Category Archives: Polarization

Puritans: The First Extremists

 

Many of us who know and love America as I do, have been perplexed by the all out mania of their extremism. Americans do nothing halfway. It is all in or all out. No medium in between. That may be a product of their birth.

The first settlers to the New World found fertile ground for their extreme beliefs and ultimately for the imposition of those beliefs on others. Many were fleeing religious persecution in Europe so that they could impose religious persecution on others in that new world. Kurt Andersen in his book FantasyLand described early American religiosity this way:

“Yet unlike Roman Catholicism, with its old global hierarchy and supreme leader, the new Protestant Christianity was by its nature fractious and unstable, invented almost within living memory by uncompromising rebels who couldn’t abide interpretations and rules issued by expert super clergy. It was an innovative new religion successful at a time when innovations were transforming the rest of Europe’s cultures and economies. Protestantism was thus part of an exciting tide of novelty, along with the printing press, global trade, the Renaissance, the beginnings of modern science, and the Enlightenment. It’s unique selling proposition was radical. When official leaders lose their way, pious anybodies can and must decide the new improved truth on their own—that is, by reading Scripture, each individual determines the correct meaning of Christian fantasies. The Protestants’ founding commitment to fierce, decentralized, do-it-yourself truth-finding and spiritual purity led to the continuous generation of self-righteous sectarian spin-offs.”

I was born and raised in Steinbach. We had Mennonites and even more radical Pentecostals. Wild and whacky beliefs were in the air we breathed. In America the first extremists were the Puritans who built a society in the New World in their own image. They were given that name by the established Christians. It was not a complement. Many of them were Calvinists. They were nothing if not true believers. They came to establish a world of true believers. They wanted to be separate from the established Church of England. Soon they wanted to separate from England itself. First they tried the Netherlands but there was too much heresy there too so they sailed to the New World.  As Anderson said, “Ferociously believing every miracle and myth wasn’t enough.”

Steinbach was not that different. The Mennonites wanted to keep themselves separate and apart “from the world.”

As Andersen said,

“What really distinguished the Puritans from the mainstream were matters of personality, demeanor. To be a Puritan was to embody uncompromising zeal. (They were analogous to certain American political zealots today, who more than disagreeing with their Establishment’s ideas just can’t stand their reasonable-seeming manner. Moreover, a good Christian life, the Puritans believed, was one consumed by Christianity…In other words, America was founded by a nutty religious cult.”

They were sort of like Mennonites on steroids.

The natives the Puritans found in the New World did not matter. Those people were just not civilized. The people who mattered were the religious zealots. As Andersen described it, “The myth we’ve constructed says that the first nonnative new Americans who mattered were the idealists, the hyper-religious people seeking freedom to believe and act out their passionate, elaborate, all-consuming fantasies.”

And America has been hyper-religious ever since. And it shows. Welcome to FantasyLand.

 

The Smoking Gun

 

I will never forget how as a young lad going to law school the Watergate case was unraveling. Watching the hearings on television was mesmerizing. even when things started getting rough for Nixon, I thought he would survive the onslaught. There was evidence leading to deep suspicions that he had been involved in a cover-up, but there was never a smoking gun. Never that is until the tapes were discovered. President Nixon had amazingly tape-recorded for posterity all his discussions with his henchmen. When that was discovered the sharks starting circling. When people listened to the tapes there was a smoking gun. Nixon’s gig was up. He was done.

I got exactly the same feeling this week when I heard parts of the tapes released by Bob Woodward as a result of 18 taped interviews with President Trump. I thought this was the smoking gun. Trump was done.

Donald Trump admitted that he did not tell the truth to Americans as thousands were dying. They could have avoided thousands of deaths had they known the truth. Yet, since then has there been an uprising as there was for Richard Nixon? Not yet.

Why have more Americans not called this out? Frankly I am stunned. How could Americans countenance their president lying to them about the dangers of Covid-19 while people—particularly young people—were going out and taking chances they should not have taken and likely would not have taken had they known the truth that their president already knew, but had assiduously hidden from them for the sake of protecting his own political fortunes at the expense of American lives? Surely this would do it! The people would rise up in fury. Even his own supporters would abandon him. I really felt that last week. Yet it did not happen. Now I feel like a fool (again).

Why did that not happen? With some introspection I think I know. The critical difference between now and 1972 when Nixon was under examination consisted of two facts.

First, in 1972 the American political world was not as strictly divided into 2 polar opposite camps as it is today. In 1972 when Republicans looked at the damning evidence against Nixon, a couple of Republican Senators visited Nixon at the White House and said he had no alternative but to resign. Nixon’s support among Republicans had vanished. The game was over. That could never happen now. Today, most believe, “our side” can do not wrong.

Secondly, in 1972 Nixon was originally a popular president. He had won the election in a landslide. But—and here is the critical difference—Nixon was not worshipped. Nixon attracted no theological devotion. That is not the case with Trump. Trump was right when he said he could go to Times Square, commit a murder, and loose no support! This is not absurd; it is the truth. That is devotion that only beloved religious leaders receive. Trump attracts true believers!

Just like no free-thinker, no matter how wise, smart, or profound could ever hope to defeat the resolution of a religious followers of Christ, or Mohamed, no one could persuade a Trump follower to forsake him. His position is secure. Theological devotion is rock solid. Political support is far from that.

That is a pity. Truth does not matter any more. The world has changed. That means a leader like Trump can do almost anything and still count on the support of his devoted followers. That is a terrible thing for democracy and freedom. Truth should still matter.