Michael Interviews Michael… and Pilgrims and American Exceptionalism


Signing of the Mayflower compact

Michael J. Totten interviewed Michael Oren, author of Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present – which appears to be a fascinating book and a must read for everyone interested in this subject.

From the interview:

MJT: So tell us, Michael, why does America’s involvement in the Middle East 200 years ago matter today? What does it have to do with September 11 and Iraq?

Oren: Well it matters, Michael, because many of the same issues that Americans are facing today in the Middle East were confronted by America’s founding fathers – Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington. For example, they had to confront the issue of state-sponsored terrorism in the Middle East. They had to face a threat to the United States, and decide whether to generate military power and then project that power thousands of miles from the United States. They had to decide whether to involve the United States in an open-ended and rather expensive bloody war in the Middle East. This was, of course, the Barbary War, America’s first overseas military engagement and America’s longest overseas military engagement. It lasted from 1783 to 1815. During the course of this engagement, as my book shows, the United States was confronting a jihadist state-sponsored terrorist network that was taking Americans hostage in the Middle East. It’s very similar to what is going on today.

Read the entire interview, it’s a very interesting read.

For now, however, I would like spend some attention to something that surprised me greatly.

MJT: You wrote about how Americans 200 years ago were thinking of the United States as their own Zion and comparing themselves to the Israelites. This long predates the founding of the state of Israel. This idea is much older than [founder of the Zionist movement] Theodore Herzl.

Oren: Much older. This goes back to the time of the Puritans, to the 17th Century. The Puritans had appropriated the biblical narrative. They saw themselves as the new Israel. They had escaped bondage in England, in Egypt, you know? They crossed the Atlantic Ocean, which was their Sinai. They inherited a promised land, which was the New World. They gave one thousand biblical names to their cities and towns. They gave biblical names to their sons and daughters. They made Hebrew a required language at their universities. James Madison was a Hebrew major.

As a result Americans felt a particular kinship with the old Jews, as though they were sort of cousins. They felt a very strong attachment to the old promised land of Palestine. And they concluded that as good Christians and good Americans it was incumbent on them to help God fulfill his biblical promises to the Jews to rescue them from exile and to restore them to the promised land. This was the notion of Restorationism. It was very common in colonial America well into the 19th Century and even into the 20th Century. And it’s the origin of today’s Evangelical support for Israel.

True enough, no surprises here… at least not to me:

MJT: Fascinating. I had no idea about any of this. Most Americans probably don’t.

Oren: I had no idea about it before I wrote about it.

What? “I had no idea about any of this”? It’s not my intention to insult or attack Michael J. Totten (who I greatly respect) and / or the majority of Americans, but this is amazing. It’s the very root of what is known as American exceptionalism: “City on a hill” and all that.

This is or at least should be basic knowledge. It’s the first thing they teach American Studies students, I assumed that this is something they teach all American high school students as well. Seemingly I was mistaken.

If Michael Totten is right, and I have no reason to believe that he’s not, it’s quite a sad state of affairs. If one wants to understand American society today, one should go back to its roots. To its very foundation.

Here is (part of) an account that’s a must read for all Americans: Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford. You can order it, in book form here.

Bradford was an important man. He arived in the Americas in 1620, on the Mayflower. He and the other Pilgrims settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He was soon elected Governor, etc.

If one reads and analyzes Of Plymouth Plantation, one realizes almost immediately that Bradford does all he can to equate the Pilgrims to the Jews and himself to Moses who led the Jews through the Sinai and into the promised land. One example (chapter IX):

What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His grace? May not and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say “Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice and looked on their adversity,” etc. “Let them therefore praise the Lord, because He is good: and His mercies endure forever.” “Yea, let them which have been redeemed of the Lord, show how He hath delivered them from the hand of the oppressor. When they wandered in the desert winderness out of the way, and found no city to dwell in, both hungry and thirsty, their soul was overwhelmed in them. Let them confess before the Lord His loving kindness and His wonderful works before the sons of men.”(2)

My Norton Anthology explains:

1. “And the Egyptians evil entreated us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage: And when we cried unto the Lord God of our fathers, the Lord heard our voice, and looked on our affliction, and our labor and our oppression: And the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand” (Deuteronomy 26:6-8).
2. “O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, whom he hath redeemed from the hand of the enemy; And gathered them out of the lands, from the east, and from the west, from the north , and from the south” (Psalm 107:1-5).

Bradford constantly talks about the Pilgrims and, at the same time, the Jews. The reference is deliberate: Moses the redeemer leading the Jews out of Egypt into the promised land = Bradford the redeemer leading the Jews out of England / Europe into the new world.

They have now become God’s Chosen People. They are now important. Bradford has been chosen by God to lead the chosen people (the Pilgrims) into the promised land. It gives them a religious purpose. Obviously, this is very significant to the Pilgrims. They are not just a people… they are exceptional, they are specialAmerican exceptionalism originated from them, from the Pilgrims and from the mythmaking by people like Bradford.

Whenever something good happens, it’s “God’s Providence” – God protects His chosen people.

Also interesting is this:

Having undertaken, for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honor of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, etc.

As my professor pointed out: make no mistake about it, the Pilgrims weren’t as much concerned with religious freedom as with establishing a theocracy based on their views. The religious covenant and civil contract (now the… guess? Constitution) are one and the same. It was not about freedom of religion / worship for everyone. They came for their own view of perfect worship. The only people who had ‘freedom’ where those who adhered to perfect Pilgrim ideology. Dissenters were often expelled and even killed.

What does this also mean? That an atheist could not become Governor (/ leader). Political leaders, civil leaders, were religious leaders as well, since the Pilgrims believed that they should form a holy community.

As we found out yesterday, that situation has not truly changed – most Americans would still never vote for an atheist.

If you want to order Of Plymouth Plantation click on the image below.

  

Author: michaelvdg

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19 Comments

  1. Wow, that is an interesting read. I wouldn’t say that most Americans are totally unaware of this, but perhaps less aware than they ought to be. And part of that may be one of perspective; it’s hard to have the same view of ourselves from the inside as others will have from an outside perspective. I think we tend to have conflated the idea of American Exceptionalism as the ideals of our democracy rather than the religious ideals of the Puritans. So, City on the Hill now resonates as our American ideals of freedom and justice rather than ideals relating to Deism. So, I think that when Totten and Oren both admit to not knowing about this part of our past, perhaps it’s because Americans would rather forget it; maybe our history courses are engaging in a bit of revisionism by downplaying the religious goals of our early days.

  2. So, I think that when Totten and Oren both admit to not knowing about this part of our past, perhaps it’s because Americans would rather forget it; maybe our history courses are engaging in a bit of revisionism by downplaying the religious goals of our early days.

    How right Lawrence was. I quote him a couple of days ago: “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale.”

    If we look at American literature, from the earliest days, there is no denying that it came forth from Pilgrims and Puritans.

  3. Also: I had no idea that Americans know so little about this kind of thing. I will publish more posts like this in the future if you all are interested in it… the reason – again – that I never do is because I always assume that this is collective knowledge.

  4. This is all nice but the Founding Fathers didn’t make the US a Christian nation. Yesterdays deists would probably be agnostics today.

  5. I think Rudi has a point, and something I was thinking about too: there was obviously a tension between the more religious and the more secular founding fathers, and they seemed to have come to at least a partial resolution of the problem. Obviously the question wasn’t entirely resolved as we still have heated debate over the separation of Church and state today, but isn’t it relevant, MvdG, that the issue was handled in this particular way? That the Pilgrims’desire for a theocracy didn’t just die out, it was deliberately thwarted by the authors of our Constitution (even while preserving the idea that religion has enough value to deserve special protection?)

  6. I had no idea the connection was this explicit either. There is an especially great distortion of pre French and Indian War history. In elementary school we’re taught the Puritans were basically the original Founding Fathers in the vein of Franklin-Adams-Jefferson which is not true…and this perception was never really corrected in the upper grades (at least for me). In fact, I know far more about Middle Ages Europe than Colonialism. Colonialism is seen as the most boring part of American History and is sped through to get to the good stuff about the Revolution and beginning years of the country.

  7. In elementary school we’re taught the Puritans were basically the original Founding Fathers in the vein of Franklin-Adams-Jefferson which is not true

    I don’t know that I’d go that far but certainly agree that there was some implication along those lines. What I recall the most is that the idea of the Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution is stressed, and while I recall being taught in later years that they in turn were religious persecuters themselves, I think that is brushed over too much in many American history courses. It’s sort of treated as an aside..as in, “Oh yeah, they were actually rather intolerant of religions other than their own, but now we understand that those who want religious freedom must also be willing to grant it to others.”

  8. C.S. the thing is… it has made a tremendous impact on American society, even today. Some deists, indeed, have adopted some views of the Pilgrims for instance, but still today many people argue that the Constitution is a Christian document that America is a Christian nation, etc. The origin of that view? Pilgrims.

    American exceptionalism has been adopted by many people. The origin of it? The Pilgrims.

    Listen, you have to remember that your country is incredibly young. Combine that with the fact that the ones who first moved over there, who made the impact in the beginning at least, were people shared the views as described in the post and… do you really think that’ll die out?

    Of course not. At least, not for a long time to come.

    The following is absolutely true and of major importance: if you want to understand America today (whether Americans like it or not) one has to read and analyze the earliest accounts of the immigrants who, de facto, created America.

    I also mentioned something in my post about the Constitution by the way.

  9. O, I forgot to mention: even the fact that many Americans wouldn’t vote for an atheist today, stems from … the Pilgrims.

    Isn’t it fascinating? I’m sorry, I get a little bit passionate about this kind of thing, about the connections, etc….

    I had no idea the connection was this explicit either. There is an especially great distortion of pre French and Indian War history. In elementary school we’re taught the Puritans were basically the original Founding Fathers in the vein of Franklin-Adams-Jefferson which is not true…and this perception was never really corrected in the upper grades (at least for me).

    It’s certainly not true indeed.

    Also: you all know what the difference is between Puritans and the Pilgrims, right (not trying to belittle, just wondering).

    C.S.:

    What I recall the most is that the idea of the Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution is stressed, and while I recall being taught in later years that they in turn were religious persecuters themselves, I think that is brushed over too much in many American history courses. It’s sort of treated as an aside

    That’s what Lawrence pointed out… In essence he said don’t believe the Pilgrims when they said that they fled intolerance and persecution as such…

    Now, that’s too simplistic, to a degree at least, but there is certainly quite some truth to it.

    The Pilgrims were certainly not tolerant.

  10. I was actually getting at your comment about the Constitution, MvdG, and trying to understand it better. You seemed to say that the Constitution was the embodiment of Pilgrim’s wish for a combined religious covenant and civil document; I’m arguing that this may have been their wish but those who drafted the actual US Constitution decided otherwise- deliberately.

    You’re right, of course, that this doesn’t mean that all who dissented from that decision didn’t just go away or change their minds, and that this thinking still doesn’t exist today. I also agree with you that we ought to better understand that history. But I think it’s important to also understand how the question was settled and to make sure that is well understood, because that way people won’t be as susceptible to those who try to misinterpret the Constitution on this issue.

  11. I’m arguing that this may have been their wish but those who drafted the actual US Constitution decided otherwise- deliberately.

    Really? Do you think that nobody involved felt quite a bit like the Pilgrims did?

    You know what idea dates back to the Pilgrims as well? “One nation under God”.

    The President who says “God bless America” – where do you think that came from originally?

  12. At a federal level the founders left open religion and politics. At the state and local level religion played a greater role in government. This is one basis for federalism versus state rights. So one cou;d say that sectarianism even had a hand in Americas origin. The exceptionalism was meaningless without the untamed vastness and natural resources that were yet to come. If America was like Australia or a vast wasteland, history would be quite different.

  13. Really? Do you think that nobody involved felt quite a bit like the Pilgrims did?

    Oh, no, I’m not saying that at all- in fact I know that it was quite a heated debate. I’ve also seen that certain men among the “founding fathers” were quite a bit more in the camp that you’re describing. George Washington, for example, spoke often of those ideas of religion being a pillar of society, and I remember a quote from Ben Franklin that stated that we won the Revolutionary War because God was on our side.

    But I am saying that those who did NOT want the Constitution to be a religious covenant were the ones who won the argument. From there, I think that what happened (my own view, perhaps distorted through the lens with which I’ve been taught to see it) is that the views of God and religion are seen as being prevalant because they have historically been held by the majority. That’s different than being imposed by the state, but can still be problematic of course, as in what is described as the “tyranny of the majority”. Toqueville had interesting observations of that phenomena, and he seemed to have felt that it was largely a positive influence because people weren’t coerced into religious beliefs forcefully but subtly. He felt, I think, that this was a stabilizing influence and sort of a compromise between true unbridled religious liberty and outright coercion. That point is arguable, of course.

  14. Michael, you are running into the classing “looking from the outside and wondering why those on the inside don’t see what is happening as clearly.” I ran into that in France when I discussed World War II and the Vichy regime.

    It takes an effort for those of us within the US to take that mental step outward to look inward. I was aware of the Puritan/Pilgrim heritage and how it has affected both the government and the fundamental culture of the US. An example not cited often is it is that heritage that prompts the American bipolar behavior towards sex. There is an entire book’s worth of things to discuss, we are merely scratching the surface here. In the next few days I’ll try to put together a post on this topic from my point of view within the US as someone who does make the effort to look in from the outside.

  15. That’s a good point as well Jack and yes, please do. It’s a very interesting topic.

  16. Yes I should point out that we are explicitly taught about the Puritan religious beliefs as applied to social morals and local governance. Most Americans are (or should be) fairly aware of their impact on our cultural fabric, but what Totten was referring to is the direct link to the parallel of Exodus and the rise of Exceptionalism.

  17. but what Totten was referring to is the direct link to the parallel of Exodus and the rise of Exceptionalism.

    Yes, but I was wondering what they do spend attention on and what they don’t teach.

  18. CS:”…the Pilgrims’desire for a theocracy didn’t just die out, it was deliberately thwarted …”
    =====
    This is an important point. The most important thing to know about the Founding Fathers is that they were NOT of one mind about religion, and they attempted to deal with their in the Constitution. While most were believers, the majority being Protestant, they were well aware of the tendency of the majority religion in a state to subjugate and even persecute the minorities. There was a lot of moving from state to state to escape persecution.

    Many of the Founders (G.Washington, Th.Jefferson, B.Franklin and others0 separated ‘bellief’ from organized religion and were concerned about the power of the latter.

    I would argue then, that the fear of religious tyranny (like that of the Puritans) was as much a part of the thinking that went into the final draft of the Constiturion as the individual religious beliefs of the Founders.

    What impresses me most about the Founders is how well read and well informed most of them were about the history of Europr, in addition to America, and the ideas of major thinkers of the day. They put our current Washington posse to shame.

    Personally, I find that inclusion of the word ‘God’ into a national document can mean as many things as the reader wishes it to mean, so long as God is not defined. For me, ‘God’ represents man’s search for inspiration or moral clarity, not an end product to that search.
    In fact, God dies when we think we have all the answeres and have no more need to seek and question.

  19. Exerpts of Badford’s book can be read here.
    Looks like Project Gutenberg hasn’t OCRed it yet. That’s sad, I don’t see a point in buying a book that over 300 years old and that is already in public domain. And McGraw-Hill still wants 10 bucks for 385 pages. Crooks.

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