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How Did the Pilgrims Get It So Wrong?

Remember your history class? In 1620, The Pilgrims left England and set up a colony in Plymouth, Massachusetts, which was supposed to be more Biblically rigorous than the licentious English society they left behind. Their colony was to be governed by Biblical principles. In 1630, the Puritans arrived a little north of Plymouth and founded the colony at Boston, Massachusetts. As their name implies, their colony, too, was devoted to Biblical purity.


The Pilgrims and the Puritans argued about biblical messages - each group feeling holier than the other. These were people who didn't just listen to televangelists telling them what to think and begging them to send "prayer offerings." The Pilgrims and Puritans believed that every person had a duty to read the Bible, study it, and know what it said and meant.

But, according to the folks who promoted bigotry in the form of an amendment to the State Constitution, those Pilgrims just didn't understand the Bible at all. You see, the Bible-reading Pilgrims and Puritans thought marriage was "a civil matter," to be administered by the state. Even though they came to America in 1620 and 1630, they waited until 1692 before passing a law in Massachusetts authorizing ministers to conduct weddings.

They believed that marriage had some important religious aspects, but they left the governmental regulation of marriage to government, not to the church. The original colonists didn't think that Jesus was wrong when he said, "My kingdom is not of this world." But the self-proclaimed defenders of marriage believe that Jesus was wrong. They believe that their narrow-minded, pro-bigotry religious beliefs should control the government. They want a constitutional amendment to make their religious view official, and to prohibit other views.

This is not the first time that religious leaders have tried to profit from denying reality. In 1633, Pope Urban VIII forced Galileo to deny his scientific observations about the solar system. The Pope wanted to define reality as putting the earth at the center of the universe, and he was willing to have the Inquisition torture and kill anyone who was foolish enough to think differently. In 1992, 360 years later, another Pope acknowledged that science is part of the universe created by God, and that Galileo had been right all along.

In 1633, when Pope Urban VIII attacked Galileo's science studies, the Pilgrims and Puritans were setting up colonies based on rejection of the Pope's religious rule. The Pope believed that he understood God's creation. He thought that he saw the sun "rise" in the morning and "go down" at night, and he just could not accept that his view might be wrong. The Pope could not believe in a God powerful enough to create a universe more complicated than the Pope could understand.

Today, scientists tell us that the genes coded into DNA determine sexual orientation. For those who believe in an all-powerful God as creator of the universe, it is easy to understand that such a God could create DNA, a system of "elegant simplicity" which forms the instructional code for all life on earth. It is easy to believe in a God who could create a complex environment in which evolution could develop magnificent diversity. People who believe in such a powerful God have no trouble understanding that mere mortals might not understand the full complexity of God's work or why she or he would create people who's DNA makes them gay.

But the defenders of marriage are like Pope Urban VIII. They don't believe that God is complex enough to create a world that they don't understand. They don't believe that God might create things for reasons that they don't understand. And like Pope Urban VIII, the defenders of marriage want to criminalize people who have different opinions.

The Pilgrims and the Puritans arose at a time when all of Europe was developing freedom from the one-church model of religion that had ruled though the Middle Ages. Indeed, the narrow-minded, anti-science views of the old church contributed to the creation of what historians now call the Dark Ages in Europe. The Protestant Reformation, of which the Pilgrims and Puritans were a part, was part of a movement in which lots of people contributed ideas about religion and Bible interpretation.

People were able to read the Bible due to the new printing presses. They thought about what they read and they spoke out. People reasoned together and agreed and disagreed. They formed new churches and built new societies on their new ideas.

And God didn't strike them down. From the Calvinists in Switzerland and the Lutherans in Germany to the Congregationalists and Presbyterians in New England, societies founded on new interpretations of the Bible grew and prospered.

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Not without pain. The established church tried to stop the new thoughts. It labeled independent thinkers "heretics." It tortured them and burned them at the stake. And it always claimed it was only doing what God had commanded. Governments controlled by religious men who knew that their faith was the only true faith took legal rights away from "nonbelievers," even when "nonbeliever" really meant other-believer.

Such efforts to control dissenting thoughts also arose in the new societies built on new biblical interpretation. In 1660, the Boston Puritans executed Mary Dyer for the crime of preaching in favor of religious tolerance. Roger Williams was a Puritan minister who preached that individuals should have freedom of religious belief, and that Native Americans should be treated as humans. The Pilgrims welcomed him, but the Puritans objected to his view of the Bible and they drove him out of Boston and Salem colonies. So he founded Providence colony, in what is now Rhode Island.

And now the defenders of marriage want to criminalize opinions that differ from theirs. They reject both the Pilgrims and the Puritans and want to follow the example of Pope Urban VIII. They want to write a prohibition on same-sex marriage, or polygamy, into the constitution, so that they can then prosecute all who believe differently.

Thomas Jefferson pointed to the example of Roger Williams when arguing that our society should champion religious liberty and diversity. But the defenders of marriage disagree. It is not that they want to protect their own thinking. Rather, they want to stop dissenting thought. They don't want us thinking about science, or God's complexity, or the right of all God's children to think for themselves.

They like the model of Pope Urban VIII's church. They see magnificent cathedrals and want to build equally grand television mansions. They want to collect prayer offerings the way the Pope collected tithes. They reject what Jesus did to the money changers in the temple. Most of all, they reject Jesus' messages of love and inclusiveness. They see profit in preaching divisive bigotry and hatred of people who's lives we don't understand.

We needn't believe in Jesus or God or the Bible to understand that the defenders of marriage are really protectors of privilege and purveyors of hatred. Their "defense of marriage" has the same cynical roots as the "Patriot Act" and its attacks on the First Amendment. The people who want to regulate our sex lives are the same people who want to condemn ant-war dissent, and who want to force librarians to tell them what books we check out. They are the same people who want to eliminate science courses from our schools and teach creationism instead.

The promoters of the bigotry amendment believe the Pilgrims got it wrong. But did they? The Pilgrims came to America at huge personal risk and cost. In their first winter here almost half of them died. But they came and they risked death and they struggled to build a society that was freer than the one they left behind. Because they believed it was important.

Tom Hall

Can it be wrong to struggle to advance freedom? The Pilgrims risked their lives for it. What will we risk to protect the freedom of our fellow citizens throughout the United States?

By Tom Hall

Tom Hall is a family law attorney. He is originally from Boston, where he grew up in the Cambridge Friends Meeting (Quakers), thinking that religion was a progressive force. During the Vietnam War, he organized draft counseling centers and worked with groups training people to participate in highly disciplined nonviolent demonstrations (real disciplined nonviolence is just plain maddening to police forces who count on demonstrators giving them reason to get 'messy' during public demonstrations). After the war, he became just another yuppie working to make himself a comfortable life. The Bush administration has shocked him back into social concerns. Tom can be reached at ProgBlog@aol.comlier

Earlier article by Tom: