Paul Greenberg

What explains the American difference? Many explanations have been offered over the years. In a little book called "The Genius of American Politics," historian Daniel Boorstin emphasized the practicality of the American experiment. Our revolution, he concluded, was not based on grand theories of government, but on institutions that slowly evolved. They changed to meet changing circumstances -- and, above all, worked, with roots going all the way back to that most unjustly neglected period of American history, the colonial.

A Frenchman named de Tocqueville suggested maybe the key, difference between our political history and that of other modern nations: the pervasive influence of religion here.

Unlike his native France, church and state were not in constant opposition here, each vying for control. Here they were separated. There would not forever be an official, established church in this country, yet religion provided the essential context and informal discipline that restrained the lust for power of both government and the individual. Or as John Adams once observed, "We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. ... Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

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Edmund Morgan, who spent a lifetime studying and writing about colonial America and the distinctive revolution it would produce, has just died at 97. He had begun his academic career as a student under the guidance of Perry Miller at Harvard, the great scholar of Puritan America who traced the American difference to the Puritan ethos.

Morgan had studied and admired the elaborate Calvinist theology of Puritanism -- predestination, original sin, human depravity, divine perfection, salvation by grace, the goodness of God despite the presence of Evil in the world (theodicy), and so on -- but he was no believer. It was all abstraction to him, however elegant. "At twenty-two," as he would explain later, "most people did not look all that bad to me." And then he found himself in Germany on August 28th, 1938. Just as the Munich Crisis was about to unfold.

Young Morgan and a student buddy happened to be in the little border town of Breisach when the Nazi dictator, surrounded by the usual cohort of black-shirted stormtroopers, passed through in an open touring car. What impressed the 22-year-old American was how ordinary Herr Hitler seemed. Long before Hannah Arendt, he was struck by the banality of evil. Der Fuehrer "looked like my next-door neighbor or a friend of the family, perhaps a bit old-fashioned but solid." He never forgot that indelible moment. Why? To quote his explanation:

"Puritan theology began to make sense, in a way that shook me. I could not believe in the salvation of a few held out by John Calvin or Jonathan Edwards, but human depravity suddenly acquired a face, the cheerful mask that we all learn to wear as the price of belonging to a settled social order. I was still an atheist, as I am now, but that day in Breisach I became a Calvinist atheist. Human beings are capable of great good, but I know that the capacity for fathomless evil is equally human, and it wears a smiling face."

It is this constant awareness of evil, of the danger of ideas and ambitions unrestrained by the humility and reverence the fear of God induces, that is the great legacy of our Puritan inheritance, much as it may go unnoticed today. And that awareness may explain the difference between our history and that of less blessed lands.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.