The Politics of Hellfire in America: Puritans Past and Present

    By Steve Peterson | 30 March 2015
    The Freethinker’s Distillery

    During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in laity; in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution.
    ―James Madison, A Memorial and Remonstrance, on the Religious Rights of Man, 1784-85

    Fundamentalist Christians live in a different United States than the rest of us who call it home. They inhabit a chosen nation: a Christian republic, the New Israel. The myth of America’s divine founding is among their core doctrines and informs much of their political discourse. In their alternate universe, the founders were in one accord within the holy city of Philadelphia. It was the Year of our Lord 1787, and suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled Constitution Hall where they had gathered. Then did the Spirit of God reveal unto them the divine words of the U.S. Constitution. Unfortunately, its authors forgot to make even a single reference to God, Jesus Christ, or a Christian republic within the inspired document. I satirize, but it’s not wide of the mark. (Read my full satire of the Christian America myth here.)

    21st-Century Puritans in Christian America

    Armed with visions of restoring America’s mythic past, Christian soldiers have embarked on a well-funded crusade to make it so. As I write, Republicans in Idaho and Tennessee are pushing legislation that would declare their states legally “Christian,” while the Oklahoma State House has passed a bill that would invest clergy with power over marriage licenses. Moreover, across the country, state legislatures are considering or have already passed (in Indiana) so called “religious freedom bills” that would allow businesses to discriminate against the LGBT community. Additionally, with an idea straight out of Puritan New England, Arizona State Senator Sylvia Allen recently suggested lawmakers should consider mandatory church attendance:

    How we get to back to a moral rebirth of this country, I don’t know, since we are slowly eroding religion at every opportunity that we have. Probably we should be debating a bill requiring every American to attend a church of their choice on Sunday to see if we can get back to having a moral rebirth.

    Along with theocratic politicians come silver-tongued prophets of doom who claim they can conjure divine wrath. America, they insist, will be destroyed if it doesn’t repent. A casual glance at the pages of Right Wing Watch yields copious examples of preachers and pundits like Glenn Beck, John Hagee, and Franklin Graham who employ this crass  Bronze-Age fearmongering to arouse the faithful. And, increasingly, politicians like Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann use the similar impolitic rhetoric. Perhaps the most generous description I can muster to describe it is rank hypocrisy. Recall that conservatives roundly condemned Obama’s pastor Jeremiah Wright for doing essentially the same thing when he declared “God damn America!.”

    In the current political climate nothing elicits doomsday imprecations quite like gay marriage. Perhaps second place goes to any perceived lack of support for the hard-line policies of Israel. If these are not enough to damn America, the flames of divine wrath threaten to engulf us at any moment for legal abortion, Darwinian evolution, Obamacare, and, heck, Beyonce’ too!

    Presidential hopeful and former fundamentalist minister Mike Huckabee recently broadcast a video from Israel’s Mount Carmel, the site where Elijah is said to have called down fire from heaven before slaughtering the prophets of Baal. However tactfully Huckabee stated it, he clearly equated with the prophets of Baal those who oppose the Christian Right’s agenda. He urged his audience, a group of conservative pastors, to stand ready to call down fire against America’s own “prophets of Baal.” If he meant it only as a metaphor the message was obvious: God is on their side and the United States must get right with (their) Jesus or face divine judgment.

    Another remarkable example occurred recently at the 2015 Awakening Conference, an assemblage of unapologetic Christian nationalists who embrace Dominion Theology. Among the speakers was Rev. Raphael Cruz, the father of presidential candidate Ted Cruz. The elder Cruz warned his audience that America was inviting God’s judgment–think primarily gay marriage here. Salvation, Cruz insisted, could be found only in politically active believers:

    If the righteous are not running for office, if the righteous are not even voting, what is left? The wicked electing the wicked. And we get what we deserve.

    Given son Ted’s views on religion in politics, there is no doubt that the nut has fallen close to the tree.

    Such threats of national judgment are certainly reminiscent of the Old Testament prophets. But where did American Christians get the idea that Israel’s Yahweh holds the United States similarly accountable? Are all nations held to this standard? Surely fundamentalists know, for example, that gay marriage is legal in eighteen countries. Somehow the Netherlands has escaped divine wrath despite legalizing gay marriage in 2001. But perhaps more is required of America because of its elite status as a chosen nation. Whence cometh the myth?

    17th-Century Puritans in New England

    Like myths often do, this one contains a kernel of truth. Its seminal source lies in Puritan New England where theocracy found fertile soil. Although the charters of eight of the original thirteen colonies had also established the Christian faith, levitical-style law prevailed with marked severity in Massachusetts Bay Colony and Connecticut. And if the law specified distinct roles for magistrates and clergy, it was still a theocracy in all but name. Within the strictures of the “New England Way,” men were required to be church members in good standing in order to vote or hold public office. Since Calvinism ruled the day, “good standing” meant becoming a “visible saint,” which required a public, heartfelt testimonial of saving faith as proof of God’s election.

    The dark side of the New England Way lay in its invidious penal system and its demonization of out-groups. Settlers faced fines, imprisonment, banishment, or possible death for religious transgressions including idolatry, blasphemy, heresy, and profanation of the Lord’s Day. The death penalty was decreed for moral failings such as adultery and blaspheming of parents. Quakerism was treated with extreme prejudice: four Quakers were put to death by hanging in Massachusetts, including a woman named Mary Dyer. Other dissenting religious groups were discouraged from even landing in the colony. It’s not too strong to call the New England Way the Christian version of Sharia Law.

    Puritans (“purifiers”) were idealists who believed the English Reformation had been compromised from the start. Moreover, although Queen Elizabeth had reversed it, nightmares of England’s recent reconversion to a Catholic state under her sister, “Bloody Mary” Tudor, remained fresh in their minds. Their reforming zeal eventually brought them into conflict with King Charles I. Persecutions ensued, so they set their eyes on the New World in hopes of realizing their dream of a Reformed Bible Commonwealth.

    In order for the enterprise to succeed, however, it was vital for godly purity to prevail. The unified society they envisioned was based on the Calvinist doctrine of “covenant theology,” essentially a Christian version of Yahweh’s compact with Israel through Abraham. For Israel, unfaithfulness to Yahweh would bring judgment not only to individual sinners but, potentially, the entire nation. Therefore, when Israel wandered long in the wilderness, or lost military campaigns, it was a sign that Yahweh was judging them for the sins of some or all the people. Idolatry and sexual impurity were often seen as the culprits.

    Puritan identity was suffused with the covenantal themes of ancient Israel. Before arriving in America, their first governor, John Winthrop, set forth the goal of their divine mission in his 1630 sermon ironically titled A Modell of Christian Charity. It would become the essence of the myth of America as a chosen Christian nation:

    … we shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when he shall make us a praise and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantations: the Lord make it like that of New England: for we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world.

    Preaching Hellfire

    Success or failure hinged on faithfulness to God. But, as Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill” clause suggests, their “errand in the wilderness” was not just an escape from religious persecution as is so often asserted. Of course they had no intention of forming a new country called “America” when they established New England, but they did imagine themselves to be an archetypal “chosen nation” sent to a “Promised Land” to establish a “New Jerusalem.” The mission was rich with biblical metaphors. This land of milk and honey even came replete with “Canaanites” in the form of savage Indians. Moreover, like the ancient Israelites, the threat of divine judgment always loomed.

    To maintain conformity and counter periods of backsliding, Puritan preachers employed fiery sermons known as Jeremiads. Such fire and brimstone preaching entreated the community of saints to repent or face God’s wrath. Like those delivered by the prophet Jeremiah, from whom the sermons got their name, they were intended quite literally to scare the hell out of their audience. Divine Judgment might come in several forms, among them communicable diseases, drought, crop failures, storms, or attacks from Indians. In one such jeremiad during a 1662 drought, the Reverend Michael Wigglesworth warned:

    Beware, oh sinful land, beware

    And Do not think it strange

    That sorer judgments are at hand

    Unless thou Quickly change.

    In his book Hellfire Nation, James Marone instructs us that New England ministers convened the Synod of 1679 in the aftermath of King Phillip’s War. That war against the Narragansett Indians had been bloody on both sides and the synod was tasked with discovering why God had judged the English with over 600 fatalities. The determination of their collective wisdom?: “Children and servants were not kept in due subjugation, their masters and parents especially being sinfully indulgent towards them.” Apparently the settlers had become too much like the Indians in this respect. “Sometimes a sin is discerned,” it was recorded, “by the instrument that Providence doth punish them” (quoted in Marone, p. 42).

    Marone brilliantly dissects the Puritan politics of sin and the “us against them” impulse inherent in their worldview. Heretics, heathens, and witches frequently became the scapegoats to account for the Devil’s work in their midst. God could not bless a community that permitted such sinners to remain within the community. The same mindset flourishes within the Christian Right today, only the names of the villains have changed to socialists, gays, and atheists.

    Filling in the 150-Year Gap

    It is beyond the scope of this essay to detail the many significant historical developments that added fuel to the myth of Christian America, but colonial New England is certainly the essential kernel within the husk. In order to maintain the myth, fundamentalist pseudo-historians like David Barton must willingly conflate the theocratic milieu of early New England with the more secular, albeit theistic, mindset of the revolutionary-era founders.

    Yet it’s worth noting that the establishment of Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Declaration of Independence were separated by nearly 150 years. This lengthy span was interrupted by an unprecedented intellectual revolution known as the Enlightenment, when all aspects of religion and politics were being questioned. The American colonies didn’t develop in isolation of these powerful currents of thought, and neither did their prestigious Puritan universities like Harvard and Yale. The Enlightenment’s liberalizing influence was so profound at Harvard that by 1800 it was essentially a Unitarian institution. Thus, for example, the theocratic ideology of John Winthrop (died 1649) would certainly be at variance with that later Massachusetts native named John Adams who had thoroughly imbibed Enlightenment thought. The mythologists of Christian America conveniently delete the influence of the Enlightenment on the founders from their narrative.

    The Death of New England Theocracy if Not the Myth

    Myths are always grander than the reality that spawned them. New England did not become the City upon Hill that Winthrop and his fellow travelers imagined. Especially after the execution of the Quakers, its reputation back in England was tarnished by the pattern of excessive intolerance. Its charter was revoked by the crown in 1684, bringing an effective end to the theocracy. Under the new royal charter there was no mention of a covenant with God, and New England (thereafter the Dominion of New England) was required to abide by the 1689 Act of Toleration, which granted religious freedom to all Christian sects other than Roman Catholics.

    By the time of the revolution, the idea of established religion was dying in British America. The process of disestablishing colonial-era churches began as early as 1776—a coincidence? Maryland and North Carolina both disestablished the Church of England that year. Other colonies followed soon thereafter. Most were disestablished before 1800, although it’s no coincidence that Puritan Massachusetts held out until 1833. If some puritanical remnants of the old religious establishments remained on the law books, the new state constitutions of the United States generally began to embrace a nonsectarian vision of governance. It had first been articulated by George Mason in the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), and was later codified into American law by James Madison in the First Amendment (1791).

    In the end, Winthrop’s City upon a Hill failed to materialize even if the myth lived on in the imagination of future generations. Few of New England’s contemporaries in the colonies viewed it as an archetype to be emulated. And with the exception of Christian fundamentalists, history largely remembers American Puritanism in the way that Winthrop feared: as “a story and a byword through the world.” It’s revealing that Ted Cruz made the following promise in the final sentence of his speech inaugurating his presidential campaign:

    We will get back and restore that shining city on a hill that is the United States of America.

    But the glimmer of that city, if any existed, had faded long before the United States was founded. Those who seek to restore it live in the make-believe land of Christian America, the New Israel.

    Suggestions for further reading: 

    Gregory A. Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church (Zondervan, 2007)

    Chris Hedges, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (Free Press, 2008)

    James Marone, Hellfire Nation: the Politics of Sin in American History (Yale University Press, 2004)

    Mark Noll, et al, Religion and American Politics: From the Colonial Period to the 1980s (Oxford University Press, 1990)

    Ernest Lee Tuveson, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (University of Chicago Press, 1980)

    John F. Wilson and Donald L. Drakeman, Church and State in American History, 2nd ed (Beacon Press, 1987)

    Reprinted with permission from the author.

    Steve Peterson has been a collegiate educator in the U.S. for over twenty years and holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Stirling in Scotland. He teaches U.S. History and Humanities at Tulsa Community College and blogs about history, religion, and politics.

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