The Puritans versus the Modernists–Now in Technicolor

In his column in this morning’s Star, E.J. Dionne made the observation that Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman represent the two strands of Republicanism currently at war with each other. Santorum represents the social conservatives and Huntsman the economic conservatives–or, as Dionne puts it–the “modernists.” (No one knows what Romney represents–he’s pandered so long and hard I doubt if he still knows.)

Back in 2007, I wrote a book called God and Country: America in Red and Blue, in which I examined the religious roots of public policy disputes and posited that a significant number of our most intractable debates can be explained by precisely this conflict between those I dubbed “modernists” and those I called “Puritans.”  These differences are so intractable because they are cultural, not doctrinal–deeply embedded and wildly different views of reality rather than matters of dogma.

My research suggested that these differences are far more profound than we usually recognize, and they affect not just the political issues with visibly religious dimensions like abortion, gay rights, or the death penalty. Puritans and Modernists have utterly incompatible world views; they occupy starkly different realities. Those differences manifest themselves in (no pun intended) fundamentally different approaches to such ostensibly secular matters as economic policy, foreign policy, the environment and criminal justice.

Our contemporary Puritans are throwbacks to the early American settlers who came to these shores for a version of liberty that most of us would not recognize. The folks who braved the trip across the Atlantic came for the religious “liberty” to impose the correct religion on their neighbors. The notion that each of us should have the right to believe as we wished was utterly foreign to them. It would be another 150 years until the intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment would change our understanding of liberty to a more “live and let live” construction and would introduce mankind to the scientific method.

Most of us today live in a post-Enlightenment culture. We accept and value science. We understand liberty to mean our right to live our lives free of government control so long as we are not harming others, and so long as we respect the right of other people to do likewise. But there has been a persistent minority who never accepted these Enlightenment values, and they are represented by religious fundamentalists like Bachmann and Santorum who use the word “freedom” in the older, Puritan sense of “freedom to do the right thing”–and who believe it is government’s job to tell us what the “right thing” is.

(Interestingly, they never seem to doubt that they know precisely what God wants–that, as a friend once put it, God hates the same people they do. But that’s a phenomenon for a different post.)

Most religious folks, including most Evangelical Christians, have accepted modernity. They aren’t at war with science, and they are willing to argue for their vision of morality in a diverse and expanding marketplace of ideas. If the Republican party continues to embrace the Puritan worldview, if it becomes the party of the Santorums and Bachmanns, it will accelerate a process of marginalization that has already led so many of us to abandon the party.

And that’s not good for America.


  1. Ms. Kennedy, I have a complaint about your blog posts. There are never enough of them. Can’t you post more than one every few days? We need your intelligence to stem the tide of ignorance that abounds in our state. I’m serious. Too often I feel I’m alone in the wilderness. Your posts give me hope.

  2. Rosemary, I’m flattered that you enjoy my posts. However, I do one each day–I’m not sure why you don’t see all of them. If you visit the blog daily, you will find an update–promise!

    Thanks for the kind words.

  3. Thank you Sheila! I now have a better understanding of how Santorum can hate me with a smile on his face.

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