For those of you who also suffered through The Scarlet Letter, you have my commiserations. I did not enjoy reading the book. Regardless, it’s a cultural touchstone and gives us a shorthand to talk about complex topics.
One such topic is America’s Puritan past, which heavily influences our dominate culture. The Puritans left us with a mixed legacy. They gave us an ideal to strive for – the idea that we could build a community that would be a city on a hill, a light to the world. But they also left us with a legacy of intolerance for those who do not fit neatly into whatever ideal we are seeking to achieve.
The Puritans fled from persecution to create what they viewed as a godly society. They wanted to create a holy place here and now, not just wait for God to fix all wrongs in the afterlife. The idea that we don’t just have to take the world as it is – that we can actively make it better – is fundamental to the American character. Its strength has waxed and waned over the years, but it is a precious piece of our heritage.
There is a dark side to this reforming and progressive spirit, though. Puritans were not driven out of Europe for trying too hard to be good. Their zeal led to a lack of tolerance for those who did not live up to their ideals. Massachusetts wasn’t welcome to all. There was no toleration for mistake or sin. There was no tolerance for difference. This legacy also lives on, as those who strive to build a better society seek ideological purity over pragmatic tolerance of differing views.
Christ’s visit to the people of the Book of Mormon offers an alternative view in building a Christian community. He gave them rituals to follow. He taught them how to pray. And he taught them what to do with those who were unworthy and did not repent (3 Nephi 18:29-32). Twice in these few verses he commands them “ye shall not cast him out.”
The society that these people built in the years and decades following became one of unity. For most of their history, they had divided into groups – the Lamanites and Nephites. But in this time, Mormon writes that “there were no…Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one.” (4 Nephi 1:17). And somehow they achieved this unity without casting anyone out.
I think it’s safe to say no one is satisfied with the current state of society. Both sides, right and left – and those who don’t fit neatly in either – want change. We feel passionately – we believe deeply – in our visions of what America should be. And so we are arguing a lot. People who should be setting an example spend too much time calling names, fault-finding, and insulting. The worst behavior of internet trolls has found its way into the highest halls of government.
Compromise is the great evil today. Allowing someone who will not agree to remain part of the community is seen as permitting immoral action. We fear that lack of ideological purity will undermine all our dreams for a better society. So, we ask that those who disagree with us unfriend and unfollow. We refuse to talk to someone who votes for the other side. We are willing to break any relationship that doesn’t align with our loyalties to party or policy.
This doesn’t work. We must not cast each other out. Tax levels don’t destroy societies. The balance of who gets into college doesn’t lead to societal collapse. Societies collapse when social discourse becomes so dysfunctional that people feel violence is the only answer. Listening to a “MAGA hat” or a BLM protestor might be hard. It might be obnoxious. You will not come to an agreement at the end. But when each of us has been heard, when we feel that we are part of the community, even if that community is a little different than we like, then we don’t resort to extreme and radical tactics.
Our greatest strength as a society has been the ability to keep a diverse group of people united, however loosely, as Americans. That can only continue if we seek to include, rather than give in to the urge to cast each other out.