Understanding the Conundrum of Religion in America

On September 6, 1620, the Mayflower set sail for the new world.  102 Pilgrims left the civilized Western world for the unknown trials of the New World.  Were they leaving for adventure?  For the romantic notion of living in a world untouched by civilization?  To help push forward Western ideals?

Hell no.  They were leaving because Europeans found them to be a major buzz kill.

The 102 passengers weren’t really Pilgrims in the truest sense of the word, they were Puritans. The intellectual outcasts of the budding Enlightenment.

Shakespeare rails against their myopic radicalism in a number of his plays.  The Puritans preached against Elizabethan theater.  Consequently, in a Shakespearean play, being referred to as a Puritan is a deep insult.  It’s worse than being called French!

The Puritans were so insufferable, even loosy-goosy Amsterdam wanted them out.

So they set sail for a world that would accept their fanaticism.  That, of course, had to be a world without people who spoke their language.

The anniversary of the Puritan’s voyage across the Atlantic a few weeks ago got me thinking about the America I’ve lived in my entire life.  I’ve always been miffed by the fact that our First Amendment deals with our religious freedoms, while religions have been treading on my First Amendment right since I was a wee babe.

Whether it be New England Catholicism, Jehovah Witnesses knocking on my door, televangalists, or the addition of “In God We Trust” to our currency, it’s always seemed to me that America is a place where we don’t have much freedom from religion.

But then, on the anniversary of the Mayflower setting sail for what would become America, it struck me that this paradoxical state of religion in America makes perfect sense.

It’s absolutely American to desire religious tolerance for your own religious creed while secretly, or not so secretly, having no religious tolerance for others’ beliefs.

In the words of Mellencamp, “Ain’t that America.”  Or, at least, ain’t that Puritan America.  Here were 102 people who were loudly damning everyone’s religious beliefs, while seeking acceptance from the rest of the world.

Some of you more enlightened Americans may have already come to terms with this conundrum, but it’s all making sense to me now.

Listening to Glenn Beck or other far right loons rage on the radio — or far left Atheist anti-evangelists for that matter — I always thought, “This hate-mongering, fear-inducing religious rhetoric is so un-American!  What’s wrong with these people?”

Now I get it.  These guys are just evoking the paradoxical religious attitudes of our first Anglo ancestors.  It is American to desire acceptance of your credo while tolerating 0.0% of the rest of the country’s beliefs or lack of beliefs.

It’s estimated that 35 million Americans are direct descendants of the Mayflower passengers.  So the next time I hear Glenn Beck screaming about Godless Americans, as Glenn Beck is wont to do, I’ll just think, “Well, isn’t that neat, he must be one of the 35 million.”

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  1. Love this: “They were leaving because Europeans found them to be a major buzz kill.” Too bad there’s not another uninhabited (by people with firepower to fight back) wilderness we can send our contemporary Puritans to. Mars, perhaps?

  2. I think people with closed minds just don’t know how to ask questions. And maybe they’re constantly plugged into technology and suffer from Nature-Deficiency Disorder. It can leech a person’s ability to think for themselves. Thanks for this post, Dave.

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