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Jim Sleeper: American Brethren: Hebrews and Puritans

[Jim Sleeper, a writer and teacher on American civic culture and politics and a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (W.W. Norton, 1990) and Liberal Racism (Viking, 1997, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).]

For most of us, the Old Testament names given to scores of American towns (Canaan, Bethlehem, Sharon, Lebanon, even Jerusalem) and the Hebrew phrases on the seals of Yale, Dartmouth, and Columbia are the only visible remnants of the Puritans’ all but forgotten attempt to Hebraize their Calvinist Christianity in the seventeenth century. The Puritans lost their juridical and ecclesiastical grip on the country centuries ago; and most American Jews, legatees though they are of the Hebrew covenant, arrived here too late (and often too lapsed) to seed in any notably religious way the republican society they have otherwise so vigorously engaged.

Yet now is surely a moment to take a closer look at the American republic’s Hebrew and Christian origins, and not only because eruptions in the third Abrahamic religion, Islam, have given us a new reason to revisit our own. The political idioms of George W. Bush and his neoconservative allies, on the one hand, and Barack Obama and custodians of the civil rights movement, on the other, are both staked in Hebraic and Puritan sub-soils that have nourished distinctively American dimensions in civic-republican life: think of early-nineteenth-century Whig and Methodist linkages of public works to civil society’s “internal,” spiritual, and moral improvements. Recall Abraham Lincoln’s prosecution of the Civil War in what he came to see as Calvinist terms. Then there are the social gospel crusaders for economic justice later in that century and, in the twentieth, the latter-day puritan Woodrow Wilson’s “War to End All Wars.” And there are also, on the one hand, the McCarthyite witch hunts of “un-American” activists and, on the other hand, the almost religious enthusiasm in many liberals’ (and many others’) responses to Barack Obama’s biblically resonant speeches during the 2008 campaign.

Puritanism was, after all, the chief framer and arbiter of a New England way of life that spread westward across the northern tier of the United States. Even its infamous repressions and hypocrisies provoked a republicanism that was gestating within Puritanism itself, much as the conceits of ancient Hebrew kings and priests had prompted prophecies and movements that renewed the Jewish covenant. The American roots of this dialectic draw from Hebraic wellsprings in Puritanism that still nourish Americans’ enduring sense of their own exceptionalism and missionary obligations, as well as of their commitment to peaceful democracy against antinomian, materialist, and authoritarian temptations.

If much of our civic balance seems up for grabs these days, all the more reason to resurface some submerged continuities between the Puritan planters and ourselves, employing what Hannah Arendt called “fragmentary historiography.” She invoked the image of a pearl diver, who plunges into the submerged origins of present arrangements, bringing to light remnants of those origins that have crystallized in obscurity with the passage of time. When these “pearls” are turned over in the light by wise interpreters, they show us forgotten truths about ourselves that can unsettle the present conventional wisdom about who we are and what we can do.

Edmund Morgan, Sacvan Bercovitch, and many others have examined how American Puritans struggled to ground their Christianity in Hebraic communal discipline as a shield against what they considered the idolatrous corruptions of Rome and the Church of England, and against lapses in Calvinism itself.

William Bradford, first governor of the Plymouth Colony, and Cotton Mather, the sage of Massachusetts Bay and elegist of New England Puritanism, learned Hebrew because they were determined to “purify” their Christianity of Romish, Latinate encrustations. Even in 1787, long after they were gone, John Adams, a descendant of Boston Puritans and a principal architect and future president of the republic, wrote, “I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation.” He elaborated the proposition at some length, averring that he’d insist on its historical truth even were he an atheist.

Adams understood what the scholar John Schaar would show tellingly in our time—that the Puritans developed a dark genius for balancing Christian spiritual self-absorption with Hebraic social obligation, and personal liberty of conscience and action with public authority. Alexis de Tocqueville thought that “the foundation of New England was something new in the world” because “Puritanism was almost as much a political theory as a religious doctrine.” But it was new partly because it was old, yoking Old Testament understandings of communalism and nationalism to religious proofs of inner sincerity. Doing so sometimes spurred repression, inquisitions, and sectarian hatred. But today’s liberal free-for-all has become an equally dangerous “free-for-none,” because its commitment to untrammeled personal autonomy hobbles its ability to distinguish free spirits from free riders and strong civic tribunes from those intent on compromising them.

Puritans drew that distinction, and while they didn’t always strike the right balance, they failed instructively, even inspiringly, for our purposes. Their Hebraized Christianity cannot and should not be restored as a governing paradigm, and no true civic republican should have to be “religious” in any organized way. But sustaining a republic does require a faith deep enough to stand up to huge concentrations of power. The operative principle, which Puritans got half right, is that while religion is dangerous in rulers, it’s vital to civil society, especially to citizen insurgencies. When faith overreaches, republics falter; if it disappears completely, they’re lost...
Read entire article at World Affairs (Fall Edition)