Paul Greenberg

Don't anybody be shocked, but those Pilgrims being celebrated today weren't just cardboard cut-outs. They were part of the Religious Right. Or maybe the Religious Left, since the Pilgrims emphasized communal organization as much as they did individual rights. But right or left, the Pilgrims were definitely religious.

That is, they believed in something beyond themselves. Something spiritual but worldly, too. Not a stained-glass kind of faith but beliefs that impelled sacrifice, risk, commitment ... movement. And not just in the metaphorical sense. They would have to abandon their roots, forget all they had known, resettle, become strangers in a strange land. It happens. Go where I will send thee. No questions asked.

So they left Mother England for the Netherlands, where at least they could be assured of toleration. Perhaps too much of it, for they saw their children adopt the ways of the stranger. They would have to move again a decade later, this time removing not to one of the world's more advanced countries at the time, but across a treacherous ocean to a wilderness where savage beasts roamed.

Politics and religion were not just debating points for the Pilgrims -- or for the Puritans who would follow and succeed them. Their ideas were their guides, their compasses, their imperatives. Which may be why their thanksgiving became the American one. The well-indoctrinated Southerner knows the first Thanksgiving took place in Virginia, but it was the feast held by the Pilgrims and the Puritans that became the national holiday.

Why? Because the Puritans' beliefs were engrained in the American psyche and character in a way that religion in the proper Southern style never was. So the Puritans were able to achieve a seamless symbiosis of spirit and action that remains a part of the American current -- whether economic, cultural or political. Theirs was a dynamic faith. The Pilgrims' ideas became American ideas, and their dream of a city upon a hill an inseparable part of the American Dream.

Yes, believe it or not, there was a time when the American Dream didn't mean only an income bracket. There will be such a time again. Because this pilgrim faith has been planted deep, and there's no telling when and where it will crop up. See the civil-rights movement of the last century, or the pro-life movement of this one. If you ever think faith has disappeared, just look at the faces of new immigrants.

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.