Jack R. Van Ens: Turning from the Pilgrim way
Vail, CO, Colorado
The Pilgrims escaped Europe to establish religious freedom in the New World. Once settled, they coerced unbelievers into accepting their Christian dogma. Dissenters from the Pilgrims’ religious beliefs were severely punished.
How ironic! Seeking religious freedom, Pilgrims denied it to their religious detractors. Our popular Pilgrim myth pictures men in their stovepipe hats and women wearing simple bonnets walking to worship. In clapboard churches they listened for hours to preachers who reminded them to obey God’s commandments, work energetically, and prepare for the Lord’s coming again.
We overlook how the Puritan heritage in which the Pilgrims found religious identity rendered harsh judgment and severe punishment against heresy. We’d rather revere the Pilgrims as benign souls who discharged their blunderbusses only to kill a few turkeys. We depict them as extravagant hosts who shared with Indians in Thanksgiving feasts.
Remember how Pilgrims practiced religious intolerance. “The founders of the New England colonies did not come to America to protect any variety of religious practice,” writes Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gary Wills in “Head and Heart: American Christianities,” “or to assert the primacy of the individual’s conscience. Far from it.
They came to set up the one true faith where corrupt versions of it could not intrude.”
Wills reports how “the Puritans hanged Quakers, exiled dissenters, silenced heretics and burnt their books.” Pilgrims and their Puritan descendants didn’t punish those who religiously differed with them merely because of wrong doctrine. They used harsh measures because Satan opposed them. Pilgrims feared a highly intelligent, wily devil who seduced backsliders.
What if Satan won over a devout Christian? Wouldn’t this convert share the Devil’s spell with others in his Pilgrim family? To kill the Devil’s servant was an economical way to spare hundreds of would-be converts hellish agony. Puritan stalwart John Winthrop said of heretics like Anne Hutchinson, we must “give them up to Satan.” That is, Pilgrims believed they accomplished God’s duty against heretics, using satanic punishments.
During this Thanksgiving season, our nation welcomes President-elect Barack Obama, who builds bridges towards other faiths rather than erecting barriers, as the Pilgrims did.
We don’t condone tar and feathering or dunking the unfaithful until panic over drowning grips them. No longer do we humiliate criminals, showcasing them in stocks where bystanders spit on them. Still, we shatter a communal Thanksgiving spirit of goodwill when we spew religious invective. Some speak of their political enemies as if they were Satan’s envoys.
At first, James Dobson, who heads Focus on the Family, shunned John McCain’s run for the presidency. Begrudgingly, Dobson sided with McCain only when he picked Sarah Palin as his running mate. Palin’s candidacy, Dobson announced over the radio, blessed him with happiness that first came at Ronald Reagan’s inauguration.
Dobson attacked Barack Obama because of a keynote address he gave two years earlier at a Call to Renewal. Obama didn’t sound like a Pilgrim who assumed truth always resided on his side. “Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation and a nation of unbelievers,” Obama observed. “And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in our schools? Would we go with James Dobson’s or Al Sharpton’s?”
Because Obama linked him with Sharpton, Dobson vented (un)righteous wrath. He sounded on the radio like a heresy-hunting Pilgrim. Dobson charged Obama with “deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview, his own confused theology.” He didn’t soften his rhetoric, labeling Obama’s views on abortion “a fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution.”
Dobson coerces dissenters into agreeing with him. When Obama toured Afghanistan and Iraq in July, Dobson dropped more verbal bombs. He griped how an Obama presidency disturbed him so much that he battled insomnia because of it. Dobson caricatured the Democratic presidential front-runner as an extremist because “he does threaten traditional family, life and pro-moral values.”
Dobson’s Thanksgiving turkey tastes tough. Since Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential election, Dobson with other evangelical leaders have cobbled together a formerly powerful coalition that coerces stalwarts to believe it’s mandatory for Christians to vote for pro-life candidates. Dobson regards Republicans as his political party at prayer.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving Day, let’s be grateful to God that a coercive religion of conceit, which assumes a hammerlock on divine truth, has been rebuffed.
President-elect Obama doesn’t favor the Pilgrims’ tactics of denigrating dissenters. He invites their opinion around a large table.
Jefferson’s gravest fear for our fledgling nation was that religious wars would destroy it. He believed a coercive faith inflames passion, fosters divisions and acts like a riptide swamping our Republic. This Thanksgiving let’s unite in gratitude that the Pilgrims’ baser instincts of wielding religion as a cudgel, a coercive force, don’t prevail in our noble land.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the non-profit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com) which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.