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?


Clarifying The Stakes

I have often remarked upon the dramatic changes during my lifetime in what people consider “conservative.” I’ve speculated about the causes, pointed to the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of the contemporary GOP, and speculated that the current “conservative” movement (note quotation marks) is basically an intellectually incoherent expression of MAGA’s underlying fear and racism.

The fear and racism are certainly there, but recently I came across an essay in Persuasion that described an all-too-coherent philosophy underlying the current assault on the American Idea. 

Broadly speaking, there are two different kinds of contemporary American conservatism. The more familiar—traditional conservatism—holds that the founding principles and institutions of the American polity remain sound but have been distorted by waves of progressive activism that have eroded our commitment to individual liberty and limited government. The task is to preserve these fundamentals while restoring their original meaning and function. 

The second kind of conservatism claims that America was flawed from the start. The focus on individual rights comes at the expense of community and the common good, and the claim that government exists to preserve individual liberty creates an inexorable move toward moral anarchy. These tendencies have moved us so far from traditional decency and public order that there is little of worth left to “conserve.” Our current situation represents a revolution against the forces—religion, strong families, local moral communities—that once limited the worst implications of our founding mistakes. The only remedy for this revolution is a counter-revolution. Instead of limited government, we need strong government capable of promoting the common good and defending moral common sense against the threat posed by unelected elites.

This proposed counter-revolution has little to do with conservatism as traditionally understood. It seeks not to limit the flaws in our founding principles but to replace them. Specifically, it is a revolt against liberalism, the political theory rooted in the Enlightenment that inspired the Declaration of Independence. This New Right is unabashedly anti-liberal, at the level of philosophical principle as well as political practice.

The essay distinguishes between different kinds of anti-liberalism. Fascism, for example, finds legitimacy in the “culture and spirit of a specific people.”  Then there is what the essay calls integralism, defined as a distinctive form of religious anti-liberalism that originated within Catholicism.

It arose many centuries before the emergence of liberalism, as a justification for the integration of Catholicism and political power that began under the Roman emperor Constantine and was completed in 380 by emperor Theodosius I, who embraced Christianity not only as his personal religion but also as the religion of his realm. At the end of the next century, Pope Gelasius I formalized the Catholic understanding in his famous distinction between priestly and royal authority. In matters concerning religious practice and ultimate salvation, Gelasius argued, political authorities are required to submit to the authority of the Church. 

The essay proceeds to outline the history of this melding of church with state, and its eventual decline, thanks to the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution. While MAGA voters are highly unlikely to have heard of integralism, its resurgence among intellectuals on the Right is clearly influencing and shaping our current culture war. “Integralism” is at the root of current attacks on the very basis of the Enlightenment liberalism that undergirds America’s Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Liberal philosophy distinguishes between public and private, and prohibits government from invading the zone of personal autonomy. Liberals may argue about where the line between public and private should be drawn, but they agree that the distinction exists and–more importantly– that it is morally fundamental.

Integralists “reject freedom of religion, and they are prepared to use government power in the name of public morality to control what liberals consider private and individual decisions.” They reject the goal of a legal or public culture that is neutral– that accommodates different beliefs about morality and/or religion.

That philosphical approach explains a lot.

For Integralists, culture war is the only war: seeing neutrality as a myth, they see the battle as Manichean, a war between advocates of personal autonomy and defenders of (their version of) traditional morality. 

This explains one of the most confusing aspects of Republicans’ U-turn from their former commitment to limited government. These “common good constitutionalists” want a government with the power to impose their version of the good society on everyone.

If political power always shapes culture, as increasing numbers of traditionalists are coming to believe, they will conclude that they must seize and use this power—if necessary, without the limits they have long advocated.

It’s a war between fundamental–and irreconcilable–world-views. One is consistent with American constitutionalism; one is unambiguously not.


The Upside Of Secularization

I have long been interested in what you might call the “sociology” of religion–the effects of various forms of religiosity on the body politic, especially when that body politic is diverse. That interest led to the publication of my first sabbatical project–God and Country: America in Red and Blue, back in 2007. (I think Baylor University Press still publishes it.)

The conundrum, of course, is that certain aspects of religious devotion can be very positive–especially the support offered by religious communities. Those studies showing that religious folks were healthier or happier or whatever weren’t wrong, but the value was the existence of that supportive network, not a direct line to deity.

Other aspects of religiosity are negative–especially fundamentalist belief systems. Our current culture wars come courtesy of people who act on their belief that their God wants everyone to behave in a certain way, and those who pander to them. (“Live and let live” is simply inconceivable to folks who talk to God….)

Scholars tell us that the growing secularization of America has been accompanied by a loss of community and an epidemic of loneliness, which is certainly troubling, so I was very interested in this article focusing on the positives of secularization.

It began with the facts:

Last week, Gallup released new data showing that standard Christian beliefs are at all-time lows. Back in 2001, 90% of Americans believed in God; that figure is now down to 74%. Belief in heaven has gone from 83% down to 67%; belief in hell from 71% down to 59%; belief in angels from 79% down to 69%; belief in the devil from 68% down to 58%.

These declines in personal belief are tracking with church attendance, which is at an all-time low (even when accounting for the pandemic’s social distancing). Religious wedding ceremonies are similarly at an all-time low, as the percentage of Americans claiming to have no religion has hit an all-time high.

The author acknowledged that weakening of religion meant the loss of strong congregational communities and the “comfort of spiritual solace and the power of religiously inspired charitable works.” Nevertheless, he insisted that it is good news for democracy.

When secularization occurs naturally within free societies and people simply stop being religious of their own volition, such a change comes with many positive correlates — not least healthier democratic values and institutions…

Democracy requires citizen participation.

On that front, atheists and agnostics stand out. When it comes to attending political meetings, protests and marches, putting up political lawn signs, donating to candidates, working for candidates or contacting elected officials, the godless are among the most active and engaged. Americans who are affirmatively secular in their orientation — atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers — are more likely to vote in elections than their religious peers.

Another crucial pillar of democracy is tolerance, the acceptance of people who are different from us, or behave and believe differently. In a diverse and pluralistic nation such as ours, civic tolerance of difference is essential. In study after study, nonreligious people are found to be much more tolerant than religious people.

Ironically, atheists are far more accepting and tolerant of religious people than religious people are of them.

What about information? Democratic self-government requires an informed citizenry–and these days, that means citizens who are able to separate the wheat of reality from the chaff of misinformation.

Research shows that secular people are on average more analytically adept than religious people. Religiosity, especially strong religiosity, is significantly correlated with greater acceptance of fake news.

The very first sentence of the U.S. Constitution’s very First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This fundamental principle of our democracy, which bars the government from either promoting or persecuting religion, is essential in a society that contains millions of people with multiple religious faiths, and no religious faith at all. In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has shown a willingness to bulldoze this safeguard, threatening one of the founding premises of our nation.

The best hope for our democracy may be the growing number of secular Americans, who are by far the most supportive of repairing this principle.

Secular Americans, and the many Americans who belong to less dogmatic, more inclusive religious denominations, need to attend to the loss of community, the loss of the comfort that comes from being a valued part of something larger than family or clan. It’s notable that some atheist/humanist groups have regular Sunday meetings, to supply that very human need for companionship and fellowship.

Meanwhile, we should celebrate the waning belief that your God is the only “right” God, and He (always a He) wants you to impose “his” will on everyone else.


Arrogance Is Never Having To Say “Sorry”

Linda Greenhouse is one of my favorite Supreme Court reporters, and she recently published a commentary in the New York Times, titled “Is There Any Twinge Of Regret Among Anti-Abortion Justices?”

Marking the one-year anniversary of the decision in Dobbs, Greenhouse noted that  the decision has propelled a crisis in reproductive health care that is “acute and growing,” leading to alarming consequences.

Greenhouse first shared the history of another case that had generated “alarming consequences”–consequences that, in that case, led to a speedy reversal.

Because Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that saluting the flag or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance amounts to worshiping secular authority, they prohibit their school-age children from engaging in the practice. In 1940, with war raging in Europe and patriotic fervor rising at home, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution provided no religious exemption from what many public schools deemed an essential civic duty. The decision upheld a Pennsylvania school district’s expulsion of a Jehovah’s Witness brother and sister. A single member of the court dissented.

A mere three years later, even though the United States itself was now at war, the court reversed itself. In a new flag-salute case from West Virginia, three members of the original majority switched sides and two justices who had joined the court since 1940 voted with them. One of those two, Robert Jackson, wrote the new majority opinion, strategically avoiding the contested question of religion in favor of an eloquent defense of free speech.

“Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard,” he wrote in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. 

The first decision, in Minersville School District v. Gobitis, had unleashed a wave of violence against Jehovah’s Witnesses: in the wake of a ruling that many saw as evidence that Witnesses were anti-American, mobs attacked individuals and destroyed their churches. Some 2,000 Witness children were thrown out of school, and some of their parents were criminally prosecuted.

Greenhouse then  enumerated some of the dire medical consequences of Dobbs, and then asked her question:

A year after sowing so much chaos and misery, are any of the five members in Justice Samuel Alito’s Dobbs majority sorry? Even a little? I’m not so naïve as to think there is even a slim chance they would reverse themselves. I just wonder whether they feel even a twinge of regret.

As she points out, the immense harm to women couldn’t have come as a surprise. “Valuing fetal life over the lives of women and girls was no doubt a feature, not a bug, in the majority’s view; that was, after all, the point of Dobbs.”

Greenhouse then proceeds to answer her own question, saying she doesn’t think the Dobbs Justices are sorry. As she notes, a difference between Barnette and Dobbs is that the justices who changed their minds after Gobitis were motivated by facts, not by ideology.  These Justices were chosen because facts would not sway them: Trump announced during his presidential campaign that his Supreme Court appointees would overturn Roe, and all three of his nominees– Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barrett– did just that..

Although Greenhouse doesn’t explore the psyches of the anti-Roe justices, Jesse Wegman took a long, hard look at the author of the convoluted decision in Dobbs,  focusing on the recent disclosures of Alito’s unethical behaviors. Wegman’s analysis of Alito’s personality and character–especially his arrogance– are equally applicable to other examples of the Justice’s disdain for settled constitutional analysis.

Wegman points to Alito’s decision to “devote time and energy to a newspaper essay defending himself against charges of ethical and legal violations that had not yet been published”–an essay that “epitomizes the bitterness and superciliousness that he has demonstrated in regular doses throughout his years on the Supreme Court.

Most judges, whether by temperament or fidelity, avoid the spotlight. They prefer to follow rules and let their opinions do the talking. That has never been Justice Alito’s way. For most of his 17 years on the court, he has appeared to relish playing the role of bare-knuckled partisan soldier, standing athwart history in loyal service to a vengeful, theocratic right-wing movement that elevates religious liberty for some over basic freedoms for all.

Wegman notes that one reason public trust in the court is in free fall is demonstrated by Justice Alito’s “smug, defensive reaction” to criticism.

The moral of this story is not that the highest court in the land should issue decisions consistent with public opinion. As legal scholars often note, the Bill of Rights is counter-majoritarian. The moral is that –in the absence of compelling evidence (a la Barnette)–Justices should respect precedent, and resist confusing their idiosyncratic, psuedo-religious commitments with constitutional principles.

Tune in tomorrow for the second lesson– the need for Supreme Court reforms.


Religion–Real And Performative

Last weekend, David French had a column in the New York Times that inadvertently highlighted the reason so many people these days reject religion.

French was focusing on the relationship between Tucker Carlson (recently departed from Fox “News”) and the Christian Right. His opening paragraphs are instructive.

On April 25, the far-right network Newsmax hosted a fascinating and revealing conversation about Tucker Carlson with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, one of America’s leading Christian conservative advocacy organizations. Perkins scorned Fox News’s decision to fire Carlson, and — incredibly — also attacked Fox’s decision to fire Bill O’Reilly. These terminations (along with the departures of Glenn Beck and Megyn Kelly) were deemed evidence that Fox was turning its back on its conservative viewers, including its Christian conservative viewers.

What was missing from the conversation? Any mention of the profound moral failings that cost O’Reilly his job, including at least six settlements — five for sexual harassment and one for verbal abuse — totaling approximately $45 million. Or any mention of Carlson’s own serious problems, including his serial dishonesty, his vile racism and his gross personal insult directed against a senior Fox executive. It’s a curious position for a Christian to take.

Similarly curious is the belief of other Christians, such as the popular evangelical “prophet” Lance Wallnau, that Carlson was a “casualty of war” with the left, and that his firing was a serious setback for Christian Republicans. To Wallnau, an author and a self-described “futurist,” Carlson was a “secular prophet,” somebody “used by God, more powerful than a lot of preachers.”

French quotes several other examples, including a statement from Rod Dreher, editor-at-large at The American Conservative, who said he hopes Tucker Carlson runs for president,” and–even more appalling–opined that a “Tucker-DeSantis ticket would be the Generation X Saves The World team.”

French points to the obvious conflict between the doctrinal principles of his faith and the behavior of the (misnamed) “Christian” Right.

After all, isn’t “love your enemies” a core Christian command? The fruit of the spirit (the markers of God’s presence in our lives) are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,” not Republicanism, conservatism and capitalism.

I read French’s column an hour or so after returning home from the talk I’d given to the Unitarian Universalists in Danville, Indiana, and I was struck by the contrast between that congregation and the pseudo Christians whose Taliban-like perversion of that religion French was documenting.

Let me just share a couple of sentiments from the Unitarians’ “Order of Service” handout.

A “Welcome message” read, in part,

Unitarian Universalists believe that religious faith is uniquely personal and evolves as we each engage in our inner search and our life journey. We seek for ourselves and our children attitudes of openness and tolerance, with religious convictions grounded in life and widely shared in action. We find our quest is enriched and empowered in community, a community that embraces and and welcomes all persons.

The service began with the following Affirmation.

We proudly carry the flame of religious freedom. We respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. We encourage each other to spiritual growth; that makes for peace, ethical living and community service. This is our covenant.

I never watched Tucker Carlson, but from everything I’ve heard about him, I’m pretty sure he’d choke on that Affirmation. The version of “belief” endorsed by the Carsons and Perkins of the Right is a conviction that their God hates the same people they hate, and that the superiority of their Whiteness and version of Christianity gives them the right to impose their prejudices on the rest of us.

I’ve previously shared my youngest son’s description of the difference between a good religion and a bad one: A good religion helps adherents cope with life’s challenges–helps them recognize and wrestle with the moral dilemmas that we all inevitably face. A bad religion prescribes immutable beliefs and behaviors.

In other words, a good religion helps with questions; a bad one dictates answers.

To that very accurate analysis I would add that a good religion provides members with a welcoming and supportive community–a non-digital social network.

Given the in-your-face performative piety of those insisting that they are the only true Christians and thus the only true Americans, it’s no wonder that religious affiliation has dramatically decreased. Nice people are repulsed by hypocrisy and mean-spiritedness–and many are unaware that more open and inclusive options exist.

French says that the right-wing’s pursuit of its version of justice has overwhelmed its commitment to kindness, much less any shred of humility–and that “this is how the religious right becomes post-Christian.”

They’re making a lot of other Americans “post-Christian” too.