31 January 2010


I’ve been reading (not exactly sure what provoked it) a biography of Jonathan Edwards, by Philip Gura. The book’s subtitle is America’s Evangelical, so perhaps I am drawn to the idea of evangelicism and its dangerous hold on American thought.

Anyway, what intrigues me is the Puritan belief that individuals might have personal individual experience concerning the state of one’s soul, and need not have to rely on the intervention of the Priest (in confession, I suppose), or by the payment of indulgences, or through some other intercession to ensure their being saved. Gura says, “The English Puritans believed that such individual experience is also intimately related to how one joined with others to practice religion and thus sought to reorganize their churches more in line with what they understood as the scriptural injunction for the “communion of the saints.” It was important that one belonged to the proper community, one that has been gathered away from the evils of the world “to pursue a more pure form of worship.” The character of the community was important, and therefore, it was important to ensure that the community remained like-minded and, well, morally and politically correct, which might be understood as identical in this case.

Very clearly this insistence led to not a few arguments about the nature of the community and the constitution of the appropriate Church, but I think the idea offers some insight into America’s bigotry. What constitutes a holy community? Who knows that? The idea that someone knows the character of such a community, and that any corruption anywhere endangers the very welfare of the state has led to horribly intolerant behaviors, starting earlier of course, than the Salem Witch Trials, but leading in a very direct line to the xenophobia which characterizes so much of American belief and practice. We have persistently maintained so limited a view of the nature of community, so rigid a belief in what might characterize purity, and so little tolerance for the beliefs of others that we have practiced abominable behaviors and committed horrible acts of violence in an attempt to keep pure what is inherently impure. So few have been held to be eligible to join the pure community, and their tainted presence threatens, the community says, to draw destruction on it. For the sake of purity, these infidels must be cast out and even eliminated.

At our very core rests our destruction.


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