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About The Author

Forrest Church

Forrest Church is senior minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City. He has written or edited twenty books, including The Jefferson Bible, Restoring Faith: America's Religious Leaders Answer Terror with Hope, and, most recently, Bringing God Home: A Traveler's... More

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EXCERPT

The American Creed
1
"A CITY ON A HILL"
"In the beginning all the world was America."
--John Locke, Second Treatise on Government, 49, 1
 
 
 
 
 
IN THE BEGINNING, WHEN GOD CREATED HEAVEN AND EARTH, ALL the world was a wilderness. This wilderness was populated first by ferns and then by animals. Hundreds of millions of years later, as a home to aboriginal peoples scattered in pockets around the globe, the world was a forbidding garden. Slowly, this garden was cultivated. With cultivation came civilization; city-states became nations; nations, empires. Where advanced civilizations flourished, nature was conquered and society tamed. But a new wilderness beckoned. The virgin American woods had their own story, an oral history passed down by Shamans of a hundred tribes. To European eyes, however, America was a second Eden. Long since driven from the garden, the first white settlers brought to America their own ancestral legends of creation and fall as contained in the Bible, together with a script for redemption.
The Pilgrims' and Puritans' migration to America was a self- conscious "errand into the wilderness," motivated by a hunger for religious freedom. "Behold I will do a new thing," God sangin the voice of Isaiah. "Now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert ... to give drink to my people, my chosen." The Puritans thought that God was speaking through Isaiah directly to them. For better and for worse, the imprint this conviction left on our nation lingers to this day. Looking back on America's first New Englanders some two centuries after they landed in Plymouth Bay and Salem Harbor, Alexis de Tocqueville reminded us, "It must never be forgotten that religion gave birth to Anglo-American society. In the United States, religion is therefore mingled with all the habits of the nation and all the feelings of patriotism, whence it derives a peculiar force."
President William Howard Taft knew his history well. "We speak with great satisfaction of the fact that our ancestors--and I claim New England ancestry--came to this country in order to establish freedom of religion," he said in a speech celebrating the 250th anniversary of Norwich, Connecticut, in 1909. "Well, if you are going to be exact, they came to this country to establish freedom of their religion, and not the freedom of anybody else's religion." It is certainly true that when the Pilgrims arrived on the shores of New England they sought religious freedom from one established religion with the stated intention of establishing a new one. Yet the logic that informed their own liberation led directly, if unintentionally, to the establishment of freedom for others. Adam and Eve lost their freedom by exercising it. The Pilgrims and Puritans spread theirs by doing the same. It is no exaggeration to say that America's cornerstone is religious liberty.
From the very outset--even in documents that spring from a different set of primary intentions--one can trace the beginnings of what came to be established as the American Creed. From 1620 onward, faith has invested the freedom Americans seek with meaning. And freedom has tempered the exclusionary strictures of faith. We celebrate both of these legacies on Thanksgiving.
 
 
For most Americans the history we remember is associated with holidays. In pageants and ceremonial addresses our past is brought alive again. The teaching of our history begins here, in school auditoriums and houses of worship, at great outdoor festivals and colorful parades, and around the family table. One of our public national holidays, Christmas, is explicitly religious, a continuing reminder of the nation's Christian roots. The others are secular, each evoking shared pieties and therefore spiritual in a more distinctively American way. To know a nation's spirit, look first to its holidays.
In America we celebrate Labor Day, not Business Day. We remember those who sacrificed their lives for their country on Memorial Day and those who served to defend it on Veterans Day. Columbus Day marks the beginning of our country's recorded history, an occasion on which today we also reflect on sins committed against Native Americans consequent to America's "discovery." We commemorate the birthdays of two presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, ensuring that their stories and values will be remembered. On the Fourth of July we celebrate the Declaration of Independence. On the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday we lift up a martyr's dream that one day its promise might be fulfilled. And on Thanksgiving--the quintessential American holiday--we look back to Plymouth Plantation. Thankful for family, the bounty of the earth, and our cherished freedoms, we join in prayer at the table of our first ancestors (Pilgrim and Native American alike). Thanksgiving is our most distinctive national holiday. According to opinion polls, it is also our favorite.
To serve the nation's higher interests, the celebration of our history must be instructed by fact as well as legend. Though they represent the most traveled bridge to our history, holidays can homogenize the past, making it less relevant to the present and instructive for the future. Thanksgiving itself is a perfect example. When William Bradford led his tiny band of Pilgrims on a perilous voyage across the ocean to a new land, the entire enterprise represented an act of faith. By the end of the first winter, half the party of some one hundred men, women, andchildren was dead. Starvation was commonplace, disease rampant. The Pilgrims and Indians coexisted in a tenuous state of justifiably mutual mistrust. That the Pilgrims could devote their attention to anything beyond sheer survival is almost a miracle. Yet, judging from the earliest records, their minds remained fixed on two things above all others: God and freedom.
Thanksgiving, our most religious non-Christian holiday, symbolizes everything that unites us as Americans. No one is excluded from its table of communion. In a sense, Thanksgiving is an American seder. Not only does a Passover seder's meal-centered and family-driven focus evoke the spirit of the Thanksgiving feast, but the ancient Hebrews' forty-year passage through the wilderness to freedom (which Passover commemorates) was the scriptural model for the Pilgrims' own journey to America.
Were we to open our Thanksgiving liturgy with a unison reading of the first sacred text of American history, it would begin with the words, "In the name of God. Amen." What the Mayflower Compact goes on to say is really quite amazing. A newly free people, after giving lip service to their loyalty to the "dread Sovereign Lord King James," did something on their own for which no other group in England would have mustered the gumption. They determined "solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God and one another, [to] covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation." In short, they created their own government, pledging to "enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony: unto which we promise all due submission and obedience." Noting the contrast between this compact and the laws of the old country, Tocqueville exclaimed in wonder, "A democracy more perfect than antiquity had dared to dream of started in full size and panoply from the midst of ancient feudal society."
The Plymouth Colony was far from being a perfect democracy, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony made no pretense to being one. Though the Pilgrims experimented for a short whilewith a kind of primitive communism (taking their communitarian script from the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament), the basis for a strict hierarchy was present from the beginning. From the covenant theology of Governor William Bradford quickly developed elements suggestive of a rigid theocracy. The form of governance that emerged in Massachusetts was neither egalitarian nor democratic. Nonetheless, at the very outset of our history, the Mayflower Compact established the notion upon which our nation would be founded: governments formed by compact derive their power from the terms set by the governed.
In America, religious covenant and civic compact have a similar character and derive from the same source. Each is freely entered into; and, ultimately, the authority for both is granted by higher authority than that which an earthly king can bestow. In practicing their religion and in creating their government, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony acted freely, despite the royal imprimatur of their charter. By so doing they sounded the keynote of American democracy. To cast this point in language that the Pilgrims themselves would have understood, America is founded on the theological conviction that "God's will" and "man's weal" are one and the same.
From hard acquaintance with the tyranny of state-sponsored religion, in establishing their "civil politic" the Pilgrims were motivated by a desire to separate their church from England's state. The Puritans (who came to Boston ten years later and set the tone for New England society) felt no such compunction. Yet they too laid the foundation for the American Creed. Congregational polity--a priesthood of all believers--leads directly to the idea of democratic government. And the practice of religious liberty naturally suggests (and, to a degree, mandates) its correlate, civil liberty. If the Puritans failed to make these connections themselves, their primary commitments to congregational polity and their own religious liberty certainly facilitated the speed and manner in which they were later made.
 
 
John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and leader of the party that arrived in Salem Harbor on elevenships in 1630, delivered a sermon onboard the flagship Arbella shortly before its passengers disembarked to found the city of Boston. Winthrop was a Christian layperson, but among his fellow Puritans this status in no way compromised his spiritual authority. Foreshadowing the development of America's egalitarian spirit, the Puritans (though far from egalitarian themselves) vested moral authority not in an individual's office but in that person's demonstrated virtue. Christian virtue was, in fact, the subtext for Winthrop's sermon. Entitling it "A Model of Christian Charity," he framed the challenge his people faced in purely spiritual terms.
Winthrop knew that he and his company of Puritans were "doing a new thing." He believed that what they were doing was, literally, of cosmic importance. The community they were about to establish would be a beacon for the world, a model for societies everywhere. When one considers the modesty of the enterprise--and that this beacon would be shining three thousand miles away from where anyone could see it--one might justifiably accuse Winthrop of grandiosity. This same charge has been made against America throughout the course of its history. Yet 372 years later, the moral foundation on which Winthrop based his confidence illustrates the nature of our aspirations as a people remarkably well.
If Winthrop's sermon sets the tone for all subsequent expressions of American moral ambition, he could not conceivably have imagined how his Puritan aspirations might one day give rise to a nation dedicated to the celebration of religious pluralism. But faith and freedom ring together in Winthrop's sermon as clearly as they do in the Mayflower Compact. The nation's motto, E pluribus unum, echoes throughout, especially in Winthrop's peroration: "We must delight in each other, make others' conditions our own and rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and common work, our community as members of the same body ... . For we must consider that we shall be like a City upon a Hill; the eyes of all people are on us."
Winthrop's model for society was a biblical one. "The city on a hill that cannot be hid" is Jesus' description of the messianic community from his Sermon on the Mount. But Winthrop also drew his blueprint from the church envisioned by St. Paul, a sacred community of one body with many members. In Paul's Christ there was neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female. So understood, the church had no respect for persons, meaning simply that every person must be treated with equal dignity. Winthrop and his fellow Puritans restricted member-ship in the one body to those who embraced their own faith's strictures ("the messianic community"), but Paul's metaphor lent itself naturally to more generous subsequent interpretation.
Until his death in 1649, Winthrop governed with moderation. In fact, on account of his leniency he fell from favor and, for a brief time, from major office. Nonetheless, Winthrop's political philosophy was elitist to the core, presuming the superior judgment of a chosen few, in whose hands the fortunes of the community would safely rest. He spoke often of religious liberty but not in such a way that it might be misconstrued as "mere democracy," which represented for him the "meanest and worst of all forms of government." For Winthrop--who believed humanity to be by nature sinful--the word liberty, as a human rather than a divine attribute, was interchangeable with the word license. Untethered to a directing authority, liberty would lead to immoral behavior and, in turn, undermine social stability. The liberty Winthrop endorsed was "the liberty to that only which is good, just, and honest. This liberty you are to stand for, with the hazard not only of your goods, but of your lives, if need be." Without strong civil and ecclesiastical guidance, the cultivation of such liberty was unimaginable to him.
Winthrop's contemporary, the theologian and historian Cotton Mather, called him the American Nehemiah (a great biblical administrator). Because of his Puritan temperament, revisionists have since excoriated Winthrop for being self-righteous and judgmental, even "un-American." This epithet is unfair. By stressing charity in human relations, Winthrop set a high standard.And, by linking liberty with morality, he offered a chastening reminder that freedom alone is a mixed blessing. Uninformed by morality, freedom is, at best, a neutral value and not a virtue. If there is little "American" about the so-called theocracy Winthrop envisioned and attempted to establish, neither is there anything distinctly "American" about liberty uncoupled with moral suasion.
 
 
Before the seventeenth century was half over, Roger Williams and others had already invested the Puritan letter with a broader Christian spirit. In fostering complete religious freedom in Rhode Island, Williams signaled the beginning of the end for established churches throughout the colonies. And, by the close of the seventeenth century, with the introduction of the Quaker faith, William Penn and others had brought a Christianity infused with the spirit of democracy to Pennsylvania. But it was the Pilgrims (despite their modest numbers) and the Puritans (not-withstanding the exclusive nature of their theological vision) who contributed the first important chapter in the development of the American Creed. The principles stated in the Declaration of Independence are a natural extension of covenant theology from congregation to nation as much as they are an inspired adaptation of Enlightenment thought.
With redemptive and ironic consequence, the dance of American faith and freedom couples liberal and evangelistic choreography throughout the course of the nation's history. In 1833, Massachusetts was the last state in the union to disestablish religion, making Unitarianism--today steadfast in its devotion to church/state separation--the American faith last to hold government sanction. The First Church in Plymouth (now Unitarian Universalist) has gathered for 382 years under the Puritan covenant of the Mayflower Compact. Other liberal churches have adapted the Mayflower Compact as their bond of union. In one free translation, the theological letter has been changed so completely as to be almost unrecognizable, yet the source is clear and the spirit still rings true.
We pledge to walk together In the ways of truth and affection, As best we know them now Or may learn them in days to come, That we and our children may be fulfilled And that we may speak to the world In words and actions Of peace and goodwill.
What Americans of every faith celebrate today at Thanksgiving is more encompassing than what the Pilgrims and Puritans brought with them to the table. But without what they brought, there would be no feast.
THE AMERICAN CREED. Copyright © 2002 by Forrest Church. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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