Special Report

Thanksgiving, Obama, and the Pilgrims

And let us not forget California's Proposition 8.

By 11.26.08

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The several dozen Pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving in Massachusetts in 1621 would later fold their Plymouth Colony of religious Separatists into the nearby Massachusetts Bay Colony of Puritans. The arch-Protestant Separatists had quit the Church of England, while the theologically similar Puritans had originally hoped for Calvinist reforms within the state church. Once in America, the Puritans established their own new church system, into which the Pilgrim Separatists merged, that was Congregationalist in polity and Reformed in doctrine.

This Congregationalist Church of New England essentially became the state church for much of New England. It produced imposing preachers like Cotton and Increase Mather, and fostered widespread literacy, thrift, spiritual devotion and industry. The Congregationalists founded the great colleges of their region, which were originally Calvinist seminaries, and which would dominate the intellectual life of early and later America. Jonathan Edwards, author of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," was arguably the last great Puritan preacher and theologian, helping to ignite The Great Awakening of the mid-1700s that spiritually congealed the American colonies.

By the late 1700s, much of Congregationalism was trending towards Unitarianism. But most retained the orthodox Calvinist doctrine, and the Congregationalists of New England were the American Revolution's main political and intellectual instigators. Their faith was ascetic, rationalist and focused on conforming the world to their view of God's will. The Congregationalists were both soul savers (to the extent that Predestination would allow it), and social reformers. In the 19th century they were among the earliest abolitionists and proponents of women's rights.

In the 20th century, the Congregationalists eventually merged with theologically similar religious bodies to become what is today the 1.2 million member United Church of Christ (UCC). It is one of America's most liberal and fastest declining denominations, having lost over 40 percent of its membership since the 1960s. Until recently its most famous member was Barack Obama, who very publicly resigned from the only church to which he ever belonged, thanks to the verbal intemperance of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the UCC's most famous preacher.

How did the Pilgrims evolve into Jeremiah Wright? The progression was not a straight line. But the Congregationalist elites of the early 20th century followed other established Mainline Protestant church elites in abandoning Christian orthodoxy about human salvation in favor of a Social Gospel that emphasized political transformation. That progressive Social Gospel, which originally emphasized labor reforms, later came to champion centrist liberal causes such as civil rights and anti-war causes. But eventually it morphed into the liberation theologies of the 1970s, which portrayed America as a moral travesty, in contrast to the early Pilgrims and Puritans, who aspired that America should be a "city on a hill."

The Rev. Wright has been portrayed as a populist black preacher. Unusually in the nearly all white UCC, Wright's Trinity Church was a nearly all black congregation. But his theology is more tied to UCC/Mainline Protestant liberation theologies than to more traditional black church beliefs, which still adhere to Christian orthodoxy and center on salvation, not political redemption.

After 20 years of membership at Wright's church, which Obama joined after a largely non-religious childhood, Obama is now one of the few incoming presidents without a formal church affiliation. The UCC still regards him as one of its own. Obama in 2007 spoke to the denomination's national synod. After Obama's election in November, the UCC's president extended the church's "hospitality" to Obama through its 7 congregations in Washington, D.C., two of which have previously hosted regular worship by an American president.

Oddly, despite the prominence of Congregationalists among America's founders, Obama, if he retains his UCC affiliation, would be only the second president firmly in that tradition. John Adams was raised by New England Puritans, but his Congregationalist church in what is now Quincy, Massachusetts, evolved into Unitarianism, to which Adams largely adhered. His presidential son, John Quincy, also was a member there (both are entombed in the church), although he attended a wide spectrum of churches while in Washington. And, unlike his father, which whom he debated religious points by correspondence, the son had more orthodox beliefs about Christ's deity and the Trinity.

Teddy Roosevelt was Dutch Reformed and attended a German Reformed church in Washington as president. That church now belongs to the UCC. Calvin Coolidge was the only truly Congregationalist president. His taciturn silence, thrift, impatience with foolery, and quiet wit all neatly fit the accurate stereotype of New England Puritans. The old sanctuary of First Congregational Church in downtown D.C. that he attended is now gone. A more modern church has also been recently knocked down in favor of a new office building, in which the current liberal and gay friendly UCC congregation plans to worship starting in 2010.

Gay issues are paramount to UCC national elites. The UCC is the only major national denomination that is formally asking the California Supreme Court to overturn recently ratified Proposition 8, which defines marriage as man and woman. (Two Episcopal bishops and the California Council of Churches have also petitioned, along with the Unitarians.) "The United Church of Christ is honored to join other religious bodies in this challenge to Proposition 8," the UCC's president declared. "In 2005 our church's General Synod called for the extension of marriage rights to all couples. We believe our communities are strengthened and our religious freedoms protected by providing equality in marriage, rather than by erecting barriers to marriage."

It's tempting to say that the Pilgrims, Puritans, the Mathers, and Jonathan Edwards would be appalled. But unlike their spiritual descendants in the more utopian modern UCC, they emphasized human depravity and the intractability of human nature. So likely they would not be surprised. Fortunately, the tradition of Thanksgiving, and the even more important traditions of lawful and limited government bequeathed by the New England Puritans, stand as more lasting spiritual legacies for America.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.