Rick Santorum is Not John Winthrop

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“Rick Santorum is John Winthrop.” So proclaimed Joe Nocera at the top of his column in the New York Times a week ago today (“A Revolutionary Idea,” February 24, 2012). Nocera was quoting the journalist John M. Barry off his, Barry’s, new book, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.

From the sound of it (I haven’t read the book but am picking up on the theme that Barry and Nocera chose to highlight in their commentaries on it) our gentlemen are recycling one of the hoariest and happiest bits of American conventional wisdom: that we live, properly, under an Absolute Separation of Church and State; that this was originally Roger Williams’ idea; that the idea and the practice are a Very Good Thing and Williams, according, a Real American Hero; and that a politician like Santorum, in claiming to introduce norms taught by divine revelation into the public square, is doing a Very Bad Thing and so is a Very Dangerous Man. 

Well, I agree with that last sentiment but for very different reasons and with battle fatigue over the jejune quality of criticism wielded by Messrs. Nocera and Barry on the subject. Yes, we have separation of church and state in this country and I’m glad of it, but that settles nothing about the many intertwinings of religion and society that inevitably occur in a country like the USA and that trigger complicated legal maneuverings by which these must be sorted out. (See the Obama administration v. Catholic bishops in re health insurance covering contraception.) As for Williams, for over fifty years—since the publication of Edmund Morgan’s biography of John Winthrop, The Puritan Dilemma—historians have been able to ponder the momentum of the high principle which led Williams not only to flee to Rhode Island but there to reduce his circle of ecclesiastical fellowship ever tighter, until he worshiped only with his wife—and had doubts about her.

We should ponder further the subsequent history of Rhode Island, which hewed well into the 19th century to one of the most stratified, undemocratic polities in the young American republic. It is telling that the state’s bustling economic capital at Newport was the hub of the American slave trade, and that it morphed after the Civil War into the summer playground of the very richest of the Gilded Age’s robber barons. The other American colony under Quaker control, Pennsylvania, showed a similar trend. The public regime established by the Pennsylvania Friends became distinguished by its gerrymandered overrepresentation of their political power and by the wealth that accumulated, not least to them, at the top of the colony’s social pyramid. From Meeting House to Counting House, one classic study titled it; from piety to plutocracy, in our parlance.

The Friends and Williams’ Baptists certainly had their virtues, from which the USA has benefited, and Winthrop and his regime certainly had their vices which we are bound to resist. The problem with Rick Santorum is that his platform has adopted the worst of both worlds, and has besmirched the name and prospects of a genuinely Christian politics in this country in the process.

What were Winthrop’s Christian politics? The first place to look is at his “Model of Christian Charity,” the charter he espoused for Massachusetts Bay’s policy while the first colonists were still aboard The Arbella that was bringing them to its shores. Anyone reading the full text of this document will be shocked a number of times over. First of all by noticing that the “city on a hill” motif, which appears only at the very close of the address, does not declare that settlement (or the later American nation that likes to invoke the theme) to be God’s chosen nation or the ideal of all people around the world. Rather, Winthrop states that the eyes of the world are watching the Puritans in anticipation that they would fail, that they would prove not to be up to the challenge that God had issued them. And failure, Winthrop had reason to believe—looking out over his audience and also contemplating in his mind’s eye the disaster wrought by economic cupidity for the previous twenty years at Jamestown, the other English mainland colony to date—was all too probable.

The second surprise is that Winthrop’s speech is mostly about economics. Yes, it gives lots of words to theological ethical norms, but applies these first, last, and in between to buying and selling and interest rates and the mandates of self-sacrifice. The sexual agenda upon which Santorum and his critics are so fixated is nowhere to be found in Christian Charity, and indeed was not at the top of the issues with which the Puritan colonies proved to be most concerned. Their top priority, the offenses most vigilantly prosecuted, the vices most preoccupying their mental space, involved violence and aggression. They left it to the Victorian Nathaniel Hawthorne to put adultery first. If Santorum were really Winthrop, in other words, he might be talking a lot about the Pentagon, the NRA, and America’s status as premier arms-dealer to the world, and not in a favorable way.

But he would be talking mostly about economics and economic justice. He would not assume—actually, repeat dogmatically—that a “free market” represents the arm of God’s providence and government regulation an automatic evil. Rather, he would be saying things like this, even quoting Winthrop in the process: that the law of God requires “that every man afford his help to another in every want or distress;” that “if one member suffers, all suffer with it;” that in perilous circumstances “the care of the public must oversway all private respects.” Even if he had only an abridged version of Winthrop’s speech, he could find at the top of the “city on a hill” paragraph this clear injunction: “We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the supply of others’ necessities.” 

What if a self-declared Christian politician made that last injunction the theme of a national campaign in an era when income stratification has become so acute as to worry even politicians in the Republican Party? What if a Christian politician went around the country saying that it was God’s will—nay, command—that we curtail our luxuries to supply other peoples’ basic needs? He would find himself in consonance with a lot of positions that Santorum’s Roman Catholic Church officially espouses, but that he ignores. He might provoke the denizens and sympathizers of Occupy Wall Street to give the church another hearing instead of a curt dismissal. He might start the long hard work of rescuing white evangelical-dom from its abject captivity to an ideology that must subvert some of its dearest hopes and values. He would not win the election, in all probability, but he might make of economic justice a theme that the big parties had to address with a modicum of courage and intelligence.

 Rick Santorum is John Winthrop? If only. 

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