Humble Big Apple Pie?

Russell Shorto proposes a novel thesis in today’s New York Times: New York City has been a liberal flagship because it exemplifies Christian humility.

The us-them divide that conservative Christians maintain holds that, historically, they have Christian morality on their side while others have only their Enlightenment gods of science and reason. And some of their opponents like to believe this as well.

But it’s a false divide. Both the Puritans who settled New England and who bequeathed to American politics much of their dogma, and the Dutch founders of New York based their societies on Christian principles. They just had different approaches to theology. The Puritans were more typical of their era, when religious intolerance was official policy in most nations. (It’s true the Puritans themselves fled intolerance, but once they established themselves in America, they set up their own brutally intolerant regime.) Dutch Protestants, however, had experienced horrific violence at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition, and many had had enough of religious absolutism. Tolerance became codified into Dutch law, and Dutch cities, which had high concentrations of minorities, flourished. As a result, when the Dutch founded their New World colony centered on Manhattan Island, it, too, was a mixed society, and it, too, had as its social glue this notion of tolerance.

The point is that tolerance was at the time seen most fundamentally as a theological issue. The Puritans’ righteousness came from the conviction – common to all absolutists – that their faith was the only correct one, so that God compelled them to uphold it and to vanquish others. Those who argued for tolerance did so from a more humble, but equally theological, stance. In the words of one early advocate of tolerance, “Many will be damned on Judgment Day because they killed innocent people, but nobody will be damned because he killed nobody.”

Looking all the way back, then, New York’s mixed society, and with it America’s, owes its origins not to accident or geography but at least in part to a Christian conviction, won by the experience of slaughter and mayhem, that we – whoever we are at the moment – may not be smart enough to know God’s mind. The unlikeliest notion in the world therefore follows: that New York’s cultural mosh pit is built on a foundation of humility.

The attacks of 9/11, with their apocalyptic overtones, were pure protein for the Puritan impulse, with its conviction of America’s God-ordained role in history. Those who would stand up to the Puritan strain, which many people believe has reached the stage of posing an unprecedented danger, might want to exploit the fact that their tradition, just as much as the Puritans’, sits on a religious foundation. Pluralism and morality aren’t two separate things but are joined, and it’s from that juncture that much of what we call American comes. After Frances Perkins served as F.D.R.’s secretary of labor, she was able to say, referring to the New Deal, “I came to Washington to work for God, F.D.R. and the millions of forgotten, plain, common working men.” Nobody saw a conflict of interest.

I can’t prove it, but I suspect Shorto might be confusing humility with political expedience. When New York politicians appear “tolerant” regarding a particular issue, it’s usually an attempt to get votes by appealing to a wider political base. But their “tolerance” won’t encompass views that are statistically insignificant within that base. For example, New York Senator Clinton may seem “tolerant” when she supports gay rights, a winning strategy in New York, but ask her to confirm an obviously qualified judicial nominee, and her “tolerance” is hard to find. That’s why “tolerance” is such a hollow word. Those who are “tolerant” are doing so because they’re already committed to other principles, principles usually far from humility.

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