Twenty-First Century Puritans

Being out on the ocean prompts reflection… 

When I taught Law and Public Policy, I approached the material through a constitutional lens, because I was–and remain–convinced that a basic understanding of American history and the philosophy that shaped what I call “the American Idea” is critically important for anyone hoping to understand today’s politics.

The American Constitution was a product of the 18th Century cultural, intellectual and philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment. Most of us know that the Enlightenment gave us science, empirical inquiry, and the “natural rights” and “social contract” theories of government, but what is less appreciated is that the Enlightenment also changed the way people today understand and define human rights and individual liberty.

We are taught in school that the Puritans and Pilgrims who settled the New World came to America for religious liberty; what we aren’t generally taught is how they defined liberty.

Puritans saw liberty pretty much the same way current politicians like Mike Pence and Mike Johnson do– as “freedom to do the right thing” as they definied it. That meant their own freedom to worship and obey the right God in the true church, and it included their right to use the power of government to ensure that their neighbors did likewise.

The Founders who crafted the American constitution some 150 years later were products of an intervening paradigm change brought about by the Enlightenment and its dramatically different definition of liberty.

America’s constitutional system is based on the Enlightenment concept of liberty, not the Puritan version. It’s an approach we sometimes call “negative liberty.” The Founders believed that our fundamental rights are not given to us by government (nor necessarily “God given” either). Most of them–especially the Deists– believed that rights are “natural,” meaning that we are entitled to certain rights simply by virtue of being human (thus the term “human rights”) and that government has an obligation to respect and protect those inborn, inalienable rights.

That philosophical construct is why–contrary to popular belief–the Bill of Rights does not grant us rights—it protects the rights to which we are entitled by virtue of being human, and it protects them against infringement by an overzealous government. As I used to tell my students, the American Bill of Rights is essentially a list of things that government is forbidden to do. For example, the state cannot dictate our religious or political beliefs, search us without probable cause, or censor our expression—and government is forbidden from doing these things even when popular majorities favor such actions.

Most Americans 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 is a persistent minority that has never accepted an Enlightenment worldview, and that minority currently controls the Republican Party. These contemporary Puritans–who, along with their other religious convictions tend to see Black people and non-Christians as unworthy subordinates– use the word “freedom” in the older, Puritan sense of “freedom to do the right thing” as their reading of their holy book defines “the right thing.” They also  believe it is government’s job to make other citizens do the “right thing” –to impose their version of “Godliness” on the rest of us.

These contemporary Puritans are throwbacks to the early American settlers who defined “liberty” as the imposition of the correct religion on their neighbors. The Enlightenment construct of “live and let live”–the notion that each of us should have the right to believe as we wish, the right to follow our own set of moral imperatives (again, so long as we are not harming the person or property of someone else) was utterly foreign to those original Puritans, and it is evidently equally inconceivable to their philosophical descendants.

(Interestingly, these throwbacks to Puritanism 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.)

If you had told me ten years ago that American government would once again be under the thumb of Puritans, I wouldn’t have believed it. But here we are–with a Speaker of the House of Representatives who is a full-blown Puritan throwback and a Republican Party that has rejected the Enlightenment.

When I have computer problems, I reboot. That usually returns my laptop to working order. Can we reboot America?


  1. Nice post today, thank you. Amen to patmc.

    For those who are interested in reading further about what philosophies and thoughts influenced America’s Founders, I would recommend “First Principles” by Thomas E. Ricks.

  2. My mother’s family from generations back (as documented in The Munger Book, honest to god, were Puritans. My mother must have promised, right hand on The Munger Book, left hand on her heart, or visa versa, to raise her otherwise feral kids to be so. My siblings and I shed that skin ASAP.

  3. Another interesting post this morning, but….. how about some details on the cruise so far?
    Is travel on the ship still exciting? Have you stopped at any island that totally blew you away? Seen something astounding that caught you by surprise? How is the food? Have you had to weather any storms? Are all your fellow passengers nice…and interesting? Have you gotten to eat at the captain’s table, and if so, did he regal you with sea stories? Do you have to dress up for dinner every night? Are you keeping a diary? Do they have shuffleboard?
    Inquiring minds want to know.

  4. Republicans cannot/will not understand enlightenment in any egalitarian format until their corporate/banking donors tell them to.

    And yes, Tuesday’s election results show that there is indeed an electorate not consumed by ignorance and backwardness.

  5. There’s just too great of a structural barrier to be able to “reboot” that easily. Nice thought though…

  6. Cultural/political change is not as simple as a reboot. Unless you are John Lennon and can “Imagine”. I’m no historian, but I would guess it would take a united community response over decades (Civil Rights, for example) or a bloody war (bye, bye Nazis). The former is exceedingly unlikely in a culture of tribes/ME; the latter is unlikely as those wanting positive change don’t like guns.

  7. Careful, you could reboot, and Trump would be POTUS again.

    As Vern pointed out, we could ban voting and politicking and sit down with the wealthy oligarchs. Let them propose a new constitution and bill of rights. Give them three attempts with our lawyers, then vote for a ratification.

    Otherwise, work stoppage.

    I don’t ever want to see a political sign. Digitize voting with an expiration date—no more spending on American media. Debates can be returned for those interested.

    If you vote, you get a $300 credit from the IRS.

    By the way, didn’t those God-loving Puritans own slaves? I can’t imagine they want equal rights with their former slaves. GASP

  8. I hope the Biden administration has a plan. They led us through the last threat of shutdown. They are certainly as aware of the danger as we are. If they can get us safely to the next election, I think the voters will throw enough of the bums out to return Congress to sanity. But can they? If so, Biden should get a very impressive national monument.

  9. No need to “reboot” America, just the “republicans” and the organizations that control that pitiful excsue for a party

  10. Patmcc stole my thunder; I was about to make the same observation. Perhaps we saw a new “moral majority” decide that Trump’s 1/6 adventure and democracy don’t mix, that they prefer democracy, and to the argument that it was not democracy an aroused polity voted for but rather abortion freedom I here observe that the two are branches of the same tree. I also note in passing that there are other “branches” awaiting grafting to the tree of democracy, like for instance, a fairer sharing of the economic wealth with labor based on productivity etc.

    Short history (as I see it) > Our new Speaker fits the Puritan mindset well. The Enlightenment? Whut’s thet? It’s the century of new thinking about human rights and our Revolution from royal control, our Constitution and Bill of Rights, and perhaps most importantly and as a rights template for Europe signaling consignment of royalty to the ceremonial, the French Revolution of 1789. Testosterone-rich Henry VIII who started his own church when the pope would not allow him a divorce and Luther who challenged the Puritanical Catholic Church of his time with his 95 Theses and marriage to a nun round out the earlier religious pre-Enlightenment landscape and were harbingers of things to come – like Baptists and No-Fault divorce.

    So how does a platform-less Republican Party whose fascist captors favor a felon for president who makes Benedict Arnold look like a Boy Scout fit into the fleshed-out Enlightened principles bequeathed to us by Madison and Jefferson? There is no fit – and can never be, since the return of the governing process from the rule of law undergirded by our Constitution to a formerly royal and dictatorial stance by fascists and their threats and violence is totally at odds with Enlightenment values, and like oil and water, can never mix.

    Our task? Resist all attempts to end our democracy, our most precious asset held in common, and one of the last few things left worth dying for.

  11. It’s such a clear explanation of US enlightened formation of our Democracy/Republic and Bill of Rights in this blog today. I wish all Americans could read and understand it. I grapple with all that’s going on, but know we have a framework that leans toward our personal freedom and growth if we can keep it; I think the majority of Americans want that too. Keeping the spotlight on the devious oppressive methods being used today in all aspects of life is a way to expose what we need boot out! In Government gerrymandering, suppressing votes, propaganda and lies to cast dispersions for their personal political power grabs needs to continue to be exposed.
    I started reading Racheal Maddow’s “Prequel” yesterday about what Americans did to fight the fascist movement during WWll. Brillant and helpful information today IMO.
    Thanks, Lou, for your insight into Mississippi politics yesterday. Hope that Carville can work his magic there for the 2024 election!

  12. Thank you, Sheila, for this post. Actually, thank you for all of them but this was especially helpful. I’ve sensed something like your remarks, but my thoughts were unformed and muddled. While reading your post, I felt as though you tweaked a lens and the picture was immediately sharp and completely focused. I’m grateful: clarity, whether about something merely annoying or — as here — something deeply inhumane, brings a kind of relief and steadiness.

  13. I think we’re going to have Samuel Alito to thank for a reboot. “Women are not without political or electoral power.” Beware of what you wish.

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