The Puritans Were Like ISIS?

on February 21, 2015

This week Yale Divinity School’s Miroslav Volf, in an interview with Religion News Service’s Jonathan Merritt, seems to compare America’s founders with ISIS. He explains to Merritt about ISIS:

I think it is an attempt to assert Islam as a political religion as a unity of religion and government. Now that’s been a way religions have functioned throughout history–from Constantine until recently. America was founded by folks who thought like this.

RNS: America was founded by folks who thought like Islamist extremists?

MV: Like many Islamist extremists, yes. Which is to say, they believed God would bless this new experiment if we integrate our obedience to God’s laws and we ensure that this is indeed a city set on a hill.

Later on Twitter, Volf, responding to a challenge, said:

Think of John Winthrop, his theory of the role of the state and the laws against blasphemies, adulterers, and idolaters.

And Volf added:

I love America, but its first founders, like Muslim extremists, advocated killing for blasphemy, adultery, idolatry.

So Volf seems to think the Puritans who settled New England in the 1600s were like ISIS. The commonalities would apparently be that both were theocratic and punished dissent.

Volf in his brief comments omits that the Puritans were in their theocratic governance not exceptional in their day, as nearly every society then in the world, of every religion, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, pagan, etc, was theocratic, had some form of established state religion, and punished dissent, offering little to no official protection for private conscience.

The Puritans, of course, had quit old England to escape its Anglican theocracy. Full religious freedom, or something relatively close, was not codified until the colony of Rhode Island was established by Roger Williams, himself a Puritan who escaped Massachusetts and who rejected a state church.

So in a sense it was the Puritans who, with their emphasis on individual conscience, education, mass literacy, proto-democracy, rejection of monarchy and priestly intermediaries, plus strong limits on state power, helped to generate the idea of religious liberty.

The Puritans’ brethren back in England, after winning the civil war, established a form of relative religious toleration, notable at the time, by allowing virtually all Protestant sects, while still banning Anglicanism and Catholicism, both of which they saw as enemies for not tolerating any alternatives to their own theocracy. Puritan rule also invited Jews to return to England after centuries of banishment.

Volf cites Puritan prohibitions on “blasphemy, adultery, idolatry,” but again virtually every society globally had equivalents of such bans. He says the “founders…advocated killing” for these offenses. Executions for these crimes was actually very rare under the Puritans. Famous exceptions include the three Quaker martyrs of the 1660s, after which the Quakers gained legal protection, and of course the Salem witch trials of the 1690s, after which even magistrates admitted the miscarriage of justice.

Unlike ISIS ruled territory, from which hundreds of thousands, if not millions, have fled as refugees, tens of thousands of immigrants, most of them non-Puritan, immigrated to New England during Puritan rule, seeking the prosperity and relatively lawful society over which the Puritans presided.

Ironically, despite the stereotypes about them, rooted only partly in fact, the Puritans and their diaspora across upstate New York and the upper Midwest spawned abolitionism and a multitude of reformist movements, including female equality, based on their rationalism, learning and egalitarianism. Progressivism itself is arguably the secularized descendant of Puritanism. Volf’s own Yale University emerged from Puritan Connecticut.

Two centuries from now, will ISIS be recalled for a similarly distinguished legacy?

  1. Comment by rileycase on February 21, 2015 at 5:20 pm

    Yale Divinity School is one of the seminaries approved by the United Methodist University Senate for the training of United Methodist pastors. Evangelical schools who operate from a confessional Christian perspective are not approved (it might violate academic freedom). Yale evidently has no standards to guard against totally irresponsible kinds of statements as those by Miroslav Volf who seems to have very little understanding of American church history. To have a brilliant mind does not mean that if you start from some weird ideological presumptions, you will end up with common sense thinking. The comparing of the Puritans with ISIS by a Yale professor is so off-the-wall that it should be an embarrassment to anyone connected with Yale, or, if they are United Methodist, a mistrust of the judgments of the United Methodist University Senate.

  2. Comment by Neil Bragg on February 21, 2015 at 5:48 pm

    Shouldn’t a school with Yale’s reputation be able to hire people who know REAL history, not the twisted, anti-Christian, Politically Correct pseud-history that any avowed atheist would approve? The Puritans were not terrorists nor tyrants. Their period of power, with Oliver Cromwell heading the government in England, gave England much more religious tolerance than had happened under its kings.

  3. Comment by fredx2 on February 23, 2015 at 5:17 pm

    They hire them precisely because they have those weird, anti-intellectual ideas. That is the pity of it all.

  4. Comment by yolo on February 21, 2015 at 10:42 pm

    He is actually exactly right, but he misidentified the form. Ironically, his progressive friends are that form. The Puritans and later descending Calvinists were Christian and therefore the values that they promoted and or inculcated were no different from Roman Catholics or Orthodox, even if they legally stipulated those values. Those values are NOT ISIS and NEVER have been. The Magna Carta, for instance, existed for many hundreds of years in Roman Catholic England. Progressives are actually a lot like ISIS. Their values are NOT Christian, are legally stipulated, and formulated from their biases, distastes, and petty beliefs however wrong they are. There is nothing more dangerous than when they attempt to ‘justify with science’ the purging of people that don’t live the exact way that they live, that don’t raise their children the same way, and that have different diets or tastes. ISIS beheaded a guy that joined because he smoked, citing ‘slow suicide’. Watch what would happen to a guy that tried smoking on one of the many progressive college campuses that have banned cigarette smoking today.

  5. Comment by DDS on February 23, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    Mark, I think part of the problem is the word “theocratic.” We throw around this term as though it describes all government pre-American democracy. It does not. Medieval Christendom was had a variety of forms of political government and the distinction between the two swords of society – royal and political – was a common doctrine adhered to by all, though there is great variation. Crown and church existed in a mutual relationship but the political community was NOT ruled by the church. More often than not the church was quite weak and kings, lords, princes and local rulers often exercised much influence over ecclesial matters. Good job calling out Volf for his terrible equivocation, but I also think we should stop buying into the Whig history that has been fed to us by the Enlightenment.

  6. Comment by fredx2 on February 23, 2015 at 5:15 pm

    You can see what trouble we are in when supposedly educated people like Mr. Volf make what are deeply idiotic comparisons. This is what passes for “sophisticated opinion” these days when in fact it is a species of deep ignorance.

    In what other field do we compare the way things were 400 years ago with the way people act today. As you point out, virtually every society 400 years ago severely punished blasphemy. But the foolish thing that people such as Mr. Volf say is that “Christians” punished blasphemy. Yes, but it was 400 years ago!

    Yale Divinity school is in trouble. It has been for years, along with all of the other major divinity schools.

  7. Comment by geoffrobinson on February 23, 2015 at 6:24 pm

    At the same time lots of these folks are going to try and shut down florists who don’t do gay weddings. That is, they have their own blasphemy laws, just secular ones.

  8. Comment by John S. on February 24, 2015 at 7:21 am

    One thing that is missed in the tropes on execution in the past for today’s “minor” crimes is the poverty vs wealth link. Earlier societies could not afford to house and feed someone for years, decades, lifetimes when ordinary people were working without end and still starving. Only in the wealthy societies of today is it affordable to reward the killing of another with food, shelter, medical care, clothing, etc that would have been the envy of an aristocracy but a couple centuries ago.

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