Many of us are familiar with The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which is not so much an exercise in actual history as it is polemic intended to show that racism is the foundational ethos behind the American experiment. Check it out for yourself. I do not intend to engage it here. You can find sound critiques for it here and here. The critique from The Wall Street Journal is behind a paywall, but if you are interested in a subscription, go right ahead. At least one conservative publication is hitting back with a “1620 Project.” It will cite the year the separatist English pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock as the beginning of the American nation. I would hope it goes without saying that fight between these two poles is more ideological than historical. One side insists that the American experiment was undertaken solely for the sake of liberty, while the other insists that racism is the root of the experiment. The actual historical reality is an amalgam of both propositions as well as others. It is one of these others I would like to address.
While the dispute over the 1619 Project is preoccupied with liberty or the lack thereof as the basis for the American experiment, I would like us to consider the spiritual heritage of America. What is it exactly? A great many people insist that America is a Christian nation founded upon Christian principles. This statement is far too ambiguous given the variegated emphases of the various Christian denominations which found their ways to America. Protestantism cannot be identified singularly in terms of what it is but in terms of what it is not. The idea that the different denominations agreed regarding much of anything apart from Sola Scriptura is an incredibly recent notion. Each Protestant denomination did not see itself as having merely a piece of a larger whole—they were making mutually exclusive truth claims which served to divide the populations of Western Europe against one another (even within the boundaries of a single nation). It is not that Baptists simply did not prefer the less elaborate services of the Quakers—the Baptists believed the Quakers were going to hell. In what real sense, then, can America be said to be founded on Christian principles? It is far more accurate to say that America is a Puritan nation founded on Puritan principles. I ask the reader to come with me back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. Ships carrying over 700 Puritan settlers landed in Salem in June. Among them was John Winthrop, the royally appointed governor for the new colony. This particular group of Puritans were not the separatists who arrived on the Mayflower a decade earlier. These Puritans acknowledged the King of England as their sovereign, and yet they saw themselves as embarking on a divine quest to be an exemplar of Christian society to the whole world. Governor Winthrop’s brief “City on a Hill” sermon embodies their sentiment perfectly.
What would follow for the Puritan society in New England would serve as the spiritual legacy for the rest of the American nation—a legacy actively lived to this day. Governor Winthrop’s lofty words proclaimed the ideal which would unite New England. Functionally, however, what knit the members of the community together was anxiety regarding their fixed eternal destinies. Following the doctrine of John Calvin, they believed that their status among the elect or the damned was determined by God before their births. It was not until the time of George Whitfield over a century later that the Calvinist theology lived by the New England Puritans would receive the modification that a believer could know if he were among the elect. Although Jonathan Edwards’ famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was written in Whitfield’s time, it more accurately expressed the Puritan’s Calvinist belief. Not a man, woman, or child living in Winthrop’s New England knew if they were among the elect or the damned. What they knew was that, whichever they were, it was for the greater glory of God. Cold comfort for the damned, to be sure. This environment of constant anxiety manifested itself in at least two ways. The first was the people’s work ethic. Personal prosperity was an indication that one may be among the elect. As such, the Puritans worked tirelessly for the sake of personal prosperity—not exactly proof positive of election, but it couldn’t hurt one’s chances. The second manifestation of anxiety was in the people’s constant public denunciation of personal sin. Those found to be idle on a work day were denounced, as were those laboring on the Sabbath. Those negligent of church services could have their nostrils slit as punishment. Those committing adultery could indeed find themselves the owners of some permanent and visible reminder of their sin. Nathaniel Hawthorne did not make that up. Anxiety as the basis for a social construct, while it may serve to “keep people in line” for a while, is a disaster waiting to happen. At some point, the pressure is too much both personally and collectively, and it must be released. This dynamic was expressed in the controversy of Anne Hutchinson, a wealthy, influential, and highly-educated woman in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She had begun telling the women of the community that she knew for certain that she was among the elect and that they also could know. The ensuing dispute with Governor Winthrop who held the unmodified Calvinist belief that such an assertion was “the sin of presumption” resulted in her exile from the community. It did not help matters that she was, in fact, smarter than Winthrop, answering his every objection. She could not be convicted of any wrongdoing according to the charges brought against her. For this reason, Winthrop trumped up new charges against her, upon which she was exiled. Considerably more could be said about the dynamic of anxiety and crisis in the Salem Witch Trials, in which neighbor publicly denounced neighbor in a frantic effort by many to perhaps prove their election.
One may have thought that the Puritans’ wayward children, the Unitarians, would have dispensed with their parents’ “backward” ways. One might think this would hold true for the Unitarians’ wayward children, the Transcendentalists. It is, however, difficult to do away with thought patterns which one has learned as a way of life. The Unitarians and Transcendentalists would maintain their parents’ work ethic but would turn their ire against societal sins like slavery and child labor. Many Protestants who emerged from the First Great Awakening (1730-1755) would keep the emphasis on personal sin, whilst otherwise allying themselves politically with deists who were uninterested in combatting the evils of slavery and other societal sins. Thus, the bifurcation of the American political tradition began—each prong denouncing the other, unaware of their common spiritual ancestry. The atmosphere of anxiety which began over the uncertainty of one’s eternal destination morphed after the American Revolution into anxiety that one’s ideological adversaries would gain the upper hand. What is more, the ensuing struggle would define American history as the nation turned against itself in ever repeating cycles. The Civil War, the Jim Crow period, the wanton lynching of black people, the suffragette movement, the labor movement, the Red Scare, the anti-war movement, and other conflicts bear witness that Puritanism is America’s unifying spiritual legacy. The history of Western Europe, while rife with conflict, has no such dynamic.
The Civil Rights movement, pro-choice movement, pro-life movement, gay rights movement, Me Too movement, and Black Lives Matter are all thoroughly puritanical in scope and practice. Both the sexual revolution and the right-wing notion of “culture war” are expressions of Puritanism. Please do not misunderstand. This says nothing of the soundness of the movements or the ideas behind them—it is merely a commentary on their methodology. The cancel culture with which we are all intimately acquainted today is a hyper-Puritanism of sorts—the accused do not even get a day in court as did Anne Hutchinson or any of those condemned in the Salem Witch Trials. Label and dismiss anyone who opposes the Cause. Celebrities, politicians, and common citizens have all been broomed to the ideological dust bin. Many in the current era bemoan the lack of civility that politicians routinely demonstrate toward one another, as if politicians once set the highest moral standard for all Americans. They forget that full-fledged fist fights and canings were among the proceedings of Congress in the 19th Century and that duels ended the lives of politicians in the 18th Century. The repeating cycles of anxiety and crisis endlessly renew themselves. Based upon this, I posit that June of 1630 is the spiritual birth month for America.
Many Orthodox Christians reading this may wonder what any of this has to do with them. Doesn’t Orthodoxy make one immune to such a dynamic? I believe we are all intelligent enough to acknowledge that this is not true. Anyone born in America cannot help but be a Puritan, regardless of race, class, or other religious affiliation. I am a Puritan, as are you. It is drilled into us. We are taught to be Puritans in school. It gets reinforced when we watch television, when we go to the movies, when we get on social media, and especially when we vote. We make and break friendships based upon who/what we condemn. Everyone I don’t like is a Cultural Marxist. Everyone I don’t like is a Fascist. But the public denunciation of sins, whether personal or societal, based on anxiety cannot serve as a substitute for the life in Christ. This does not mean that Orthodox Christians should not be vocal about the dangers of both personal and societal sins, but we must have an ongoing authentic experience of Christ in our lives if these vocal condemnations are to carry any weight. And we must also remember that a condemnation of sin must never be a condemnation of people who sin. People are precious in the Lord’s eyes. Jesus Christ died for that man you just labeled and dismissed. We do not have to wait until we have been perfected before we speak up, but we certainly must be at work cooperating with God’s grace as we speak up. Lip service to what is popularly perceived as good might be enough to get in well with cancel culture or culture war, but it will not get you into the kingdom of heaven. In our final judgment, we will not be asked what we hated—we will be shown what we did and what we did not do. Fight your inner Puritan with faith and good works, and when he goads you to fear your ideological enemy, keep him at bay by loving your enemy as you love yourself. We have all learned how to be Puritans. By God’s grace and our cooperation, it is something we can and must unlearn.