Skip to comments.In Praise of a Puritan America
Posted on 09/03/2006 8:11:54 PM PDT by Rawlings
ANYONE WHO THINKS of American foreign policy in the Middle East as cussed, overzealous, hot-headed and hypocritical will be unconsoled to learn that this was the kind of thing people were saying about Puritanism and its adherents some four hundred years ago. Like so much else in modern America, its actions abroad should be viewed through the prism of the countrys root religion, Puritanism. To understand its continued centrality, imagine an America with no Mayflower and no New England. The national temperament would be less earnest, less moralistic, gentler. There would be fewer people in jail, and no executions. There might also be fewer Republican presidents and Bible literalists, and because a non-Puritan America would be less mesmerised by sex and introspection, less pornography and fewer psychiatrists couches.
An improvement on the America we have got, you may say. But the country might also have been less energetic, less enterprising, less rigorously democratic, less uncompromisingly freedom-loving. A poorer, milder America would be less able to do good as well as harm in the world. More reluctant to become engaged in Vietnam, it might also have been less tenacious in its pursuit of the Cold War generally. It would certainly not have been in Iraq, but that would be small comfort to its French or British critics, because a softer, non-Puritan America might well have resulted in a Europe submerged by Hitler, Stalin, or both.
But America is what it is, a country that is still 60 per cent Protestant. This could be a handy guide to its behaviour, except that Puritan doctrine was notoriously contradictory. All you can be sure of is its tendency to fly to extremes. Its theory had been discipline, R. H. Tawney wrote, its practical result was liberty, and listening to the maledictions of right-wing evangelists on the La-La-land lifestyle you hear echoes of the same tensions. Whether the subject is sex, business or foreign policy, never have the conflicts within Americas warring soul been more apparent than today.
Nowhere are the paradoxes of the Puritan conscience more flagrant, or more entertaining, than in the sexual sphere. That Hugh Hefner had a Puritan upbringing and that Alfred Kinseys father was a preacher explains a lot. Now absolute sexual freedoms are demanded in the same self-righteous spirit as the Puritans insisted on absolute repression, and the determination to dispense with the inhibitions of the past has begun to assume the earnestness and intolerance characteristic of the Puritan originators of their problems. Self-realisation (a very Puritan concept) can be energising, or it can be a pretext for promiscuity, sexual egotism, exhibitionism and self-indulgence.
In New England, illicit sex was repressed, but in business the sky was the limit, in many senses. For Puritans commerce was a holy pursuit, a way of busying themselves in the world in the hope of showing themselves as members of the elect who would be saved, rather than as damned from birth (losers in modern parlance). The characteristics of pious business folk have changed little over time. Now they are frequently church-going pillars of the community earning their salvation through media companies that specialise in sexually risqué but financially rewarding products or a dot-com enterprise selling God knows what.
Abstemious in their own lives, they take brief working holidays in Mexico or Montego Bay, where their conversation is laced with laments about the drinking, drug taking and sexual improvidence of the young and the poor. To minimise contact with losers they live in gated communities, send their children to private schools and bequeath them just enough to provide a headstart for becoming upstanding self-made men, in the image of their fathers.
Scepticism about Puritan sanctification of commerce began in the 17th century and continues today. America has been called the country where the Cross is only a plus sign, and that American employers have taken to praying with their staff, or that Ken Lay, former chairman of Enron, rediscovered God before he died, somehow does little to remove doubts.
In foreign policy, too, the New England retrovirus remains active. Like the Puritan whose economic self-seeking and psychic self-immersion were always in danger of divorcing him from the more altruistic aspects of the creed, America has long oscillated unnervingly between isolation and engagement with the world. For a people who believed that most of it was inhabited by the Antichrist there were reasons to stay aloof. Many countries still appear to America as backward nations whose souls it makes intermittent attempts to save, but that often turn out to be beyond redemption.
Proclaiming itself a beacon of hope has rarely inhibited a pugnacious foreign policy, it will be objected, but then America cannot win. If it behaves like the French and puts self-interest cynically to the fore it is damned for selfishness. And when its actions are genuinely altruistic, it is accused of buying the worlds favours. If there is one thing America is accused of more frequently than imperialist interference, it is of not interfering enough.
Americas Puritan origins do much to explain why it is the maddening and exhilarating, ancient and modern, progressive and conservative, sophisticated and simplistic, creative and destructive country it is. It explains why it finds itself in the throes of religious revival when secularism is advancing across Europe. At exactly the moment when their Puritan habits of thought are in crisis Americans are being enjoined to return to their religious roots. A case not only of the cure being worse than the disease, but of the cure reviving the malady.
But that is how America is. In dealing with it, as with anywhere else, we must take account of its national temperament. Above all we should remember that, as Alain Minc, the French historian put it, anti-Americanism is the internationalism of imbeciles.
It's a very complimentary article, and a recognition of the influence of puritanism on the US still today. In the end, the pioneers wanted individualist decentralized government and religion. A farmer in Kentucky wanted to vote, interpret the Bible and live as he saw fit - hence we have democracy and fundamentalism.
The Puritans had many virtues, but they also had many, many flaws.
Remember how Freud applied Greek mythology to individual psychoanalysis? This essay is an instance of applying religious history to national psychoanalysis. Complete BS.
The church of England is cracking up over homosexuality.
The whole business is deeply shameful and shaming to any brit worth half his tartan.
The puritans are the part of cromwell's england lived on-- but not in England. England's theology became naught but pomp and circumstance. Now both are gone and all that's left when a brit runs up the flag is a queer flapping in the breeze.
They were however deeply opposed to adultery as destructive of community.
(See for example David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America for a description of Putitan courtship, sexuality, and married life.)
This article is just a long winded way of saying....absolutely nothing.
To attribute all Protestantism in the modern United States to New England Puritans is not just simplistic, it's incorrect. Every ancestor I have, other than the few native Cherokee and Creek, were Protestant; the latest arrival was 1738, the earliest predated the arrival of the Mayflower by over a decade, and none of them came to New England. They came to Virginia and Maryland. From my perspective, there is a fairly deep anti-individualistic streak in the New England variety of Protestantism, and that is the legacy of Puritanism in the New England of today. The Scots-Irish and Virginia Anglicans had far more influence upon the development and psyche of this nation, as a whole.
Kind of like you and me.
It can be interesting to speculate upon an alternate history, but I beg to differ with your conclusion. What is New England today, if not some kind of lame, southern Canada? Why is the south and the midwest so very different from New England, today, as far as willingness to defend our country?
Today, I would agree with your observation. I can't explain what or why has happened since, but definitely this wasn't the case in 1775.
I generally feel all the world's people do not quite understand people from other countries. That goes for Americans as well. I'm sure thanks to the assiduous labeling by our wacko libs abroad with help from vicious anti-American wacko foreign libs, many non-Americans thing of Republicans and conservatives as being all ultra-religious and gung-ho about war and conquering countries. It's a stupid assumption, but it's one that's stuck. But whatever foreigners think about us, we have to do what is in our best interests. It is always amusing to read accounts by foreign observers who attempt to analyze America and Americans.
"There would be fewer people in jail, and no executions. There might also be fewer Republican presidents and Bible literalists, and because a non-Puritan America would be less mesmerised by sex and introspection, less pornography and fewer psychiatrists couches."
You've got to be kidding.
Your viewpoint is malignantly skewed.
One of the few good points in the article. Alas, the choice isn't between non-Puritanism and Puritanism, but between Puritanism and secularized anti-Puritanism, far more self-righteous and far less salutary.
The unique association between Puritans and capitalism isn't much believed among scholars of the topics, though it persists in pop-culture.
What is New England today, if not some kind of lame, southern Canada?
Let me quote from another Freeper said back in 2004:
For all the talk of the Civil War and the "Red State/Blue State" divide, the American revolution marks an even greater division, the great gulf between docile, timid Canadians, and brash risk-taking Americans. So the whole idea is a foolish non-starter. Seen from Ottawa and most other Canadian cities, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia don't look that different from Dallas or Phoenix or Houston.
I wouldn't include Alberta or Saskatchewan in the "docile, timid" category. Conversely, I wouldn't include Boston in the "brash, risk-taking" category. Migratory patterns do seem to tell the tale. Does it hold in every instance? No, there are always exceptions. New Hampshire seems to have held on to some semblance of the spirit of the American Revolution.
Saskatcheswan is leftist. They elect the explicitly socialist New Democratic Party to government.
From the perspective of urban Ontaio such as Toronto or Windsor even the Kremlin on the Hudson or Taxachusetts are frighteningly conservative.
I wonder if Europeans get horny when they go fishing, when they peel potatoes, and when they do calculus problems. They seem to think sex explains everything, and is guiding everything.