President Obama’s prayer breakfast speech urging Christians and Americans to avoid a “high horse” before condemning Islamists in light of the Crusades and Jim Crow has provoked wider reflection on comparative national and cultural sins.
Recently, prominent interfaith dialogue advocate Miroslav Volf of Yale Divinity School, in a conversation about ISIS, suggested that early founders of America like the Puritans were not altogether different from radical Islamists.
“I love America, but its first founders, like Muslim extremists, advocated killing for blasphemy, adultery, idolatry,” Volf explained in a tweet. When challenged, he asked how long Roman Catholicism took to embrace religious liberty and suggested that radical Islam, with time and globalization, would transition to tolerance.
At least Volf is an optimist, but his understanding of the past seems skewed. Does Puritan leader John Winthrop, famous for his “city on a hill” vision for New England, really belong in the same category with ISIS emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?
Comparisons of ISIS to American historical epics are not limited to the Left. Rod Dreher in the American Conservative wrote a provocatively headlined column called “When ISIS Ran the American South,” recalling: “ISIS is doing nothing that wasn’t widely done in the United States to black people until well within living memory.” He cited a new report chronicling “almost 4,000 acts of extrajudicial murder by white mobs from the years 1877-1950.”
“These weren’t Crusaders sacking Constantinople,” Dreher wrote. “These were our fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers, doing it to the fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers of our black neighbors.”
Dreher grants “the American South (and other parts of America where racial terrorists ran rampant) was never run by fanatical theocrats who used grotesque public murders as a tool of terror.” But he concludes, “But if you were a black in the years 1877-1950, this was a distinction without much meaningful difference.”
Comparing historical evils requires complex ethical and theological tools. Christianity teaches that all sin is sin, originating from the same source of human depravity, whether shoplifting or genocide. Only divine grace ultimately separates even a sanctified saint from a death camp commandant. Yet there are distinctions for individuals between venal and mortal sin. And a nation’s or a culture’s sins as well might be judged within a larger appreciation for its ideals and trajectory.
The Puritans were theocratic, like ISIS, and did have capital punishment for theological dissent, like ISIS. But the comparison mostly ends there. The Puritans weren’t much if any more theocratic than virtually any other society in their time, were mostly sparing in their punishments, and created a culture that evolved towards tolerance and legal equality. ISIS, in contrast, is a death cult, similar to fascist movements of the 20th century, rejoicing in terror and sadism, and attracting as adherents only craven young men who share its bloodlust. Thousands flee ISIS, while thousands of families immigrated to Puritan New England for greater freedom and opportunity. Compare any ISIS pronouncement with Winthrop’s magisterial “city on a hill” sermon, which still universally inspires today, in ways that al-Baghdadi’s outbursts never will.
As to ISIS and the segregationist South, both are guilty of wicked deeds. But ISIS proudly murders and tortures based on its own version of Islamic law. The law in the old South perpetrated segregation but it did not countenance murder and torture. Horribly, white mobs and vigilantes murdered blacks, while authorities were passive, or intimidated, or blocked from decisive action by uncooperative racist juries, or in some cases complicit in the crimes.
There was nearly always a voice of decency in the old South that denounced racial crimes. The southern Methodist Church, the region’s second largest, condemned lynchings and the Klan, even as it was slow to reject segregation. Genteel white southerners saw the Klan and its kind as white trash.
Another distinction between the old South and ISIS is that while hundreds of thousands of potential ISIS victims flee, southern blacks never fled the land of their birth, except for migration of many towards better paying jobs in northern cities, where de facto segregation also existed. There was no southern black exodus to Mexico or majority black Caribbean nations.
ISIS victims and foes will never sincerely give loyalty to the Islamic State. But black Americans, north and south, have believed in American principles, even when the nation failed to uphold them. Black Americans have been steadfastly patriotic, serving in all American wars during the decades of segregation, often at great sacrifice, and rejecting appeals to treason by America’s enemies.
Over 20 years ago I had the honor of hosting at my church the now late General Benjamin Davis, Jr., when he had just published his memoir. He was a commander of the Tuskegee Airmen during WWII, had been the first black West Point graduate in decades, and became the first black U.S. Air Force general. As a boy he had watched his father, a U.S. Army officer who had volunteered for the Spanish-American War, sit on their front porch in dress uniform with a shotgun as the Klan marched by. At West Point in the 1930s he was shunned by other classmates. As an officer, he could not access officers’ clubs in the South. The Tuskegee Airmen trained in Alabama, surrounded by segregation, when all U.S. Armed forces were still segregated.
Yet Davis bravely led scores of fighter missions against the Germans and, by his own recollection, later became a fierce Cold Warrior and anti-Communist, even as U.S. segregation continued. He knew American principles merited defense, even though those principles were not always applied to him, or to his father, who became America’s first black general in 1940, but never commanded white troops.
Davis clearly was scarred by the injustices against which he had prevailed, but I’m pretty certain he would not have compared even racially unjust America to ISIS, any more than he would have to Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, neither of which made any pretenses about human liberty.
We should always recall our own nation’s crimes and injustices, past and present, but with a sense of perspective, and appreciation for how many injustices were ultimately overturned by the nation’s own ideals. ISIS, like nearly all murderous tyrannies, has no internal capacity for correction because its foundational ideals unapologetically prioritize brute force over humanity.
With very different ideals, Winthrop’s “city on a hill” summoned a new society to fraternal charity and justice, under watch by Providence and the whole world, susceptible to divine judgment if failing in its duties. That vision has loftily inspired American principles for much of nearly 400 years, and it’s one reason among many why neither America nor the Puritans, despite many sins, can be categorized with ISIS.
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