Historians, unlike satirists, say Puritans may have gotten a bum rap. Most “puritanical” in their New England incarnation, they might simply be said to be people who didn’t think the Reformation of the Church of England had gone far enough to correct vices they felt had corrupted the Catholic Church. (OK, there was this little thing about banning Quakers in Massachusetts Colony, and having been on the wrong side of the English Civil War so that they wanted to put a few thousand miles of ocean between their hoped-for utopian society and the British Crown, but the history and theology is a lot more complicated than simply wanting everyone to be miserable. )
For most of us, however, Puritanism in 17th Century New England is prominently associated with the Thanksgiving holiday, theocratic witch hunts, and literature (and movie adaptations) like The Scarlet Letter. Given that the original Thanksgiving was a feast about escaping starvation rather than anything like today’s calorie orgies, what sticks in the popular mind about the Puritans is an image of a sexually-repressed, secretly lustful society that — well — wanted everybody to be sexually miserable.
As I said, that is something of a bum rap. In a blog essay, Walter Meade discussed several traditions that took root in various parts of colonial America — New York, Virginia, the Southern colonies, and the western borders — as well as the Puritan tradition of New England. He specifically noted the following about the Puritans:
“The New England tradition, rooted in Puritan experience and theology, wants a strong state run by the great and the good to serve as the moral agent of the conscience of the community. It is the duty of the state to make the people better, and without a strong and moral state to guide development and regulate behavior, the rich will become greedy and the poor will get lazy and fat….”
He further amplified this last reference to “lazy and fat” later in the essay.
“Meanwhile, the white working class—a group that has troubled the New England mind ever since rowdy sailors and economic immigrants threatened to disrupt the social harmony of the Puritan colonies in the 17th century, trouble which only intensified as mass immigration from Ireland filled sober New England with rowdy Catholics—threatened to rebel against the gentry liberals and their various agendas for social betterment. The southern rednecks and northern ethnics rejected the Democratic Party and progressive social ideology in the Reagan years. Worse, perhaps, populist America began to turn against experts; ordinary people challenged the wisdom of the social and economic planners who advance the agenda of the New England state.”
What occurred to me when I read this is that both right and left in America now have their own versions of Puritanism. They just have their own favorite-to-condemn among the seven deadly sins. Deadly sins are considered “deadly” in Catholic theology because they are “root sins” that are capable of destroying countervailing virtues and obscuring the image of God placed in humanity. The left has become obsessed with stamping out gluttony while being increasingly unconcerned about lust, perhaps because it does associate the latter concern so closely with the “unenlightened” views of its political opponents. The right regards sexual lust as the most immediate threat, perhaps having less opportunity to deal with gluttony as they struggle to make their incomes stretch to the end of each month.
But the geographical distribution of concerns has certainly moved to a more complex setting than in the 17th Century. Puritanism, in one or another of its forms, no longer centers in New England. As noted on the Free Beacon:
“…Fifteen years ago, in the Atlantic Monthly, Christopher Caldwell wrote of “The Southern Captivity of the GOP,” and described how “the Republicans have narrowly defined ‘values’ as the folkways of one regional subculture, and have urged their imposition on the rest of the country.” How different the world looks today, when the regional subculture is that of the sun-dappled coast, and the folkways are progressive shibboleths such as amnesty and environmentalism and social liberalism. The Southern Democrats are long dead, the Midwestern and Rust Belt Democrats are dying, and the New England Puritan Democrats have ceded control of their party to the donors in the West.”
In support of that thesis, the essay notes further:
“California supplies not only vast amounts of capital to the Democratic Party and its infrastructure, but supplies also the spiritual inspiration for the policies those Democrats seek to impose on the rest of America. The state represents a possible future for the entire nation, and the preferred future of the American left: environmentally stringent, demographically heterogeneous, Pacific-oriented, inequality-obsessed (and inequality-prone), and devoid of conservatives in positions of influence.
“Saddled in recent years with high unemployment, high taxes, high government expenditures, and a hefty deficit, California’s economy nonetheless has generated considerable money for President Obama. More of Obama’s 2012 campaign haul came from California than from any other state, contributions from the Los Angeles-Long Beach metro area were behind only those from Washington, D.C., and New York City, and the president has drawn ideas and resources and personnel from Hollywood and Silicon Valley.”
Gluttony can be seen as the common “sin” being assaulted by this type of Puritan. We consume the earth for the sake of the few, we make it worse by favoring one nation, one race, one religion, one civilization over another. But these Puritans retain the notions that we should have “a strong state run by the great and the good to serve as the moral agent of the conscience of the community”, and that “it is the duty of the state to make the people better.” And, at least in Hollywood, the great and the good are beautiful as well, so why should we not lust after them?
I repeat: the Puritans on the other side of the divide also want the state to serve as moral agents for the enforcement against the sins that disgust them. That is the common theme — the state as enforcer of morality to a degree other traditions of American thought do not embrace — which makes them Puritans.
This Puritanism can have its counterparts in other cultures. The Puritanism of the right can be seen in any number of fundamentalist traditions. Are Islamists Puritans in Muslim form, complete with executions after their elaborate analogue of “witch-trials”? And, on the other side, historian Fred Seigel talks about the landed gentry in Britain in a new book:
“The fundamental conservativism underlying the modern ‘progressive’ marks the central thesis of an upcoming book by historian Fred Siegel, appropriately titled Revolt Against the Masses. Siegel traces the roots of the new-fashioned Toryism to the cultural wars of the 1960s, when the fury of the ‘Left’, once centered on the corporate elites, shifted increasingly to the middle class, which was widely blamed for everything from a culture of conformity to racism and support for the Vietnam War.
“Tory progressivism’s most-unifying theme… includes the preservation and conservation of the landed order enjoyed by the British ultra-wealthy and upper-middle classes. In the 19th century… Tory Radicals, like William Wordsworth, William Morris and John Ruskin, objected to the ecological devastation of modern capitalism and sought to preserve the glories of the British countryside.
“They also opposed the ‘leveling’ effects of a market economy that sometimes allowed the less-educated, less well-bred to supplant the old aristocracies, with their supposedly more enlightened tastes. ‘Strong supporters of centralized monarchical power, this aristocratic sensibility also saw itself as the defender of the poor – in their place. Its enemies were the middle classes and the aesthetic ugliness they associated with the industrial economy borne of bourgeois energies.’
“Today, this Tory tradition lives on in contemporary Britain, where industry remains widely disparaged and land use tightly controlled. There is no more strident defender of preserving the space of the landed gentry than the leading Tory mouthpiece, The Daily Telegraph. All efforts are made to restrict the expansion of suburbs and new towns all the better to preserve the British countryside for the better enjoyment of the gentry.”
When two groups of people are willing to use the state against each other to target one deadly sin, but not the deadly sin that might be their own, we run the real risk — being seen in other societies today every time we turn on the world news — of unleashing the personal favorite sin of Captain Malcolm Reynolds: wrath. We may wish we’d stuck to lust and gluttony.