Lust or Gluttony — The Persistence of Puritans

by: FireTag

June 8, 2013

gluttony birk“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” — H. L. Mencken, from A Book of Burlesques (1916).

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 societylust 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 Wrath_enlargedtalks 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.”malcolm_reynolds

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.

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10 Responses to Lust or Gluttony — The Persistence of Puritans

  1. Charity on June 8, 2013 at 11:40 AM

    Need to read two more times to digest.
    Am seeing signs of wrath break out randomly already.
    Thank you for writing about this.

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  2. Hedgehog on June 9, 2013 at 2:29 AM

    I did hear it was the puritans under Cromwell being just so miserable, combined with him deciding his son should succeed him (monarchy in all but name) that decided us in recalling Charles II. At least he knew how to enjoy life!

    I know rather less about how puritanism played out in America, though one of my children was studying ‘The Crucible’ in English class this year, and we all went to see a performance of the play. Your Walter Meade quote about it sounds quite as scary as anything designed to force behaviour.

    Your painting of both sides of the political divide as puritans of one sort or another is an interesting way of viewing things.

    I’d take issue with this:
    “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.”
    The benefits of restricting greenfield expansion is that building and expansion is being concentrated on brown-field sites. These are harder and more expensive to develop than greenfield sites, because of necessary clean-up involved, and would have been left otherwise. Additionally, our towns and cities are all quite close to eachother compared to the US, and I for one appreciate that we are being protected from an ongoing urban sprall that would otherwise connect those cities more extensively (such as happened in London and Tokyo). It is very pleasant not to have to go to far to enjoy the countryside. It isn’t only the gentry that get the enjoyment. I grew up in an area that has a nearby country park willed to the people of that county in the past. It’s a great place to get away to. We have many country parks and open land, some of which are owned by ‘the gentry’ it’s true. But I do think that on the whole the former ‘entitlement’ attitudes of ‘the gentry’ are changing as well, and many see their responsibility as preserving these stately homes and gardens for the nation. Whilst there are charges to visit the homes, often times parking is free, and much of the grounds are open to the public year-round at minimal or no cost. Many are now in the ownership of the National Trust. Much of the countryside has protected public footpaths running across it. In Scotland the public are permitted to walk wherever they please, no matter who owns the land.
    Now, the banning of fox-hunting by the labour government did cause a huge stir, on the other hand ;-).

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  3. Mormon Heretic on June 9, 2013 at 9:42 AM

    I believe it was “Great Basin Kingdom” by Leonard Arrington in which he noted that the earliest church leaders (JS, BY, WW, etc) came from the New England states and were raised in a very familiar Puritanical culture. It seems that the theocracy that they envisioned was an experiment in implementing 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….””

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  4. FireTag on June 9, 2013 at 10:48 AM


    It can be difficult to appreciate another country from a distance, to be sure. I look at the English countryside from the perspective of watching many episodes of Midsomer Murders, and one trip across the country by train from London to Stonehenge in Wales. It’s why I quote people a bit more cosmopolitan than myself.

    The US does have its mega-cities to be sure, particularly along the East Coast. If you travel along the coastal plain, there is little “open space” between the southern (Virginia) suburbs of Washington to well north of New York City. The mega city is continually trying to link ever more tightly down into the Carolinas and up into (and beyond) Boston. But if you travel perpendicular to that corridor, things become open and wild very quickly. I see deer in my backyard weekly, and beaver are continually trying to take down the woods and build dams in the drainage. I’m less than 40 miles straight line from the White House, I suspect.

    As a whole, the North American continent is quite sparsely populated. There are “miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles”.

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  5. FireTag on June 9, 2013 at 10:53 AM


    Agreed. The early leaders were indeed interested in a theocratic government on earth, and the “purity” of the gospel had a lot to do with a notion that reforms had not gone far enough in Protestantism. Very Puritanical.

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  6. Hedgehog on June 9, 2013 at 12:47 PM

    #4, I hope you enjoyed your visit (Wiltshire btw). Midsomer Murders isn’t representative.
    I’ve never been to the US, so my view is mainly coloured by novels I’ve read, and church publications. I hadn’t realised there was the sprall you mention.

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  7. Hedgehog on June 9, 2013 at 12:49 PM

    #4,5 Got to be glad they didn’t succeed, and say hooray for a constitution that separates state and religion, it sounds like.

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  8. Douglas on June 9, 2013 at 10:31 PM

    Anybody who starts out quoting H.L. Mencken can’t be all bad.

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  9. FireTag on June 9, 2013 at 10:49 PM

    Not all bad? I feel damned with faint praise, Douglas. I’d have thought I’d have gotten a few more points for ending with the Malcolm Reynolds reference, too. :D

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  10. Douglas on June 9, 2013 at 10:57 PM

    Firetag, YOU’RE all right, but the fictional Brian Griffith (the dog from “Family Guy”) also quotes H.L. Mencken…the dog is the actual voice and alter ego of Seth McFarlane, whom, although a comedic genius (and did a great voice of Emperor Palpatine in the “Star Wars Robot Chicken” series), is obnoxious even for a liberal.

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