for a national tent revival, and his stewardship as a chance to contrast his conservative Pennsylvania Dutch roots with the Godless Communism then seemingly threatening our existence in every corner of the globe. While running for office, Scotty Reston of The New York Times likened the campaign to “William Jennings Bryan’s old invasion of the Bible Belt during the Chautauqua circuit days.” True to form, it was during Ike’s tour in the White House that “In God We Trust” was placed on U.S. currency, and the Pledge of Allegiance (originally written in 1887) was altered to include the phrase “Under God” (1954).

At a transition meeting with his cabinet nominees after his first election, Ike announced that the nominees and their families were invited to a special religious service at Na­tional Presbyterian Church the morning of the inauguration. Perhaps then recalling that Constitutional inconvenience about separating Church and State, he added hastily that no nominee should feel pressured to go to his Presbyterian services, and that anyone could go instead to a church of his own choice.

Needless to say, everyone present opted to be seen with the President-elect.

Immediately after taking the oath of office, Ike asked those in attendance – and by proxy the millions on TV and radio – to bow their heads so that he might lead the nation in “a little private prayer of my own [that I wrote this morning].” This caused a sensation at the time, not because of anything particularly radical that he said, but that he said it at all.

Shortly thereafter, Ike became the first President to be baptized while in office.

And right after the baptism, he broadcast from the Oval Office an address for the American Legion’s “Back to God” campaign, urging millions of listeners to recognize and rejoice in the (unsaid but inescapably Christian) spiritual foundations of the nation.

Four days later, he was the guest of honor at the first National Prayer Breakfast, which has since become not only an annual tradition, but a stump from which the currently-elected leader and his immediate circle can try to outdo themselves in their stated devotions to the Almighty. At that first breakfast, Ike made this statement: “The very basis of our govern­ment is that we hold that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain rights. In [that] one sentence, we established that every free government is embedded soundly in a deeply-felt religious faith or it makes no sense.”

Please read that last part again: the President of the United States stating unequivocally that unless one sees a faith-basis in our form of governance, what we are doing makes no sense. The Declaration of Independence. The Constitution. The Bill of Rights. Other amendments. The United States Code. The common law. All make no sense.

Before long, prayers had become de rigueur at the openings of cabinet meetings.

Perhaps Ike’s faith was sincere – it’s really impossible to know for certain what dwells deep inside one’s breast – but he created the soapbox from which all manner of suspected opportunists and charlatans have preached since.

[sidebar: “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men.” ~Matthew 6:5, KJV]

But even Pious Ike needed to get acclimated to the demands of his new role as Pastor-in-Chief. His personal secretary recalled that after one of the first cabinet meetings, the President emerged from the room and stopped abruptly to exclaim, “Jesus Christ! We forgot the prayer!”

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at vadocdoc@outlook.com]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]