David D. Hall, one of the deans of Puritan studies in America today, has an op-ed in today’s New York Times that attempts to rescue the real Puritans from the myths propagated by 19th century authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne. He notes that the Puritans advocated participatory government, rejected church hierarchy, sought to create a community of love and mutual obligation, opposed theocracy, and upheld the rule of law.
Why does it matter whether we get the Puritans right or not? The simple answer is that it matters because our civil society depends, as theirs did, on linking an ethics of the common good with the uses of power. In our society, liberty has become deeply problematic: more a matter of entitlement than of obligation to the whole. Everywhere, we see power abused, the common good scanted. Getting the Puritans right won’t change what we eat on Thanksgiving, but it might change what we can be thankful for and how we imagine a better America.
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