Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Volf's Controversial Comparison

Miroslav Volf is one of the most distinguished and well respected Christian thinkers in the world. I generally like what I've seen from him. I do, however, think his comparison we see below was overly dramatic.
[MV:]I think it is an attempt to assert Islam as a political religion as a unity of religion and government. Now that’s been a way religions have functioned throughout history–from Constantine until recently. America was founded by folks who thought like this.
RNS: America was founded by folks who thought like Islamist extremists?
MV: Like many Islamist extremists, yes. Which is to say, they believed God would bless this new experiment if we integrate our obedience to God’s laws and we ensure that this is indeed a city set on a hill.
[MV:]Think of John Winthrop, his theory of the role of the state and the laws against blasphemies, adulterers, and idolaters.
[MV:] I love America, but its first founders, like Muslim extremists, advocated killing for blasphemy, adultery, idolatry.
I also disagree that the Puritans were the "Founders" of America as opposed to the "Planters."


Tom Van Dyke said...

Another Ivy League fraud. The horror of ISIS and other Islamic terrorists today was never approached by the Puritans [your distinction of them as "planters" rather than "Founders" is also apt].

Thx for linking Mark Tooley's rebuttal. Wish you had put that on the front page too.
Volf cites Puritan prohibitions on “blasphemy, adultery, idolatry,” but again virtually every society globally had equivalents of such bans. He says the “founders…advocated killing” for these offenses. Executions for these crimes was actually very rare under the Puritans. Famous exceptions include the three Quaker martyrs of the 1660s, after which the Quakers gained legal protection, and of course the Salem witch trials of the 1690s, after which even magistrates admitted the miscarriage of justice.

Unlike ISIS ruled territory, from which hundreds of thousands, if not millions, have fled as refugees, tens of thousands of immigrants, most of them non-Puritan, immigrated to New England during Puritan rule, seeking the prosperity and relatively lawful society over which the Puritans presided.

Ironically, despite the stereotypes about them, rooted only partly in fact, the Puritans and their diaspora across upstate New York and the upper Midwest spawned abolitionism and a multitude of reformist movements, including female equality, based on their rationalism, learning and egalitarianism. Progressivism itself is arguably the secularized descendant of Puritanism. Volf’s own Yale University emerged from Puritan Connecticut.

Two centuries from now, will ISIS be recalled for a similarly distinguished legacy?

Daniel said...

There are some odd comparisons here:

"Like many Islamist extremists, yes. Which is to say, they believed God would bless this new experiment if we integrate our obedience to God’s laws and we ensure that this is indeed a city set on a hill."

I would say that statement describes, not extremists, but almost all Islamists, most Muslims, most Christian conservatives, and likely most people whose religion has a significant political component.

"laws against blasphemies, adulterers, and idolaters"

Certainly not extreme within Islam. Blasphemy remains illegal in some EU nations, as well as adultery, although prosecutions are rare.

"advocated killing for blasphemy, adultery, idolatry"

TVD dealt with this one pretty well. But lurking behind Volf's statement is the fact that the Liberal values that are built into our moral framework are of recent vintage.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Volf has no excuse for ignoring the fact that blasphemy has the component of disrupting the civil order [which is why the Euros are increasingly prosecuting it].

Tolerance as a "liberal value" has no transcendent foundation, which is why it's so easily sacrificed for the sake of civil order in "tolerant" societies like Europe and even Canada.

Indeed, it's quite ironic that the "secular" Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom uses God and invokes Christian theology [and Christ himself] as its foundation!

Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do...

JMS said...

I assume Professor Volf meant to be provocative when he conflated Mass. Bay colony Puritans with ISIS, and appreciate some of Mark Tooley’s corrections and comments (but not about Puritans “helping to generate ideas about religious liberty”). While the Puritans deserve their share of reproach (I criticized Scott McDermott’s recent ”take” on the Mass. Body of Liberties), everyone should try to avoid simplistic or misleading historical analogies. Just because two or more events separated in time agree in one respect (e.g., stating that the fire-bombing of synagogues and schools and attacks on Jews in France during 2002 is like the treatment of Jews by the Nazi-sympathetic regime set up in Vichy France during World War II), does not mean they also agree in other or all respects or degree. Usually, the differences outweigh the similarities. If that is the case, as it is in this instance, the professor should have refrained from making the analogy.

He is correct in asserting the larger problem of “states [or even non-states] want[ing] to exert monopoly on power, and religions placed in the service of that power.” Political power in Mass. Bay was limited to “visible saints” (i.e., adult males who had their conversion experiences verified as genuine by other “saints”) that effectively created a theocracy, i.e., a government run by a religious oligarchy enforcing Old Testament religious laws that proscribed idolatry, witchcraft (Volf mentions adultery instead) and blasphemy as punishable by death. But – and it should be a rather emphatic “but,” we are all aware of the gap between written laws and actual enforcement. Like Peter Manseau’s blog that was chastised by AC commenters for being evidence-free, Volf’s assertions commit the same error. As a corrective, I recommend an excellent JSTOR article www.jstor.org/stable/827767 with the subtitle of, “The Adjudication of Criminal Cases in Puritan Massachusetts, 1629-1650.” The author gleaned a dataset of 793 cases during that period “for which a single offense could be correlated with a single punishment,” and found that only 5% resulted in capital punishment (which at that time also included banishment, mutilation and branding, not necessarily death). That is not the same as “advocating killing for these offenses,” as Volf claims. So, Tooley is correct by saying, “Executions for these crimes was actually very rare under the Puritans.” The article’s author noted, “The business of the secular courts was most fundamentally about the preservation of civil order, not the enforcement of religious orthodoxy.”

Tom Van Dyke said...

“The business of the secular courts was most fundamentally about the preservation of civil order, not the enforcement of religious orthodoxy.”

Thank you. This is key. "Religious liberty" as used in the 21st century is not germane.

First it should be remembered that the early Puritans saw themselves as a community, not as the modern liberal and pluralistic nation-state. Communities must make their own rules and maintain internal cohesion, or they're not communities atall.

Since Calvinist religion was their shared ethos and foundation, it was necessarily so that Biblical-Calvinist sensibilities were the fabric of law, not what Shain calls "the myth of American individualism."


[In fact, if Shain's "myth" thesis doesn't hold for all the American founding, its foundational context of the early Puritan society certainly is persuasive.]

As a side note, it should also be noted that "ecclesiastical" courts regulated much of everyday life in the Old Country. But because they reeked too much of Roman Catholicism, the Puritans dumped them, and what had been "ecclesiastical" matters [marriage, divorce, adultery, heresy, blasphemy, even drunkenness] came under the purview of civil courts by default.

The structure of Puritan society/government prohibits pigeonholing its dynamics into our modern compartmentalizations--or even those of the England they fled.

Art Deco said...

I also disagree that the Puritans were the "Founders" of America as opposed to the "Planters."

Which is a tweet from a region in your mind to another region in your mind. When you're ready to talk to someone else, let us know.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Art: I only wish I were to innovative to have first made that point.