Evangelical Outpost, perhaps the best blog among evangelicals, and the best aggregator among the evangelical blogs by far, has called for a symposium on Yale professor , David Gelernter‘s (whose thoughts on technology I have enjoyed if not always agreed with) piece recently in Commentary manazine entitled: “Americanism and Its Enemies.” Gelernter’s main thesis is that we can understand America’s unique role in the world today, and why America has so many diverse ditractors is because the Unites States is where 17th century Puritanism still lives and reigns as a cultural force. It is a provocative piece, and probably stunning for many who are not the traditional theological heirs of Puritanism. In my Presbyterian circles, the effects of the Puritan movement are discussed nearly weekly, so I come to this discussion with the hope of adding some depth to Gelernter’s piece.

Coming from a Jewish perspective, Gelernter does an outstanding job of mentioning the kinship that the Puritan movement felt towards what the Puritans believed was their Hebrew forbeers. Just last week, I took a class at Reformed Seminary where some time was spent on discussing why the Puritans decided to organize their churches like Old Testament synagogues.

What I think Gelernter does very well is to highlight the creation of liberty of individuals that the Puritan movement created. Quite radical indeed for post-Medieval Europe, which was slipping into the bonds of Monarchial superstates best exemplified by the likes of France and Spain. We are always surprised by history and we should be used to its surprises at this point; but the idea that the least of the European powers in 1600 would dump its most radical fringe on the shores of the most inhospitable part of the American continents and within a few centuries that seed would grow to dwarf all the world’s powers put together is remarkable enough. What is especially remarkable is the self-deprecating exceptionlism that the Puritans gave the new America in political and spiritual spirit.

What I think is most missing from the Commentary piece is the most basic examination of the word “Puritan.” Purifying from what? Purifying towards what? It is unfortunate that the popular misconception of Puritans is of a dour people trying to stomp the life out of everyone else. What the Puritans were most concerned with was life, and life as a human in the most exisitential way. The reason why they were concerned of this has great bearing on modern American life – the Puritans believed in a theology of redemption from sin and brokeness above all, and because all men, themselves included; were broken yet still made in God’s image.

The desire for redemption is the elephant in the room that I think Gelernter misses about the Puritan spirit. Because of redemption, the isolationist America first created a government after what George III (a bit of the descendent of the Puritan way himself) called “that damned Presbyterian War” to make the world anew, as they were joined by the refuse (to Europe) of the world, they hacked their way through a wilderness. By the 1820’s, the rough & ready Scotch-Irish had taken over the Puritan spirit and industrialised the West. By the turn of the century, the Puritan ethic spared American from the socialist takeover in Western Europe, to the extent that twice in the 20th century the cultural and political descendents of the Puritans arrived in Europe to do just as the first immigrants to America had done – return to Europe and try to redeem the world.

In Dr. Douglas Kelly’s book, The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World, he describes the movement of spiritual and political Puritanism (or as he refers to it, Calvinism) as waves in American history. While he says that some see the waves of Puritanism in waning waves in history, I see the arrival of the political regimes of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush as renewals of the Puritan tradition with their mutual hope in “r”epulican self-rule, even for America’s enemies.

In theological circles, doom and gloom not withstanding (what would true Puritans be without some doom and gloom) there has been a decided turn towards a Biblically sound American church and spiritual formation since the turn of the Southern Baptist convention towards a Biblical literalist view at the end of the 1970’s.

While I most heartily agree that Gelernter’s piece is a great starting point for understanding why Americans view the world the way they do and why there is so much anti-Americanism in nations. It must be understood that while transcendent truths are important but it is just as important to point out that many Americans believe in political and spiritual redemption for all men. This is the true spirit of Puritanism.

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