The increasing political polarization in our country has some interesting parallels in early colonial history. There are some underlying reasons progressive church members and conservative ones don’t see eye-to-eye. We have different values and different fundamental visions of the role of religion and freedom. This has always been the case.
A few months ago, I was listening to a Maxwell Institute podcast interview between Blair Hodges and history professor Ben Park. Professor Park was talking about the very early arguments about religious freedom and the ideals of the American nation. I’ve been reading more about this time in history since my trip to Boston and investigating my Massachusetts Bay Colony ancestors.
In the colonial days, every town and settlement had its own version of religious values and government, and these were designed based on the founding members’ values and beliefs of what was an ideal society. Puritan groups believed in “religious freedom,” but they meant the freedom to create a society bound by their “true” religion. They didn’t want to be persecuted or prevented from worshiping in their own way, but they also wanted the right to persecute others and keep them out of their society through heavier taxes, not allowing them to vote or hold office, or not granting them lands. Many early settlers were executed simply for being Quakers (the charge was heresy).
Some more progressive settlements wanted to privilege the founding religion (through tax benefits or giving them a public role in ceremonial events), but to tolerate other religions. And then there were pluralistic societies like Pennsylvania where there were simply too many different religions to privilege any one of them, so they resorted to neutral language about religion that would not offend anyone (although many of the preachers would co-opt this neutral language and claim that it bolstered their own brand of faith). These more diverse societies believed that religious freedom meant that there was a free market of religious ideas, and that true devotion couldn’t be a byproduct of compulsion or it would result in hypocrisy. People had to be free to choose their religion without any pressure, based on their own beliefs.
I mentioned in an earlier article that I had an ancestor (Johnathan Fairbanks) who came to Massachusetts without religious conviction, but who converted and signed the Dedham Covenant. Towns that were founded by Puritans had a written and signed covenant that was a pledge from the signing members that they and all their progeny would hold the same values outlined in the document, and as a result, they and all their progeny could be participants in the community. They would be able to vote and be elected to office in local government. They could be part of a support network with their neighbors. All of these rights were based on a professed shared religious belief. If you didn’t claim that, you couldn’t participate. The entire society was based on a desire to create an ideal society, entered freely, but binding to future generations (under the assumption that because they were following God’s will, their descendants would likewise want to build on what they were creating).
In other places, like South Carolina, religion was used to maintain the status quo and order outlined in scripture, such as the role of slaves and masters. Slaves were originally not taught the gospel because they were not considered equal. Beginning in the 18th century, they were taught the gospel as a way to teach them to obey their masters the way their masters were supposed to obey God.  It was also a way to teach them that they were cursed, that their skin color was evidence of this curse, and that their role as slaves was God-ordained.
Interestingly, New Englanders were against westward expansion and immigration, and their arguments may sound familiar. An excerpt from the interview transcript:
HODGES: Right. In a democracy, if you add more people to the pool who disagree with you, you lessen your own power.
PARK: Right. They also have an amendment of limiting immigration, or at least the voting rights of immigrants, saying that “these people coming in”—who often vote Jeffersonian—”we don’t trust and we don’t see them as part of the American body so we want them excluded from voting.”
This concept of who is IN and who is OUT is one of the key defining problems of nationalism as discussed in the interview. Different people at different times and in different places have included or excluded people that didn’t fit their vision of what America should be. In the conclusion of the interview, he summarizes:
PARK: It reaffirms that our rhetoric matters, that our civility—the way we think about other people has a tangible effect; that whether we in our mind include certain people into our imagined nation has a direct link to the types of policies we try to implement. And I think that’s why images of representation, that’s why our language concerning people, matter. Because it’s not just some abstract thing. It’s the foundations upon which we build our literal nation.
HODGES: What do you think’s holding it all together right now?
PARK: I don’t see anything holding it together right now. When I look at America I see a fractured nationalist culture. I see people who are disagreeing not just on policies, but on foundational principles upon which those policies are based. And I think the more that people recognize that we need to return to the basic principles and then move from there I think the better our nation will be.
I can’t help but draw the parallel with our church culture and the vision of church members and leaders for what the church is.
- Is it a group of people bonded through covenants who are striving to bring about the second coming through temple work? If so, then determining purity and “worthiness” are vitally important to achieving this. Anyone who is not a true believer poses a threat to the group.
- Is there a social hierarchy within it upheld to maintain order and status quo? Is it ideal to exclude some from the power structure in an effort to uphold order? Or is this just a status quo argument posed by those with the most to lose, those for whom the status quo works well as is and those who hold positions of power and influence in the existing structure?
- Is it an invitation to all to join and better themselves and participate? If their views and ideas shift the group’s perceptions, is that a threat to our way of life and to the mission of the church or does it make us stronger, more empathetic and more resilient?
 Anyone else hearing the parallel here?