What should we do about these backward religious fundamentalists, who stand against everything we believe in this country? They oppose freedom of worship, murder religious opponents, and view other faiths as Satanic.

How about we have a national holiday celebrating them? I speak, of course, not of the Taliban but of the Pilgrims, America's founding fundamentalists.

This week we are both fighting our war against fundamentalism gone amok and celebrating Thanksgiving, which is in part a tribute to the Pilgrims and their Puritan brethren.

In the short form of the Thanksgiving story, the Pilgrims came to America so they could practice their faith freely--heroes in the cause of religious tolerance.

In fact, while it's true that they left so that they might practice their faith, they were hardly religious pluralists. They left because they were angry that the English church was too Catholic. Once here, the Puritans worked hard to purge the land of those who disagreed.

The Puritans executed several Quakers for their religious beliefs (another two merely had their ears cut off), expelled Roger Williams for his views (he went on to found Rhode Island), and eventually produced the Salem witch trials. G.K.Chesterton wrote that the Puritans "would have died heroically in torment rather than tolerate any religious liberty" and that "the whole Puritan movement...was a struggle against religious toleration."

Sound a little bit like the Taliban?

I'm not suggesting that we ditch the Thanksgiving celebration, or, alternatively, that we change our views about the Taliban or Osama bin Laden.

I point out our fundamentalist history merely to give us a proper sense of humility. At this season, especially, it's good for us to realize how hard it was to establish a culture of tolerance here. America's religious diversity was not inevitable.

How did it happen? Partly it was economic and demographic. The new immigrants who came here after the Puritans did so largely for job opportunities and had little interest in the Puritan way, so the Puritans were eventually outnumbered.

Later, the realities of demographic pluralism were reinforced and given voice by people like Thomas Jefferson, who enshrined those notions on parchment. It took scores of court cases, hundreds of local skirmishes, some bloodshed and a lot of argument before the country fully incorporated religious pluralism into our civic code.

Right now, the Islamic puritans are in ascendance in parts of Afghanistan and the Middle East, and it's an open question whether they will be surrounded and drowned out by diverse traditions, as they were in America.

As Deborah Caldwell reported on Beliefnet a few days ago, there are the beginnings of an Islamic Reformation movement. Students, academics, business people--devout Muslims who are frustrated with the dominance of Islamic puritans--have begun trying to take back their faith. Interestingly, many of the leaders come from families that emigrated from the Mideast to avoid religious repression, just as the Pilgrims had fled England.

But unlike the Pilgrims, these immigrants (now often second and third generation) arrived as religious minorities and entered a culture that already had tolerance established as an important value. Muslims here can gather to foment change without fear of being imprisoned or tortured.

For that reason, it may be here in America--a.k.a. the great Satan--that Islam may be able to best tap into its earlier history, when it was highly tolerant of Christians and Jews.

That America has become such a place--one where the ethics of Jefferson defeated those of the Pilgrims--this is something that we should be especially grateful for on Thanksgiving.

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