I was thinking back on Senator Obama's extremely timely and well-thought speech on racism in this country, and a commentator remarked that it is believed that slavery was America's 'original sin' - that the institution of slavery was the 800-pound gorilla in the room that gave the lie to all the high-minded talk about freedom and liberty.
I think that the flaw in the base architecture of America goes back about that far, but in a different direction.
'Puritan' used to be a pejorative, in much the same way that 'Christian' was back in about AD 200. The Puritans were a sect within Christianity that sought to purge the English Church of every last trace of anything that smacked of Catholicism (or anything that wasn't in the Bible), and they wanted the Kingdom to be a Republic under the leadership of Christ.
Elizabeth I smiled at these people, and tolerated them to a certain point; her successor James I (James VI of Scotland) tried hard to be tolerant, since he'd already met their attitude with the Calvinist Scottish Kirk. His son Charles I, imbued and educated with the tenets of absolute monarchy 'by the grace of God,' tried to enforce his will on a largely Puritan Parliament (which, coincidentally, had most of the money in the realm).
Charles I was beheaded for his trouble.
While these courtesies were going on, a band of people boarded the small ship Mayflower and headed for Virginia. Because they ran out of beer and a few other essentials they stopped quite a bit further north than they had intended, at what is now Massachusetts.
The Plimoth Plantation, as the colony was called, was where the Protestant Reformation would be perfected. In the words of one of them, John Winthrop, the little town would be "a shining city on a hill" that would impress everyone and convince them that a theocratic government whose chief executive was God was the right way to go.
That idea, the idea of exceptionalism, was and is the fatal flaw at the foundations of the edifice we now call America. Other colonies were established on religious toleration; the Puritans (also nicknamed Pilgrims for their wanderings) established a theocracy and ruled Massachusetts with an iron fist. Sermons and church attendance were mandatory, families spied on each other and on their neighbors to accuse backsliders and sinners.
Fear was rampant; the morbid fear of hell, the fear of being detected, the fear that you were just not sinless enough no matter what you did.
Small wonder that the Witch Trials took place in Massachusetts. Fear is a powerful motivation, and prolonged fear in a susceptible mind can lead to hysterics.
Throughout American history we see this type of exceptionalism, metastasized like a cancer, spreading with waves of migration and colonization. People would listen to their preachers or itinerant sermonizers with all the concentration and devotion that their medieval ancestors did, and always came the message that Americans were different from everyone else. We were special, and selected by God simply because we were Americans.
(Let me interject here by saying that many Puritans believed that they had taken over God's covenant with Israel.)
And you still see it today, in efforts by otherwise normal-looking and sounding people to make our country "a Christian nation," without an inkling of the horrors that would entail - perpetual fear, dissent become blasphemy - and we must never forget that dissent is democracy, or we'd still be an appanage of the British Empire.
We also see that exceptionalism is still rampant. One only has to witness the phobic response some people had to Rev. Jeremiah Wright's remarks to agree with that assertion.
We must root out racism. There's no denying that.
But we must try to root out exceptionalism as well. It poisons our relations with other nations in a world where interconnectivity is the norm and growing more complex; it stifles criticism of the country, the government and the way America's headed; and it gives those who want to turn the clock back an excuse to turn the United States of America into another Islamic Republic of Iran.
So was slavery a flaw in the foundation? Of course.
But let's not forget the Puritans.
(This was posted as part of the Blog Against Theocracy blogswarm.)