SIXTEEN days to Thanksgiving and counting. As an alternative to the ubiquitous countdown to Black Friday, each weekday between now and Thanksgiving I will be posting brief essays on the history of the First Thanksgiving and its place in American memory. In my last post, I began an extended review of Rush Limbaugh’s fabulously popular work of historical fiction, Rush Limbaugh and the Brave Pilgrims. That post focused on Limbaugh’s gross distortion of the Pilgrim’s economic values. Today I tackle Limbaugh’s misrepresentation of the Pilgrims’ understanding of liberty.
I don’t share these thoughts as some sort of partisan screed. Politically, I’m a conservative, but I don’t think that any good cause can ever genuinely be served by untruths. More importantly, as a Christian, I am distressed that Limbaugh systematically purges the Pilgrims of values that would rightly challenge our contemporary secular culture in fruitful ways. With no apparent sense of irony, on the cover of each book in the “Rush Revere” series Limbaugh superimposes his own face on a historical figure. This is (unintentionally) a marvelous metaphor for his approach to history, for he repeatedly refashions historical figures in his own image.
One of the most common temptations we face when studying history is the temptation to go to the past for ammunition instead of illumination–more determined to prove points than gain understanding. We fall into this trap whenever we know too definitely what we want to find in the past, when we can already envision how our findings can reinforce values that we already hold or promote agendas to which we are already committed. This approach to the past makes history just one more battleground in the culture wars, with both sides ransacking the past in search of evidence to support their own predetermined positions. When we employ the history-as-ammunition approach, we predictably find what we are looking for, but we rob history of its power in the process. History loses its power to surprise and unnerve us, ultimately to teach us anything at all.
A second common temptation is to turn historical figures into our next-door neighbors in funny clothes—that is, to think of them as just like us. If the temptation to search for ammunition reflects a propensity of our hearts, the tendency to exaggerate the familiarity of the past reflects a characteristic of our brains. We are wired to learn by analogy. Without even having to think about it, when we come across something new we reflexively search for an analogue, rummaging through the file drawers of our minds in search of the image or object or concept that most closely resembles it. When we find what looks like a decent match, we say that the new thing we have encountered is “like” something else. The construction of this analogy is totally natural, but it’s also dangerous, because once we have recognized something familiar in the past, we will be tempted to label it and move on rather than wrestle with it and learn. When we do that, we almost always exaggerate the degree to which the past was similar to the present.
This danger is particularly great when studying groups like the Pilgrims who do share some of our ways of looking at the world. We read about men and women who were religiously motivated, family oriented, and committed to liberty—all of which is true—and without even realizing it we’re soon thinking of them as one of “us.” The problem with this is that, once it occurs, what really happens is that we stop thinking about them at all. They become our clones in funny clothes, and any chance of seeing ourselves more clearly or of learning from people who were the product of a different time and place goes right out of the window.
Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims constantly exaggerates the similarity between the Pilgrims and 21st-century Americans. Oh, certainly there are differences: the Pilgrims as Limbaugh describes them are more grateful than we are; they’re tougher, more courageous, more committed to liberty. But these are differences of degree, not of kind. The Pilgrims’ values are our values, they just lived them out more effectively. At bottom, they are who we want to be (or should want to be). They are us when we’re having a good day.
A case in point is Limbaugh’s treatment of the Pilgrims’ commitment to liberty or freedom, a recurring theme throughout the book. We learn early on that the Pilgrims were “real people ready to give their lives for their freedom, no matter the cost, no matter the pain, no matter the sacrifice.” And indeed they were. But what the Pilgrims meant by “freedom” and what Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims conveys are two very different things.
Because this is a book for young readers, Limbaugh understandably does not provide an abstract, dictionary definition for freedom. Instead, he has various characters in the book discuss the concept and come to their own conclusions. For example, early in the book Rush Revere chastises his talking horse, Liberty, for misbehaving in a Dutch shoe shop (I am not making this up) and says that from now on Liberty will have to stay right by his side. “Your freedom to choose as you please is becoming troublesome!” he scolds the horse.
But out of the mouths of babes and talking horses can come wisdom. Liberty tells Rush Revere that he sounds a lot like the tyrannical King James, who had similarly restricted the Separatists’ freedom in England. “I had a sick feeling in my stomach,” a chastened Rush Revere informs the reader. “I felt horrible for trying to force Liberty to do what I wanted.” Rush Revere apologizes to Liberty and adds, “And just for the record, I hope you never feel forced to do anything.”
In like manner, later in the book Limbaugh presents a conversation between Pilgrim soldier Myles Standish and Tommy White, a middle-school student who has accompanied Rush and Liberty on their trip back in time. When Standish explains that the Church of England had tried to tell the Pilgrims how to act and think, young Tommy furrows his brow and commiserates, “Yeah, I don’t like when people try to control me.”
So what is the definition of “liberty” that is being conveyed? It boils down to freedom from external control. If a horse wants to go into a shoe shop, he should be able to, and no eleven-year-old school boy should be forced to do anything against his will. This definition nicely conforms with modern American values: our understanding of “rights” as “what I want” and of liberty as the individual freedom to do anything, say anything, go anywhere, etc. But it bears only the most superficial resemblance to what the Pilgrims had in mind when they spoke of liberty.
The Separatists at Leiden had been taught a very different understanding of liberty than our contemporary notion. Central to their thinking was the concept of covenant, which emphasized not rights but responsibility—between God and man and between man and man. Consequently, the liberty that they venerated facilitated obedience more than autonomy, order more than individualism, and service more than self-expression. Liberty, as they understood it, was the freedom not to do whatever you wanted but to do, but to do what was right. What was right was determined by the law of God and by your obligations to your neighbor. Liberty, then, was the freedom to pursue a life of faithfulness in the network of relationships in which God had placed you. In the words of the Pilgrims’ pastor in Leiden, John Robinson, “It is a Christian’s liberty . . . to serve God in faith, and his brethren in love.”
From the Pilgrims’ perspective, human society was not a conglomeration of individuals but of groups. They believed that God had ordained three basic building blocks for society: the family, the church, and the civil community. Each of these constituent units was organic (like a living being), interdependent, and hierarchical. Each was characterized by shared responsibilities and mutual obligations within clearly defined chains of authority. So, for example, all of the colonists were to submit to the civil magistrate, whose authority (whether he was Christian or “heathen”), came from God. When the Separatists had decided to defy both the Church of England and the English king by creating their own congregations, they had not done so as an assertion of individual right, but as an expression of their obligation to obey God rather than man.
Indeed, as the Pilgrims understood the world, there was nothing particularly admirable about self-assertion or the insistence on individual rights. Rather, it was self-denial that lay at the heart of every virtue. In the words of Robert Cushman, a deacon in the Pilgrims’ congregation in Leiden, “Nothing in this world doth more resemble heavenly happiness, than for men to live as one, being of one heart, and one soul; neither anything more resembles hellish horror, than for every man to shift for himself.”
The Pilgrims have no authority over us, and their way of looking at the world is not automatically binding on us. But their world view was not the one that Rush Limbaugh has given them, and readers of Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims should at least know that. In its pages you’ll find Rush Limbaugh’s values, not the Pilgrims’.