Historian Sarah Vowell has earned a following with her particular blend of irreverence and patriotism. In her new book, "The Wordy Shipmates," she profiles the Puritans who fought America's original battle between church and state. She spoke with NEWSWEEK's Jesse Ellison.
Why should we read a book about Puritans now?
Revisiting the roots of American exceptionalism is always a good idea. And in terms of choosing one's leaders, which we're about to do, the thing I love about the Puritans is the people they put on a pedestal were the best educated, the smartest, the ones they saw as the most good with a capital G. I guess I would like to make a case for that. I don't think a leader should be penalized because he or she knows stuff.
You draw a direct parallel between the Puritans in America and our invasion of Iraq.
The idea that "we're here to help" goes back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which had a seal showing an Indian saying, "Come over and help us." That's one of the roots of "We're here to help, whether you want our help or not."
How did you research this book?
Mainly from Puritan primary documents. It's voluminous. I'm looking at just the seven volumes of the writings of Roger Williams. I just got out my tape measure … it's eight inches long. That was exciting. I've never gotten out a measuring tape in an interview before.
What did you find that might surprise readers?
I just wrote about the Puritans, so I'm not sure I have my finger on the pulse of America. But I feel like religious zealots need a new poster boy. Roger Williams realized, "I'm a zealot. You're a zealot. We're not going to agree, so maybe the state shouldn't impose religious practices on people."
You grew up in Oklahoma in a very religious environment.
Yeah, sometimes I feel like a translator to my snotty urban heathen friends. To me, Christianity was about self-loathing. It never would have occurred to me to hate anybody else; I was too busy hating myself.
You write that you identify with the Puritans'"essential questions": Is my country destroying itself? Could I leave? Should I?Would I leave?
No. I'm not one of those people who are moving to Canada depending on which way the election goes. I'll stay and be mad and sad and outraged. And drowned, eventually, probably. But I'll stay.