A window to the world: the Puritans and the Hebrew republic

Philip Gorski, a professor of sociology at Yale University, smiled as he quoted journalist Jim Sleeper, who described the Puritans as “America’s very first serious people.”

Visitors look at painter Pieter Claesz’s ‘Vanitas’ still life in the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, the Netherlands; snuffed-out candles, skulls and hourglasses were how the Old Masters portrayed the vanity of greed (photo credit: ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN / UNITED PHOTOS / REUTERS)
Visitors look at painter Pieter Claesz’s ‘Vanitas’ still life in the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, the Netherlands; snuffed-out candles, skulls and hourglasses were how the Old Masters portrayed the vanity of greed
(photo credit: ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN / UNITED PHOTOS / REUTERS)

Puritans! These somber men in black hats inhabit such a unique mythical space in the American imagination they rarely avoid an accusing finger or two. Americans are said to have sexual hang-ups? It’s because of the Puritans. Americans, on average, tend to be more religious than other Western people? Puritans, that’s why. Americans read the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, which depicts a post-rapture world, and consider this the end time? Why here, too, stand the Puritans, holding their William Tyndale-inspired Geneva Bibles close as they prepare to hand out a scarlet letter to a young woman or, even better, burn her as a witch.
The problem with this lively understanding of the American mind is not that it isn’t interesting – simplistic, pop history with it’s clear parceling of good, evil and action scenes usually is. It’s just untrue, which makes it a stumbling block to understanding. If the Puritans really did plough such a deep burrow in the soil of the new world to shape the future harvests of generations, making fun of farming chores won’t help us understand it.
In January 2019, at a special conference on Post-Secular Perspectives of the Sacred at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, Philip Gorski, a professor of sociology at Yale University, smiled as he quoted journalist Jim Sleeper, who described the Puritans as “America’s very first serious people.” Noted for his in-depth studies of Dutch and Prussian Calvinism, the first rising up from the people and the other trickling down from the rulers, Gorski arrived in Israel to honor the centennial to the publication of Rudolf Otto’s Das Heilige (The Holy).
When top-notch sociologists such as Gorski speak of sacredness they, like Otto, don’t mean to compose essays on how to become sacred or provide opinions on what is profane, rather, their focus is on how the concept of sacredness pulses through generations and individuals, shaping a society.
The term “civic religion,” coined by one of Gorski’s mentors, Robert N. Bellah, does not mean making a religion out of the state, that would be fascism, but how religious emotions and drives are expressed in symbols and language in today’s society. In that sense, Gorski described one of his academic missions as “correcting bad history.”
“People forget how intellectual the Puritans were,” he says, “how curious they were. These were people who saw a vision of the American project as building a righteous republic.”
In his view, while European political thinkers were often in favor of Roman or Greek ideals of republicanism, the Puritans were unique in the sense that they “appropriated a rabbinical interpretation of the Hebrew republic as a form of government which was superior to monarchy and divine punishment.”
IN HIS 2017 book, American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present, Gorski reaches deeper and deeper into the crucible from which the American experiment emerged.
“The most radical idea that they had was that in some cases the Hebrew republic was preferable to the Roman or Greek one,” he explains. They truly believed in the realistic possibility of a covenant with God, both as private people and as a community with political institutions. They held meetings and signed documents to that effect.
It is also easy to overlook the stark reality in which Puritans existed. Far away from Europe, they lived on an unknown continent surrounded by French, Spaniards and Native Americans. Living was hard and starvation, often glossed over by the pleasant fiction of friendly local people gifting pilgrims with food, was always a very real possibility.
Not only that, it would be misleading to suggest that the Puritans alone started America. There were, after all, non-Puritans who extracted a fair deal of influence as well. Boston merchants, southern plantation owners, poor whites working off their passage fares and beef-eating British soldiers were all a part of the American story, as well.
In that sense, Puritans inhabit a mythical space not unlike the kibbutzim in Israeli society. Most Jewish Israelis did not arrive in the Promised Land to work the land and build a utopia, but the minority who did, shaped a profound part of the country.
“It’s also vital to see that there were conflicts and bloodshed that happened as well,” Gorski says. “Some people would argue that the Puritan treatment of the Native Americans was the first original sin of America before slavery.”
“There is a technocratic tendency in the American left that says that if we just present people with enough facts, if our logic is solid, people will be convinced,” he says, “but that’s not really how people reason about moral choices.”
Gorski thinks that facts, or the world as is, partly overlap with values, or the world of ought. In other words, people need to have at least a basic understanding of where they overlap, if they are to debate what should be done with what is.
“American democracy has Biblical roots,” he reasons, “and even if you are secular, you can appreciate the ideals and their poetry. And if you’re religious,” he adds, “you can appreciate the bill of rights and democratic self-government.” After all, he says, the American experiment is founded on ideals, not on a single ethnicity or denomination.
THIS VERSION of finding common ground may not seem very attractive in a world where a US president suggests Islamic terrorists could be stopped if only the US army revives the practice, allegedly carried out in the 1899-1902 Philippine-American War, of burying dead Muslim combatants with dead pigs on the one hand, and a US congresswoman calls the president by a slur, on the other; yet Gorski sees no other real option.
Public intellectuals can, and should, express their views, he says. Especially when “sociology doesn’t always get to have its say,” he sighs, pointing out that many debates are controlled by finance professionals or even social media pundits.
Gorski searches for a new vital center, which is not some imaginary middle point between two fictional radicals, one on the extreme left and one on the extreme right, but a center based on a mutual commitment “to democracy,” he says, “the right to have a conscience and express it without being harassed by the government.”
In the current cultural climate, this brings to mind a 1993 short story by Stephen King titled “The Ten O’clock People” in which terrible monsters control America; one even poses as the vice president of the US, but only people who smoke two or three cigarettes per day can see them.
In the context of this fiction, one of the characters asks why is it only they who can sense the dangers posed by these sinister beings. The answer is highly original: Americans, it is said by one of the characters, are the only people on Earth who really believe that if you work out and eat right you will be healthy and have an active sex life until you die. This core belief means that the vast majority of Americans either do not smoke, or smoke heavily, making the population of cautious, self-controlled smokers so tiny as to make it almost an oddity, yet it is with this small group that any hope for America lies.
Interestingly, Gorski explains why in his view, American fiction is so generous with horror, zombies and monsters who aim to destroy humanity. “These stories create a sense of urgency and place you at the center of the action,” he suggests, “as it is you who understands what’s really going on, that there is a conspiracy. It is you who knows how to read the real meaning of contemporary events, which makes you important and saves you from feeling helpless.”
Gorski has two good ideas on how to recreate the vital center and put the ghouls at bay. “We could have civic holidays again,” he suggests. “When you have elections in France, nobody works, people are in the streets talking with friends, so you get a sense of the French republic as opposed to the French economy.”
“I guess my favorite idea,” he explains, “would be to institute some sort of a national service for a couple of years. It could be a form of military service or a civic service.”
The reasons he lists are the same Israelis are usually familiar with in regard to mandatory service in the IDF: it brings together young people from different backgrounds to work together and gives them a sense of giving something back to the larger society, showing, perhaps, that the Hebrew ideals of the Puritan fathers of America may not be so different from those of the modern-day Hebrew republic.