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American Amnesia

On a chilly winter morning in 2017, I struck up a conversation with the Uber driver en route to the airport. He explained that he had migrated from Ghana, so I asked for his impressions of America. He paused for a moment to collect his thoughts. “The thing about America,” he said, “is that it suffers from historical amnesia.”  

The observation struck me. It got me thinking about how contentious our national discourse around even basic elements of our history has become. For every 1619 Project probing the legacy of race-based slavery, there is a 1776 Commission seeking to extract the nation’s pristine ideals from history’s unseemly details. I eventually concluded that historical amnesia is a feature, not a bug. And it is tied to the powerful restorationist currents in American history and life.

In a Protestant context, restorationism seeks to recover a form of religious practice that reflects the values, experiences, and outlooks of the earliest Christians. In secular form, it manifests in the push to align the present with an idealized past. In both iterations, it offers a fresh start and a chance at redemption. It was these traits that attracted settlers to the British colonies, inspired the formation of the United States, and propelled America to global leadership. It is no exaggeration to state that without a pronounced restorationist impulse America as we know it would not exist.

But restorationism also has a shadow side. It can tempt us to overlook vast swaths of our history, particularly the ugly parts. When misused in this way it induces historical amnesia. As a nation, we are practiced at tuning out those who warn against restorationism’s misuse. But we ignore such voices at our peril. To make good on America’s restorationist promise, we must find the courage to confront our historical amnesia and correct the misuses of restorationist motifs that perpetuate it. 

Before disembarking on New England shores in 1630, Puritan minister John Winthrop charged his fellow shipmates with the labor of building an exemplary “city upon a hill.” Their model Christian community would inspire what they saw as desperately needed religious reform in England. Once this process was underway the colonists would pack up and sail home. This restorationist “errand in the wilderness” was supposed to be temporary. 

Things did not go to plan. By 1636 Massachusetts Bay Colony suffered its first major schism when it expelled a minister named Roger Williams. He formed his own restorationist community in what today is Rhode Island and founded the first Baptist church in North America. The colony’s example also failed to catalyze the kind of religious reform back in England that Winthrop and his fellow settlers had hoped for. In time they came to terms with the fact that their “errand in the wilderness” would be permanent. But as restorationist communities proliferated throughout the colonies and the Puritan “errand” gave way to the American Experiment, it became clear that the new nation would always strive to be that “city on a hill.” 

This image brings the paradox of America into focus. On one hand, its promises of freedom, opportunity, and fresh starts have attracted migrants from across the world. These newcomers, in turn, helped transform America into the most powerful and prosperous nation in history. In this regard, the restorationist impulse has served America well. But how does a nation of redemption-seekers build a chattel slavery economy? Massacre Native Americans? Birth Jim Crow? Force Japanese Americans into internment camps? Exploit the undocumented? Oversee a massive prison-industrial complex? And despite it all, still see itself the city on a hill? 

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