A History of Religious Communities in the U.S.

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From the arrival of the Puritans in the 17th century to the establishment of utopian communes two centuries later, America has a long tradition of communities created around religious ideals. Debbie Elliott talks with scholar John Farina about the history of planned religious communities in the United States.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Thomas Monaghan's Catholic activism is part of a long American tradition. For hundreds of years people have been planning communities based on their ideas. To dig a little further into the history of such communities we're joined now by Professor Farina who teaches religious studies at George Mason University. Thanks for being with us.

Professor JOHN FARINA (George Mason University): My pleasure.

DEBBIE: So you've said the town of Avia Maria has its roots deep in American history. The Puritans come to mind right away.

Professor FARINA: Right away. Sure, you have Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts Bay Colony, and then when they branch out from there their ministers go to Providence, Rhode Island. Start Rhode Island. Thomas Hooker goes to Hartford, starts Hartford. So this is an old American story, not just there. But you can think of the other coast where are these San towns, you know San Francisco, Santa Clara, Los Angeles, Franciscan missions that later were turned into towns. In the 19th Century you have many varieties of this. The Oneida community, which later became Oneida, New York. John Humphrey Noise(ph) and Oneida Silver, again famous for their idea that people here should be as the angels and that Jesus told us that the angels neither marry nor are taken in marriage, so it was another justification for polygamy. So it's an old story.

ELLIOTT: Did these towns develop after religious groups sort of came together to form a little community? Or was it specifically we are going to make a town and it is going to be a religious town, much like what is happening down in Florida?

Professor FARINA: It was both. You know, it was certainly you had clear instances in some cases of people saying I'm constructing a town, and that's what I think is exciting, the idea that religion isn't supposed, we think of religion as a private affair, but that's really an odd way of thinking of religion when you look at the larger sense of it. Religion is a chain of memory. It links us to the memory of a people, the memory of our past, the memory of our traditions, of our ancestors, and so that has to find expression in the social.

ELLIOTT: What do you think it is that drives people to want to create a community like Ave Maria?

Professor FARINA: The need for integration in our lives, that we all feel this need I think, to address the kind of disintegration of American society, a society of change, and replace it with a society of memory in some very small way that I think can appeal to people who are not even religious. It's a sense of identity and rootedness and connectedness, and the religious element is one of the most powerful ways to do that, and it always has been. You know, the word religion comes from religion, the Latin word which means to bind.

ELLIOTT: Now there are those critics who say, you know, there's this ideal of separation of church and state in this country, and when you start to talk about a town and making a town based on your specific religion, you're getting into dangerous territory here.

Professor FARINA: They have no idea where they are when they say something like that. Again, it's so out of touch with the roots of the American Republic. This is so much a part of our history, and to put my legal hat on for a moment, there's no legal issue here. If they became incorporated as a town, they would of course have to abide by all, you know, constitutional protections and afford people all the liberties they'd have somewhere else.

But the larger question is interesting. There's the old battle between liberalism in a way in which we're all liberals in America, a liberal democracy, and religion, and liberal democracies have always said, as one of their definite defining points, separation of church and state, and somehow religion will not have a privileged place as an institution as it did in many cultures in the past.

And part of the reason for that was the idea that that's the way to ensure a open community so that you and I can be members of the polis, not because we're Catholic or Protestants or Jewish or Moslem or whatever, but because we're just citizens. So that's OK, but the other side to that, which we're seeing more and more now, is people say, well, wait a minute, if I'm citizen, how can I leave out those things that constitute me most fundamentally? How can I leave that out? Am I supposed to just leave that out, just be private about it? Well, I can't be. It's too fundamental. And that's the issue.

ELLIOTT: I come to question of, you know, what is the benefit of trying to form a religious community or a religious town like this if you are constrained legally and not able to say, OK, in my town I think I need the Ten Commandments on my school wall?

Professor FARINA: Because there are all these other areas that I think they are perfectly free to operate in. These people are not just crusading to have a world free of pornography. That would be to see them in a very small way. It's a larger sense. They want an integrated community. They want to be, they want to be able to walk to work. They want to be able to walk to the university. They want to have people there whom they can talk to, neighbors that might reflect their values. I think that that's interesting. I think that a lot of people would want that, not just...

ELLIOTT: Won't that segregate us in some way, though?

Professor FARINA: That's a legitimate viewpoint. The other viewpoint is to say, no, it won't because you've got to be individual. You have to be particular. The neighborhood is not that everybody's the same or this bland secular mess, and we're only particular in private. No, it says you're a real particular, but we then have to abide by certain civil rules so that we welcome one another.

ELLIOTT: John Farina is a professor of religious studies at George Mason University. He's also the editor of the series Sources of American Spirituality. Thanks for being with us.

Professor FARINA: My pleasure.

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