The Puritans weren’t dreaming about “a more perfect union”; they were too busy building a most-perfect religion, following their own blueprint for the Kingdom of God, one seemingly void, at least in part, of the Beatitudes from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter five. But again, that’s what made the Puritans so influential, because they were far too intentional to let God just be.
Safeguarding God against the ills of humanity was not simply the Puritans’ desire; they believed it was their divine responsibility. However, rather than keeping God safe, their efforts created a stifling environment, a space that opened up opportunities for new ideas to arise and spread among their own people. They couldn’t control people’s beliefs. And the same is true today. As hard as we try to demand that God be this or declare that God hates that, in the end, our actions often undermine our understandings about the sovereignty of God.
A dinner guest, while describing a recent trip to Israel, remarked that his visit had made him unusually aware of the fact that we live in a Christian country. It wasn’t the populace or the historical sites or the politics that brought it to his attention.
It was the weekly calendar.
For Jews, the Sabbath begins at sundown on Fridays and ends at sundown on Saturdays. So in Israel, the weekend is Friday-Saturday. Sunday is a normal work day. Our guest remarked that he felt very aware of its being Sunday, and disoriented by everyone doing “Monday things.” He said he’d simply never realized how culturally ingrained the Christian influence is.
We do live in a Christian nation. Protestant, to be specific. God may not show up in the Constitution, but God sure is everywhere else. Our work and school calendars make allowance for the major Christian holidays and holy days of Easter and Christmas. Federal systems like the postal service are closed on Sundays, the Christian Sabbath. What our guest was describing was the sensation of noticing the absence of something so familiar that its presence goes unnoticed. Eight years ago, when I was living in England, it took me ages to realize that the reason I was so jumpy in libraries was that there were no precautions to keep the books on the shelves or the shelves on the walls in the case of an earthquake. Not generally an issue in England, but certainly an issue here in California.
Matthew Paul Turner’s brief examination at the evolution of America’s relationship with God is necessarily limited. At 220 pages, he would need to cover about two years of New World history per page, which he doesn’t. The focus is extremely narrow, based first on Puritans and tracing a route from there to the Second Great Awakening, and then to the development of fundamentalism and evangelism.
What he does cover is done in a way that’s insightful, interesting, and liberally sprinkled with a wicked sense of humor. To be honest, I didn’t notice the massive gaps in his story until about halfway through.
There’s extensive discussion of the Second Great Awakening, but not the Third. No mention of groups like the Oneida Community or the Burned-Over District. The Quakers, Mennonites, and Shakers are mentioned once or twice and only in passing. No mention of the Amish. No discussions of Lutherans. Of course no discussion of Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or anyone else whose religious observance didn’t spring off the Calvinist branch.
The strangest, to me, is there’s no discussion of the Mormons. As topics in America’s relationship with God go, it doesn’t get more American than the Mormons. Aside from the usual sensationalist aspects (polygamy!), they also play a major role in America’s move west.
It’s a fun read, but it’s fundamentally (hah) flawed. What Turner does discuss appears to me to be done well. What he leaves out is disappointing.
Next Up: Worlds of Arthur by Guy Halsall