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Tuesday, December 1, 2020

With the Pilgrims, Sometimes Less Is More

With the Pilgrims, Sometimes Less Is More

On account of the publishing schedule for CT Books newsletter, I couldn’t share this review before last Thursday. But it’s more than worth sharing anyhow.

It seems like almost every year, as Thanksgiving approaches, I get the urge to feature something from Tracy McKenzie, a trusted authority on separating fact from fiction when it comes to this cherished American holiday. A history professor at Wheaton College, McKenzie is the author of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History. This time around, I asked him to review Carla Gardina Pestana’s book The World of Plymouth Plantation, a new history of this first Pilgrim settlement.

McKenzie faults Pestana for running through what he calls a “laundry list” of influences upon life in Plymouth, which has the effect of overshadowing by far the most important influence: the Pilgrims’ Christian faith. The result is a book that, in some sense, misses the forest for the trees.

“Pestana tells us that she is writing with general readers in mind,” McKenzie writes, “but the historian who would reach an audience beyond the academy must do two things: She must offer a coherent story, and she must persuade her readers that the story matters to them. The World of Plymouth Plantation falls short on both counts. The author avoids narrative entirely, opting instead for a series of disjointed observations. Nor does she ever meditate on their meaning to the present. Missing from the book is the sense that history can help us see our own time and place more clearly. Absent is the awareness that it can draw us into life-changing conversations with the dead.

“This is a shame. Pestana is correct that many factors in addition to the Pilgrims’ religious beliefs contributed to the development of the colony, but among the host of variables that she considers, their religious beliefs—unlike their location and climate, for example—were by far the most readily transferrable and the most relevant to us today. Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving this year amid the most serious health crisis in a century. In the throes of this trial, it might comfort us to hear the Pilgrims’ message that God oversees every detail of our lives—and that, in the words of John Robinson, who pastored the Pilgrims during their Holland sojourn, God uses hardships in order to ‘wean us from the love of the world.’ It might challenge us to remember their conviction that we have no ‘rights’ in the presence of suffering and that the Christian’s only true liberty—here is Robinson again—‘is to serve God in faith, and his brethren in love.’ Four centuries’ old, their insights are as timely as ever.

“In sum, if we bothered to listen carefully to the Pilgrims, we might find that they have much to say to us, that what they have to say might even challenge and change us, but first we must have ears to hear. Pestana cannot help us in this regard, for what is missing most from The World of Plymouth Plantation is any sense that readers might actually learn from—not just about—the people who lived there.”

Religious Freedom and Moral Compromise

In matters of foreign policy and international diplomacy, the spectrum of moral and strategic choices often ranges from bad to worse. You have to balance the goods worth pursuing with the ills that accompany them, and painful tradeoffs are all but unavoidable.

Evangelicals have sometimes learned this lesson the hard way in the course of their advocacy for religious liberty around the world. As historian Lauren Frances Turek demonstrates in To Bring the Good News to All Nations: Evangelical Influence on Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Relations, efforts on behalf of persecuted believers have occasionally coexisted with at least partial support for unsavory leaders and regimes. Alex Ward, a church history graduate student working at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, reviewed the book for CT.

“Turek’s account of the case of the Siberian Seven illustrates the way [evangelical global networks] could achieve foreign-policy objectives,” he writes. “The Siberian Seven were two Pentecostal families who had tried unsuccessfully to emigrate from the Soviet Union. They eventually fled to the United States embassy, where they were sheltered in the basement for several years.

“When news of their plight reached America, evangelical organizations mobilized and urged the United States government to intervene. The National Religious Broadcasters regularly published stories and dispatches from the family. Evangelical human rights organizations testified at numerous congressional hearings on their behalf. And Billy Graham even visited them during a tour of Russia (though some faulted him for being insufficiently critical of the Soviet government’s abuses).

“Senator Roger Jepsen, the founder of an evangelical human rights organization, argued in one of the congressional hearings, ‘At issue is not only the freedom of seven individuals, Mr. Chairman. As leaders of the free world, [the question is whether America will] stand up and speak out against a violation of the most basic human right—the freedom of thought and worship.’ Eventually, after the intervention of President Reagan, the families were allowed to leave the Soviet Union and travel to Israel (and then to the United States). The case study demonstrates just how quickly and effectively evangelicals in America had adopted the language of human rights and honed their ability to shape policy decisions in that direction.

“However, Turek’s book also reminds us of the political complexities that weakened evangelical commitments to supporting the rights of all peoples. The same Reagan government and evangelical groups responsible for defending the Siberian Seven also supported the dictatorship of José Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala. As Turek explains, this was because they preferred Montt’s authoritarianism to the totalitarian regime the Marxist rebels in that country were likely to institute.

“Montt was a professed believer when he took control of the government in 1982. His attendance at a Pentecostal church, el Verbo (an outgrowth of the Jesus People movement of the 1970s), his appointment of church leaders to cabinet positions, and his initial push to root out government corruption all were hopeful signals of a new day in the war-torn country. However, Montt was also guilty of using state power to punish those believed sympathetic to the Marxist rebels, and some thousands of indigenous peoples were killed or ‘vanished’ during his time in office. Many evangelicals took a similar approach to apartheid in South Africa. Fearing the effects of a possible Marxist takeover, they supported a more gradual end to the country’s institutionalized racial segregation.”

Matt ReynoldsMatt Reynolds
Associate Editor, Books

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