Hebrews and Puritans

American Brethren: Hebrews and Puritans

Jim Sleeper

I first learned that it’s possible to value these old traditions even without believing in them in 1988, when I became by happenstance the first editor to publish a scholar’s discovery that George W. Bush had had a great-uncle five generations removed, the Rev. George Bush, a Calvinist Presbyterian who was the first teacher of Hebrew at New York University. The Rev. Bush wrote the first American book on Islam, A Life of Mohammed, pronouncing the prophet an imposter, and in 1844 he wrote The Valley of the Vision, or The Dry Bones Revived, interpreting the Old Testament book of Ezekiel to prophesy the return of the Jews to Palestine in a time fast approaching.

I don’t know whether our recent president has read his ancestor’s exegesis, or knows Ezekiel. But Barack Obama does, and in his speech on race in Philadelphia last year, he recalled that at his church in Chicago (a black branch of the Congregational Church, the original church of the New England Puritans), “Ezekiel’s field of dry bones” was one of the “stories—of survival, and freedom, and hope” that “became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears.”

Obama, like so many others before him, seems to believe that the republic must keep weaving into its liberal tapestry the tough old threads of Abrahamic faith that figured in its beginnings. And should he fail as president, Americans may be looking harder, through new and gaping holes in the neoliberal consensus, for old touchstones to help them meet challenges that are religiously deep, even if not doctrinally resolved. The republic remains tied fatefully, and I think inextricably, to the Puritan claim that the legitimacy of politics depends on the authenticity of its practitioners’ inner beliefs. It’s also tethered to the Puritans’ world-historical “errand into the wilderness,” which they considered a literal continuation of the Hebrews’ journeys out of Egypt to the Promised Land and, later, of their return from Babylonian exile…



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