You Want to Be a Patriot? Read Some [More] History

“Know why a bunch of British left their homes, left the Church of England, settled in this country, and fought for its independence? They sought separation of Church and State. You want to be a patriot? Read some history.” –No More Make Believe

No More Make Believe, the author of a meme that argued for separation of church and state should take their own advice and read some [more] history before creating their next meme.

When William White and his wife Susannah Fuller White boarded the Mayflower in 1620, they did not desire to establish a colony as a sanctuary for religious freedom. They wanted to emigrate to a place where they would be able to establish a theocracy where they could properly practice their form of Christianity.

The Whites and the other Puritan Christians who signed the Mayflower Compact explained that their trip was “undertaken for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country;” not to establish a colony of religious tolerance or a new nation independent of England. They understood that, as John Winthrop would later articulate in his A Model of Christian Charity, Puritan colonies would flourish and become like “a city set upon a hill” shining their light back to England. As a result of seeing the Puritan’s God given prosperity, members of the Church of England would understand the errors of their ways and begin to worship Christ correctly.

When liberals such as No More Make Believe hearken back to the Puritans to argue for separation of church and state, they are citing a religious tradition that did not advocate this concept. The Puritans were fine with having the church and state merged when the proper form of Christianity was being practiced by the state.

It is not just liberals who need to read more history before advancing historically based arguments. Whenever I hear about the reputed War on Christmas coupled with the argument that America needs to go back to its historical roots, I always want to ask, “Why would you want to outlaw Christmas?” After all, the Puritans of Massachusetts, for a period of several years, banned Christmas. This was not surprising because, for years, Puritans waged a war on Christmas.

In my classes, students do broad based reading on their topics; often consulting 30-50 sources prior to writing papers or doing presentations. Such broad based reading allows students to understand the socio-historical context of the material they are studying. They do not accept the first thing that they read as fact and they verify their sources. Furthermore, they learn to be critical readers who challenge the authors they are reading; especially when the authors provide evidence that support the students’ points of view.

Choosing to cite William and Susannah White above was not an accident. Arguably, the Whites were my ninth great grandparents. I say “arguably” because there is disagreement among historians as to the pedigree of certain individuals. Some of the evidence, which I will not detail here, supports the idea that I am not descended from the Whites. Yet, as representatives of Puritan ideology the Whites are so important historically, anyone living in the United States today is descended from their theological worldview and must confront the Puritan influence on contemporary American politics.

Because the Puritan legacy can be seen in contemporary political debates, it is important that we understand why the Puritans left the church of England and came to the British American colonies. Although the Puritans did not fight the War for Independence, contemporary Americans need to understand the reasons for the war and how Puritan ideology continued to influence the development of the new nation. Understanding the First Amendment—which is not rooted in Puritan orthodoxy—is vital. Unless we strive for accurate historical understanding, we will continue to perpetrate the myth that separation of church and state is a Puritan value.

No More Make Believe rightly argues that patriots need to read history. Unfortunately, because they did not read enough history, No More Make Believe’s meme actually supports the argument that America is a Christian country; something I do not believe was their intent.

In looking back at the intellectual roots of contemporary issues, we cannot simply read “some” history as No More Make Believe recommends. We must read sufficient history to make sure that we accurately understand our references.

    –Steven L. Berg, PhD


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