A WASP Looks for God
Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a series on Neal Freeman’s inquiry of faith.
One of the most heuristic things ever said about a member of my family was said by William Bradford, Governor of Plymouth colony, the early American settlement located in what would, at a later day, become the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Writing in his memoir, Of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford said of my paternal ancestor, William Brewster, “He was tenderhearted and compassionate of such as were in misery, but especially of such as had been of good estate and rank and were fallen unto want and poverty.”
What was remarkable in that encomium, of course, was not the contention that Brewster was a nice man. Down through the centuries, the record would probably confirm that my family has produced at least one nice man every generation or so. What was remarkable was that Brewster was revered not so much for his work in comforting the afflicted as for his success in comforting the formerly comfortable. As the Elder—a spiritual leader, that is to say—of a small band of English Christians who decamped first to Leiden, Holland, and then to America in 1620 on the good ship Mayflower, Brewster was tending to a relatively well-placed and well-connected flock. These were merchants and farmers, men of the law, men of the Book.
These Pilgrims, as they came to be called, were not low-born or criminal elements fleeing authority in search of a second chance. (For the footloose and felonious, conveniently, there would soon be Australia.) These were proper Englishmen, some of them educated, which was rare in those days, and most of them with “good prospects.” What set them apart from the rest of their countrymen was a determination to worship God according to their own lights, free from constraints imposed by the almighty Church of England, and free as well from an English King increasingly given to what the Pilgrims perceived to be papist tendencies. These Pilgrims were men and women willing and in notable cases eager to subordinate the temporal to the transcendent. They were, as history would later inscribe, the brave souls who brought across a vast ocean and then planted in the hard soil of New England the radical and very American idea of religious freedom. That idea took root, deep root. Almost two centuries later, the framers of the Constitution would begin the very first sentence of the very first clause of the Bill of Rights this way: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Another way of looking at that hardy congregation huddled aboard the Mayflower, of course, is to say that they were a boatload of religious fanatics, led in matters religious by the most fanatical congregant among them—my man Brewster.
My mother’s family arrived somewhat later. She was a descendant of John Winthrop, who came to New England aboard the Arbella in 1630. He settled on the shores of Massachusetts Bay and, as a dogged and competitive sort, busied himself with the task of building a community superior to Plymouth, which was situated just a few miles down the Atlantic coast. Winthrop was a drumbeater. He is perhaps best known to history for urging his fellow colonists to appreciate that the eyes of the world were upon them and that, accordingly, they should “consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill”—that is, that they should conduct themselves so as to serve as shining examples for those left behind in Old England. (Notable political figures, Ronald Reagan prominent among them, would consider Winthrop’s exhortation to be the fons et origo of the worldview known today as “American exceptionalism.”)
Winthrop was a man of this world and less so of the next. He was, in the contemporary formulation, a community organizer: the trains, had they yet been invented, would surely have run on time. In matters of the spirit he made even Brewster look like a theological wimp. Winthrop looked with undisguised disdain on the loose, disorganized ways of Plymouth: his own Puritans were, in his estimate at least, much improved versions of Brewster’s Pilgrims. In return, the Pilgrims set the pattern for the next 400 years of American immigration by looking askance at the bumptious Puritans who “came later.” (To the 21st century eye, it should be conceded, the distinction between the two groups seems without much difference.)
Winthrop had a taste for rhetorical combat and a wont for doctrinal scab-picking. On one such occasion, he incited a canonical fight of obscure origin with a young woman who lived just across the street, a firebrand named Anne Hutchinson. She and her band of followers, all of whom in Winthrop’s unsparing view had wandered from the true Christian path, were ultimately driven from the Massachusetts Bay colony into the wilds of Rhode Island, where Hutchinson became a major colonial figure in her own right. The true path for most New Englanders in those formative years was pretty much what John Winthrop said it was. (I should note for the record that I find my distant cousin John Winthrop, who is entitled but has so far declined to affix the Roman numeral XI to his surname, to be not in the least bit censorious. It is widely believed, in fact, that he is the nice man in my own generation.)
Brewster and Winthrop—my men, my founding fathers.
We have by this point established that the writer of these words is, roughly speaking, the WASPiest man in America. Verily, I have been bred within an inch of my life and could be installed neither painted nor powdered as a free-standing exhibit in the Peabody Museum. Curators there might extract a princely sum from tourists seeking selfies with the one and only WASP Man.
But does this unusual genetic inheritance mean anything special? Does it mean that I was born on third base? Does it mean that as I make my way in life ornate and filigreed doors swing open at my approach? Does it mean, for specific instance, that I will be invited to join the law firm of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft? (Just kidding. I like the sound of the place: the only name missing from the letterhead is that of my favorite Wodehouse character, Galahad Threepwood. For all I know, the firm may be run these days by three young women named Petrillo, Goldfarb, and Ulasciewisz.) Does it mean that I will be invited to join a snooty club like, say, The Knickerbocker? (The last time I was there it smelled like my grandmother’s house. You know, that smell. And the furniture was tatty.) Does it mean that I will be surrounded by rich girls? (It actually did mean that in my ill-spent youth. But as I was not the first to learn, rich girls tend to be pinched in their affections and guilt-stricken in their politics. Having fun with a rich girl can be hard work.)
Skipping to the bottom line, does the WASP inheritance include—you’ll excuse the expression—money? Does the bloodline carry with it downstream both a trust fund and the cosseting of family office? I’m glad you asked. The answer, at the tail end of a long line of desiccated WASPs, is almost always: uh, not really.
In my own case, the family tree is festooned with the names of the well-born, the (usually) well-meaning and, here and there, the well-known. (A Ralph W. Emerson is recorded there, at the end of one twisty branch.) But men of affairs? Men of deed and daring? Men who, to be frank, did anything useful? Or made anything useful? Candles? Canoe paddles? Woolen socks? Pipe fittings? Uh, not really. There were preachers, lots of preachers—the Mather boys, Increase (once president of Harvard, of course) and Cotton; Jonathan Edwards; and a century-long skein of Moodys who pounded the pulpit to smithereens at the old First Parish Church in York, Maine. Many members of my attenuated tribe, in truth, could have used some of Brewster’s anodyne touch, and especially those many kinfolk who “had been of good estate and rank and were fallen unto want.”
Happily, I had no such problem myself. While I was privileged to move in uptown circles and to attend elite schools, I knew from an early age that, socially advantaged as I was, there would be waiting for me in adulthood no—you’ll excuse the expression—money. My wife and I got married in the old-fashioned way. Thanks to student loans, we began our life together just like real Americans—with a negative net worth.
That was the good part of my WASP inheritance: a more or less honorable past, a clear eye, and a piece of open road stretching endlessly forward into the American future. It was all good, what there was of it, at any rate. But there was one thing missing. Neither Brewster nor Winthrop nor any of those voluble preacher-men following on behind them had bequeathed to me their own faith in God. A critical omission, that. It must be in there somewhere, I’ve long thought, packed in alongside the memories of prep schools and happy pants and sailing regattas, not to mention my own metronomically regular attendance at Episcopal churches up and down the East coast. It must have been in there, I thought, but I just couldn’t find it. I was white, Anglo, and Saxon. That much was self-evidently plain. But was I really Protestant? Was I worshipping God according to my own lights? Was I even a non-denominational believer? Even now, it pains me to admit that I was not.
Truth be told, I have been wandering in the desert for so long that I’m not even sure where a search for faith should begin. The possibilities seem confusingly numerous. Should it begin with the wise men of letters—with those famously persuasive witnesses named Belloc and Chesterton and Lewis and suchlike? Should it begin with the brand-name leaders of institutional religion, in either their homespun or elaborately costumed iterations? Should it begin with the sacred texts of Scripture that have stood the millennial test of time? Should it begin by just looking around—with a window-shopping tour of the houses of worship currently on offer? Or, as long as I’m up and around anyway, should it begin by engaging seriously if not literally with the earnest pamphleteers prospecting at my front door?
My undisciplined answer in recent months has been, as students of the reserved New England personality could have predicted, all of the above. I started by spreading the word ’round my personal and professional circles that, as I now intended to commence an inquiry of faith, spiritual guidance would be welcome and tales of inspiration would be especially well received. The response has been immediate, torrential, and quite beyond my capacity to absorb. Friends and associates have been crowding in, pressing tracts into my hands, inviting me on “journeys” in bewildering variety, warning me against false prophets (who, it appears, are swarming in ominous numbers), pointing me in the direction of epiphanic possibility. One well-intentioned neighbor insisted that I join him on a tour of the Holy Land where I could “walk in the steps of Christ.” (Whoa. Now, I’m intimidated. I’m not ready to walk in the steps of Joel Osteen.) Over these past few months I have been the recipient of copious amounts of instruction, uplift, and prayerful concern and, for all of those good intentions, I have advanced not a single step closer to God.
But I may not be as dumb as I look. Perhaps, just perhaps, I thought, the place to begin is at the beginning. And so I think back to the last fully satisfying religious experience of my life. It had to be that day, soft and sunny, and now more than a half-century past, when I married Miss Jane in a small church in upstate New York. It was a Catholic church and I was, accordingly, present under duress. After extensive negotiations with the small-town priest, a genial and wily fellow who in the movie version of his life could have been played appositely by Bing Crosby, I confess that I traded away the religious freedom of my own children. My only defense is that it seemed like a good deal at the time: Miss Jane was present and gloriously nubile, the children were absent and wholly theoretical. Time would tell a different story, of course, as Miss Jane began to bear Catholic children with impressive regularity.
I mentioned a bit of wedding-day duress. My adoring grandmother, then still resident in the old Moody farmhouse raised in 1690, declined to attend our wedding ceremony. More to the point, she instructed me sotto voce not to send announcements to anybody she knew, lest word spread through northern New England that her favorite grandson was marrying a Catholic. My grandmother had taken an immediate shine to Miss Jane and, as the daughter of outspoken abolitionists, she was a determined foe of bigotry in most of its ugly forms. But for Edna Moody Neal, set firmly in her ways at approximately 90 years of age—in a moment of uncharacteristic vanity, she had erased all documentation of her birth, and then willfully forgotten the details—my wedding was simply a covered bridge too far. Even into the middle years of the 20th century, as my grandmother and her sister would recall colorfully for us young ’uns, every old Maine family nursed dark tales from the French and Indian War. These tales no doubt hardened in the telling over the years and, by the time they reached my ears, Native Americans never—never—appeared as noble savages or as friendly neighbors or as dimwitted trading partners or even as oppressed minorities. They appeared, exclusively, as pillagers and scalpers and kidnappers. In some ways even worse, under the malign influence of their French masters, they appeared as Catholics. Dreaded Catholics.
It was thus bowed under the considerable weight of family baggage that I accompanied Miss Jane on an exploratory visit to her local church. She couldn’t have been more pleased, of course. Raised in a fervently religious family, the proud alumna of a convent school, the star lector at her parish, the most diligent student in her Bible study group, and the mother and grandmother of numerous conscripts into the legions of Rome, Miss Jane is the most faithful woman I know. And I intend that term not just in the marital sense, for which I am most grateful, but in the literal sense: she is full of faith, so much so that when she departs this world she expects with unshakeable confidence to enter the next and better world after no more than minimal administrative delay. The old hymn has it right. Miss Jane is a Christian soldier, marching onward.
Despite my high hopes, and Miss Jane’s even higher hopes, our first visit did not go well. I made a rookie mistake and sat way back in some kind of an acoustical black hole. (The star lector sat up front, of course, with the elaborately costumed officiants.) The presiding priest was a short, dark man who, thanks presumably to a few years of German education, transposed his V’s and W’s in a particularly off-putting manner. Given the hall’s PA problems, compounded by the teutonic dipsy-doodle, I didn’t understand a single word he said. Not one. And Miss Jane and I didn’t have much to talk about on the way home.
The following Sunday, overcompensating, I sat with the star lector in the front row, no more than 10 feet from the priest, who I now recognized as an Indian of the subcontinental variety. At one point in the homily, he looked directly into my eyes and asked imploringly, “Would you like to renew your marital wows?” I shrugged my lack of interest. I guess all of us who’ve been married a half-century could use a few extra kilowatts in the marital bed chamber, but I wasn’t looking for dating advice, thank you very much, dispensed by a diminutive celibate in a singsong voice. Miss Jane, sensing a communication unconsummated, leaned over and whispered, “He asked if you’d like to renew your marital vows.” Oh, is that it? Now, I’m offended. Why would I want to do that? I meant those vows the first time. Again, there was not much to talk about on the way home.
In the established manner of New England eccentrics, a habit that has left the rest of America uncharmed for centuries, I then began to talk to myself. The conversation went something like this. First, I reviewed the mental file labeled, “Rome.” Yes, as a philosophical proposition, I have long favored the general notion of the mediating structure. But no, it would be difficult to embrace unreservedly any mediating structure that could conceive a program as morally deranged as the Inquisition. Yes, I find much to admire in the principle of subsidiarity. But no, that so-called bedrock principle had been discarded too casually whenever a Crusade promised the raw satisfactions of blood and soil. Yes, I resonated happily to both halves of the First Amendment guarantees on the separation of church and state. But no, when Constantine converted to Christianity, the Roman state began to crush the pagan religions of most of his imperial subjects and all of his imperial predecessors. Yes, I was much impressed with Rome’s unflinching opposition to communist ambition. But no, Rome’s performance in the sex scandals of the priesthood had been unacceptable by any measure. And so it went, back and forth.
That last matter weighed heavily in the balance. I remember dining back in the 1980s with a prominent Catholic theologian. You would know his name. He seemed troubled and wanted to talk. Over a two-hour, no-martini lunch, he told me in excruciating detail about the problems with the seminaries, the problems with the urban parishes, the problems with the hierarchy itself. In his telling, homosexual predation was everywhere. I felt his pain and responded, inadequately, with an incisive glimpse into the obvious: “You’ve got to call them out. You have the platform and the credibility. These problems never solve themselves. They only get worse.” My dining companion was, I thought then and continue to think today, a basically honorable man. But he found himself up against a mediating structure that is universal and apostolic and damn-near impregnable. He did not call them out. And the problems, as you may have read, did not solve themselves.
For me at least, and for now at least, all roads do not seem to lead to Rome. This much I know: I don’t want a mediating structure, massive and encapsulating, getting between me and my God. I must be some kind of a Protestant.
Neal B. Freeman, author of Skirmishes, is a former director, editors, and columnist for National Review and the founding producer of Firing Line.