A Battle Between Worldviews

Several sources have now reported on a speech that MAGA House speaker, Mike Johnson, recently gave at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., at an event for the National Association of Christian Lawmakers. Although the address was being livestreamed, Johnson seemingly believed he was speaking privately when he told the audience that “the Lord had called him to be a new Moses.”

The Lord! (Can we say “self-important”?)

Johnson then said something with which I do agree. He told the audience that the U.S. is “engaged in a battle between world-views” and “a great struggle for the future of the Republic.”

Johnson clearly believes that far-right Christians will prevail–a belief that the history of culture change fortunately doesn’t support, and that I don’t share. The conflict between world-views that Johnson referenced is not new. It formed the organizing thesis of my 2007 book, God and Country: America in Red and Blue. (Still available at Amazon…)

When I was researching that book, I came across a legal historian’s very useful description of the two different groups that created the United States–the  “Planting Fathers” and the “Founding Fathers.” The Planters were the Puritans. They came to the New World for “religious liberty,” which they defined as freedom to worship the right God in the right church and to establish a government that would require their neighbors to do likewise. One hundred and fifty years later, those we call the Founders–the men who drafted the Constitution and Bill of Rights– defined liberty very differently. For them, liberty was the right to form and follow one’s own beliefs, free of government interference.

What had intervened between the two sets of founders– what had caused a significant  change in Americans’ then-predominant world-views– was the Enlightenment. And therein lies the problem we still face today, because this country is still home to a significant number of Puritans.

Our Puritans are a minority, but they are a fervent and activist minority. America’s legal framework is based on the Enlightenment understanding of liberty and the proper role of government,  but America is still grappling with the intransigence of the Puritans who reject that understanding– along with the Enlightenment’s emphasis on science, evidence and empiricism. The Speaker of the House is rather clearly one of them.

America’s increasingly acrimonious culture war is being waged between our contemporary Puritans, on the one hand, and the rest of us– secularists and adherents of  non-fundamentalist religions– on the other. In the abstract, it raises some important and too often neglected questions: what good is religion? do modern societies still need it? what separates “good” religions from harmful ones? what’s the difference between a religion and a cult? between religion and philosophy?

The problem is, we don’t have the luxury of considering and debating those questions in the abstract.

We really are engaged in a battle between totally inconsistent intellectual paradigms. America’s two political parties have sorted themselves into tribes with contending and incommensurate world-views. Today’s GOP has for all intents and purposes become a cult,  fixated upon imposing fundamentalist religious precepts (and its disdain for nonWhites and nonChristians) on the rest of the country, and discarding inconvenient impediments like Separation of Church and State. The Democratic Party is far less cohesive, but despite deep disagreements on a wide array of issues, virtually all Democrats have accepted secular modernity and rejected Puritanism and theocracy.

Talk about “alternative realities”! 

Of course, not every Republican is a Puritan. But every single vote cast for a Republican candidate is a vote for a Puritan world-view that has been publicly and fervently embraced by Republicans like Michael Johnson and Jim Banks.

It really is not an overstatement to say that the 2024 election will be pivotable. That election will tell us whether Johnson is right in believing that, at least in the short term, Puritans will prevail–or whether my faith in the essential common sense and good-will of the American public will be vindicated. 

The assertion that we are engaged in a battle of world-views may be the only thing on which Johnson and I agree.


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.