By: Rev. Sean Carroll
We all are familiar with many of the first colonies in the United States. From early childhood we are taught that the Pilgrims came to this land to escape persecution under the English Crown and those who made it here found freedom, success, and the right to pursue happiness. Looking back at the history of granted colonial charters we can see that the “New England colonies, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland were conceived and established “as plantations of religion.”
These settlers of the eastern seaboard came here because of passionately held religious beliefs that were not accepted under English rule at the time. In some cases, these religious groups had been persecuted. Some of these groups that had faced the worst persecution were groups under the umbrella term Anabaptists; these are what we are familiar with today as the Amish. Other groups were Roman Catholics, and monastic orders such as the Jesuits and others. Also, there were the movements that gave birth to today’s evangelicals, the Puritans, which are more familiar as Southern Baptists today, along with Reformed churches.
No one will deny that these groups faced extreme hardships under English rule: the Church of England was the religion of the state, and many of these other sects could not find places to worship, let alone jobs because of the stigma attached to many of the ways they sought to live out their faiths. So as they came to the New World, they hoped to create their own “city on a hill” and a witness to England and the world that God was with them.
But the English colonies were not isolated; America was a dream that would not come to pass for almost another century. The lands of the colonies were bordered with French, Spaniards, and even groups from as far as Austria, many with different expressions of faiths, seeking asylum in a new land far away from their countries’ laws. The main issue that would come to pass is the domination of Puritans in New England, and the legacy they left.
Puritans introduced “pure faith”
The Puritans as the precursor to today’s evangelical movement shared many key similarities. For example, the Puritans were fine with being considered Anglican, or members of the Church of England, but they sought to “purify” the faith from the stain of Catholicism in their theological views. As such in the New World this idea of a pure faith met others with differing views, and those laws of the New World mirrored much of the laws of the old, but with a new faith in power. More so, these New England colonies simply passed Old Testament laws as the laws of the land, again believing they were the New Israel as well as a better England.
In the 1660s, Cotton Mather was born; he was the Franklin Graham of his time. He traveled with the goal of repentance for the Kingdom. His particular fervor for faith led many who heard him to commit suicide at tent revivals because they thought they could not be “saved.” Also during his heyday we saw the Salem Witch trials, and the expulsion of women from colonial towns who were even considered to be friends with the witches. While Mather cannot be linked to starting the trials, his faith group found that to be a solid expression of true and pure faith.
So as the development went on, the idea of religion, or a particular religion needing status protection in the current United States, is not new. It has been undergirding many denominations’ expression of faith for hundreds of years. It took the colonies less than 50 years to begin enshrining some religious practices as valid, while criminalizing others. The persecuted became the majority, and with power, quickly turned into the thing they despised, the tyrant, the oppressor.
Puritan influence today
How may this be valid in today’s landscape? Well, the Mennonites are still among us, their faith denounces war, and denounces taxation, and they simply live on the land, farming and building. The Amish are very welcoming to outsiders, and in places like Lancaster will welcome you to their houses or for tours of their land. The Puritan faith, however, has left us with a generation that seeks a return to the majority days and still seeks to create a law that uplifts their particular understanding of Christianity at the expense of the diversity that our country has.
Today we see religious leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr., who uses the Bible to advance paying taxes for war, supporting Donald Trump, and having concealed-carry gun laws for public universities. This man, like the early Puritans, seeks to use power to enforce his version of Christianity that is more inspired by Thomas Hobbes than Jesus. For example, Hobbes wrote that man-made religion needs to be enshrined, the worshipper needs to feel they are protecting God, and they do this by using law. Now Hobbes rejected this, saying it is unfit for a political endeavor; however, it is an accurate description of the faith of the evangelical leaders in our state and country. It is not at all like the faith of Jesus that said he did not need a sword, and that the greatest law was how we loved one another.
So as the power of the evangelicals seems to be wrapped up in the current structure of the GOP, those of differing faiths must recall history, and show how the church in many cases has left its heart of love, for a grasp at absolute power. Any religious expression that demeans the value of others has become the unjust oppressor.
Christianity is not free from the stain of power. The good news is that, like in the writing of the Constitution, the Puritans did not get their way. The protection and establishment of any one religion was rejected. The founding fathers were familiar with religious persecution and religious oppression in both England and in the colonies. Their greatest fear was for it to be repeated. So as progressives we can look out for the faith that builds unity, and we can affirm each other. We can reject modern day witch hunts, as we reject the wall, the immigration ban, and the religious liberty orders. But we must continue to be vocal.
As a progressive Christian it is my job to say this in any church I attend, and to also seek ways we can build bridges. I have seen the history, and I will not let it repeat as many wish for it to do. The Church must not be the state. Because an oppressive and legalistic Church is actually no heir to the wisdom and love of Jesus. So here in North Carolina we must continue to call out attempts at hate, like a marriage amendment and any legislation aimed at the LGBTQ community. We must work together for LGBTQ protections, and for the protection of our immigrant and refugee neighbors. Christians must call out those within their faith who support these acts, because at their heart they are more like the Puritan and Pharisee then like the Jesus who welcomed all people.
That is my hope, that as we learn from history we will not repeat it. America hasn’t been too great at that so far in 2017, but my hope is that as we become louder, so will love, and we too will overcome.