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?