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Tuesday, October 4, 2005

The deep religious roots of New York tolerance.

Russell Shorto's history of New York City's impact on American political ideas ends with a long meditation on religion (of all things). Fundamentally, it's an attempt to root the pluralism and tolerance of the city — and, by extension, American cosmopolitanism and liberalism —in the religious worldview of the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam:

Maybe this is the root of the historic tension between the country's two political traditions. The Puritan one, hogging the high moral ground, encamped in its shining city on a hill, has always despised the rowdy and godless gangs of New York. The us-them divide that conservative Christians maintain holds that, historically, they have Christian morality on their side while others have only their Enlightenment gods of science and reason. And some of their opponents like to believe this as well.

But it's a false divide. Both the Puritans who settled New England and who bequeathed to American politics much of their dogma, and the Dutch founders of New York based their societies on Christian principles. They just had different approaches to theology. The Puritans were more typical of their era, when religious intolerance was official policy in most nations. (It's true the Puritans themselves fled intolerance, but once they established themselves in America, they set up their own brutally intolerant regime.) Dutch Protestants, however, had experienced horrific violence at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition, and many had had enough of religious absolutism. Tolerance became codified into Dutch law, and Dutch cities, which had high concentrations of minorities, flourished. As a result, when the Dutch founded their New World colony centered on Manhattan Island, it, too, was a mixed society, and it, too, had as its social glue this notion of tolerance.

The point is that tolerance was at the time seen most fundamentally as a theological issue. The Puritans' righteousness came from the conviction — common to all absolutists — that their faith was the only correct one, so that God compelled them to uphold it and to vanquish others. Those who argued for tolerance did so from a more humble, but equally theological, stance. In the words of one early advocate of tolerance, "Many will be damned on Judgment Day because they killed innocent people, but nobody will be damned because he killed nobody."

Looking all the way back, then, New York's mixed society, and with it America's, owes its origins not to accident or geography but at least in part to a Christian conviction, won by the experience of slaughter and mayhem, that we — whoever we are at the moment — may not be smart enough to know God's mind. The unlikeliest notion in the world therefore follows: that New York's cultural mosh pit is built on a foundation of humility.

The attacks of 9/11, with their apocalyptic overtones, were pure protein for the Puritan impulse, with its conviction of America's God-ordained role in history. Those who would stand up to the Puritan strain, which many people believe has reached the stage of posing an unprecedented danger, might want to exploit the fact that their tradition, just as much as the Puritans', sits on a religious foundation. Pluralism and morality aren't two separate things but are joined, and it's from that juncture that much of what we call American comes.

("All Political Ideas Are Local," Russell Shorto, New York Times Magazine 10.2.05, reg req'd)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 4 October 2005 at 10:16 PM

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October 5, 2005 07:52 AM | Permalink for this comment

Nice argument, and the contrast between the Puritan intolerance and Dutch permissiveness (which, not English persecution, is in fact what the Pilgrims fled when they left Leyden) is worth noting, but I'm not buying it as a formative influence on New York's or the nation's character. It's coincidence, not causality.

What built New York from a backwater into a world city was the Erie Canal in the 19th century, which provided an easy transportation route for moving goods between the interior and the ocean and created a dramatically increased demand for labor, not Dutch tolerance in the 17th century. Before the canal, Philadelphia was at least as large and diverse and tolerant as New York, but it wasn't Dutch. After the canal, there was hardly enough Dutch heritage remaining in New York to mention.

Toleration does not of itself attract population. If anything, the causality goes in reverse: the opportunity to grow and need to attract a labor force imposes a corresponding need for greater toleration. All great cities grow due to their ability to attract and support large populations (which are necessarily diverse in their origins) in relative freedom, but not all great cities are Dutch.

Now, if you are looking for the origins of our national principles of religious tolerance, I'd agree that it would be more appropriate to look to the melting pots of the mid-Atlantic colonies (including New York, but also New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland) than to the Puritan commonwealths of New England. The federal Establishment Clause was written in the 1780's, but Massachusetts did not stop imposing taxes to support the Puritan churches until the 1830's.


October 5, 2005 08:19 AM | Permalink for this comment

In the rest of his article, Shorto focuses much more on the pluralism of Manhattan's population, so he doesn't actually emphasize this Dutch religious angle until the very end. The island was polyglot and multicultural when its population was barely 500 -- and just that aspect of the place alarmed New Englanders.

Taken as a whole, Shorto doesn't root all of New York City's intellectual influence in religious origins, but I thought his emphasis on the religious roots of an appreciation for tolerance was definitely worth noting.


October 5, 2005 08:58 AM | Permalink for this comment

If you want to read more about Dutch New York and its influence on modern America, try "The Island at the Center of the World."

Jim Eaton:

October 5, 2005 09:25 AM | Permalink for this comment

You mention that the Puritans fled intolerance.
As a Congregational (Puritan) minister, I've studied this period extensively and I think that is a misperception. Only one of the New England settlements (Plymouth) originated with people fleeing religious persecution and only half of that colony were Separatists; the others were a mixed bag of people recruited to fill out the colony.
The predominant settlement in Massachusetts and the one that birthed Boston was the larger group of Puritans who arrived in 1630 on the Arbella on Cape Ann (Salem). These people were not in any sense fleeing persecution
The image of people fleeing for their faith also misunderstands the nature of faith commitments in 17th century England. Puritanism was as much a political statement as a religious one and for much of the early settlement period, Puritans in New England were highly connected to the Puritans prosecuting the English Civil War. Old Saybrook, CT, for example, was founded as a potential refuge for Oliver Cromwell.
Rightly or wrongly, the Puritan ideal was a civil society that fostered and enforced virtue, not free marketplace of competing ideas where civil authority maintained equal access to the forum.

Bill Baar:

October 10, 2005 10:06 AM | Permalink for this comment

American was attacked on 911 by Religious fanatics. We fight them today in Iraq. Their goal:

As Zawahiri's message made clear, Iraq is but the first phase in an attempt to create a global caliphate. Today Iraq, tomorrow the World. Where have we heard that before?

Worse, we knew this was coming and did nothing when Clinton said,

In the next century, the community of nations may see more and more the very kind of threat Iraq poses now a rogue state with weapons of mass destruction ready to use them or provide them to terrorists, drug traffickers or organized criminals who travel the world among us unnoticed.

If we fail to respond today, Saddam and all those who would follow in his footsteps will be emboldened tomorrow by the knowledge that they can act with impunity, even in the face of a clear message from the United Nations Security Council and clear evidence of a weapons of mass destruction program.

Certainly God's not indifferent to injustice. It's that faith in God's Justice that gives Liberals Faith in the Future. It's the belief in a future that makes one a Liberal. Invoking God's name in a war against intolerance and tyranny perfectly appropriate.

Fouad Ajamai wrote below about what we've done in the Arab world. When we unleash a swift sword to give self-worth to the oppressed, we do God's work. Liberals of Faith have always believed that's true. It's just gnaws at some that an Evangelical invokes God too. We cast the Shia to the mass graves in the first Gulf War because we stopped a War before we should. We're slow to anger and loath war and often tolerate injustice and genocide as a result. We should not back away from what we've started,

It was the luck of the imperial draw that the American project in Iraq came to the rescue of the Shiites--and of the Kurds. We may not fully appreciate the historical change we unleashed on the Arab world, but we have given liberty to the stepchildren of the Arab world. We have overturned an edifice of material and moral power that dates back centuries. The Arabs railing against U.S. imperialism and arrogance in Iraq will never let us in on the real sources of their resentments. In the way of "modern" men and women with some familiarity with the doctrines of political correctness, they can't tell us that they are aggrieved that we have given a measure of self-worth to the seminarians of Najaf and the highlanders of Kurdistan. But that is precisely what gnaws at them.
JFK got this right in his First Inaugural,
With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.
It's our own work, and our conscience our only reward (or hell) but God and History surely not indifferent. We ask their blessing because both will surely judge.

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