Carroll traces history of assumptions about Jerusalem in American history


James Carroll, author and columnist for the Boston Globe, opens Week Two’s Interfaith Lecture Series at the Hall of Philosophy Monday afternoon. Photo by Eve Edelheit.

Emily Perper | Staff Writer

“We Americans have trouble with religion,” said James Carroll. “Many Americans think, for example, that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.”

But that’s only the beginning.

“The ignorance I’m lifting up, though, isn’t about denominational creed or church history or biblical figures or saints,” he said. “It’s more about the question of, what are the religious assumptions that undergird America’s understanding of itself, even people who have no relationship to religion? And my theme today is that citizenship in this country is grounded in a set of religious assumptions that we pay very little attention to.”

This week, the afternoon interfaith lecture theme is “The Role of Religion in Engaging Citizens for the Common Good.” Carroll, author and columnist for The Boston Globe, opened the week at 2 p.m. Monday in the Hall of Philosophy with his lecture, “City on a Hill: Jerusalem in the American Imagination.”

Carroll began with the history of the negative associations religion has produced: the Crusades, for instance, a religious initiative targeting Muslims and Jews that began in 1096.

The Crusades resulted in a political and cultural paradigm, which Carroll defined as, “Christendom defining itself positively … against the twin negative of Muslims and Jews, a basic structure of the western mind out of which our American mind springs.”

The crux of Carroll’s elaboration was that the Crusades were what he terms “a millennial event,” an event ridden with special significance for Christians.

“The year 1000 was given magical, mystical resonance. After 1,000 years, the devil was going to be loosed to wreck havoc, to bring about the great war of the end time of history through which the new heaven and the new earth were to be established,” he said. “And in the book of the Apocalypse, the new heaven is defined as the new Jerusalem, and the search for Jerusalem defined the Christian imagination, especially powerfully beginning at the millennium.”

Carroll explained that once the gates of Jerusalem were closed and the travel route blocked, European visions of reclaiming Jerusalem transitioned into thoughts of colonization. The responsibility of rescuing Jerusalem took root in the European mind, Carroll said, including the mind of one European in particular: Christopher Columbus.

Columbus’ deep Christian mysticism is often overlooked, Carroll said.

“His goal was not just gold and silver and the Indies … his goal was Jerusalem,” he said.

Columbus considered himself a messenger of the new millennium, as recorded in his letters. He believed the New World to be the place to establish the new Jerusalem.

“By now, to take Jerusalem was the fulfillment of millennial hope,” Carroll said. “How do we solve the problems of the human condition? How do we resolve the challenge of suffering and death and loss? … We resolve it by bringing history to a climax as God has declared. The purpose of all of this will be fulfilled … when we take Jerusalem. That became the dominant motif: the real Jerusalem intentioned with the mystic Jerusalem.”

Carroll traced history to the time of the Puritans, another religious movement born of violence. Between 1620 and 1640, 20,000 English pilgrims came to what would become the United States, he said.

“Millions of Christians killed each other in the name of God in the 16th and 17th centuries, and out of that chaos came a renewed hope for the new heaven and the new earth,” Carroll said.

John Winthrop was one of these pilgrims, the man who gave the infamous “City upon a Hill” sermon. Carroll explained that the settlement this sermon referred to was Salem, Mass.

Salem is “another name for Jerusalem,” he said. “There are 20 Jerusalems; there are 61 Zions; there are 120 Salems from Massachusetts to Oregon,” Carroll said. “There was something in the unconscious working of the people who settled this country.”

Religious revival movements like the Great Awakening were meant to rekindle this millennial spirit, Carroll said.

“It wasn’t just political is my point — something profoundly religious an inch below the surface of all of this, despite the deist and somewhat secular figures who came into leadership,” Carroll said. “(Thomas) Jefferson would be appalled at my characterization.”

He went on to explain that a transformation in American society happened, one Jefferson never would have expected. The number of church congregations skyrocketed from 2,500 in 1790 to 52,000 in 1860; a second Great Awakening had occurred.

“Almost all of this growth was fervent evangelical Christian religion,” Carroll said. “That is to say, religion defined by the sense that we, in what we do, as we move west, as we tame this country, as we claim America, that what we do is bringing about the promised end time of history. It’s a millennial vision.”

The philosophy of manifest destiny led to “Palestine mania” and Restorationist Christianity, in which Christians strove to restore the Holy Land to Jews, converting them as a prelude to the Messiah’s return. Many renowned intellectual figures of the 19th century made pilgrimages to Jerusalem, and Carroll pointed to Chautauqua Institution’s own Palestine Park as evidence of “Palestine mania.”

The Civil War, another bloody conflict, only furthered this fixation, Carroll said. He explained that Abraham Lincoln emphasized that the Civil War was in no way a holy war, but his position later changed as the conflict became less about preserving the Union and more about emancipating slaves; only freedom could justify such bloodshed, Carroll said.

He added that the Civil War marked the beginning of rhetoric commonly heard today, “a mystical theology of freedom.” Carroll said tunes like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” set the message behind the Book of Revelation to music.

Other American conflicts demonstrate similar end-times themes, he added. The 1950s anti-Communist slogan “Better Dead than Red” means to “save the world by destroying it, which is the apocalyptic vision,” Carroll said.

In the same vein of this philosophy, Carroll said he sees the nuclear bomb as a prime example of an apocalyptic weapon, which rids the world of evil and obliterates the world simultaneously. Carroll posited this is the reason we maintain our nuclear weaponry arsenal and engage in what he terms “wars of choice.”

“There is something in us … it isn’t because we’re bad, it’s because we’re somehow imbued with a sense that number one, we have a mission to bring about the salvation of the world, freedom; number two, violence is necessary to that mission, (that) God wills it,” Carroll said.

He then shared three steps to assuage the tension between perception and reality. “The American religion is an engine of holy war,” he said. “How do we engage religion for the common good?”

One, reform theology.

“It matters what you say about God. And if you say ‘God wills it,’ terrible things follow,” he said.

Second, the Book of Revelation must be read in historical and cultural context. It was written in the midst of the violent conflict between Romans and Jews around the year 90 A.D.

Third, change America’s view toward violence. So much money cannot be allocated to the defense fund, which may call
for a bipartisan effort, he added.

Carroll encouraged the Institution to use Palestine Park as “an instrument of education for people going forward about how the memory of Jerusalem and Palestine has been misunderstood and abused to justify savage violence.”

“In Jerusalem, remember, God checked Abraham’s knife. No more killing in the name of God,” Carroll said. “In Jerusalem, religion was limited by ethics, and sacrifice was limited by love. In Jerusalem, with one God’s image found in every person, the western idea of human rights was born. So rescuing Jerusalem, not from the infidel, but from mistaken Christian notions, mainly, is an urgent obligation.”