Tag Archives: Puritans

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?


Religious Liberty, Contraception and Gay Rights

Amazing—and embarrassing—as it may seem, the American Taliban is once again waging battle against sex. This time, their target is contraception.

Their fig leaf is a definition of “religious liberty” that neither the nation’s Founders nor the courts would recognize—the same definition that they employ in their ongoing war against civil rights for gays and lesbians. Short form: giving rights to women and gays would violate their religious liberties.

A brief recap: When the Obama administration issued regulations for employer-provided health insurance, the regulations required that such coverage include birth control. Churches were exempt from the requirement (an exemption that is required by the First Amendment), but religiously-affiliated institutions like hospitals and universities were not. More than half of the states already had such a requirement, and those employers had been complying for years without any discernable fuss or claim that these rules somehow represented a “war on religion.”

Enter the forces for “religious liberty” aka the Catholic Bishops and the GOP. Their argument was that making religious employers pay for insurance that included birth control was a violation of their freedom of conscience. Under years of Supreme Court precedent, it wasn’t, but the Administration moved to accommodate their sensibilities by requiring the insurance companies to offer the coverage at no cost directly to women, removing the employer from the equation.

As I write this, the Bishops and the (ascendant) Santorum wing of the Republican Party are not mollified, despite the fact that Catholic nuns and a significant majority of American Catholics are fine with it. According to their arguments, simply making birth control available to employees of religiously affiliated employers is itself a violation of their religious liberties.

I know I harp on the public’s lack of civic and constitutional literacy, but this is another perfect example.

When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, they wanted the “liberty” to impose the correct religion on their neighbors. The idea that Church and State could be separated was unknown to the Puritans who first settled in the new country; the freedom they wanted was the freedom to “establish” the True Religion, and form a government that would require their neighbors to live in accordance with that religion.

A hundred and fifty years later, however, the men who crafted the Constitution for the new nation were products of a dramatically different worldview. The philosophical movement we call the Enlightenment had given birth to science, privileged reason over superstition, and reconsidered the proper role of government. Liberty—religious or otherwise—had come to mean the right of individuals to live their lives in accordance with their own consciences, free of the coercion of the state and free of what the founders called “the passions of the majority.”

Our Constitution may have been a product of the Enlightenment, but we still have a significant number of Puritans in America, and what we sometimes call the “culture wars” are yet another conflict between those two very different visions of liberty.

The Rick Santorums of the world aren’t just against equal rights for gays and lesbians, they aren’t just anti-abortion and anti-birth control (Santorum himself has gone on record saying that birth control should not be available because it allows people to engage in “wrong” sexual behavior). They are deeply Puritan: anti-science, anti-reason, anti-diversity. That they are absolutely convinced of their own possession of the Truth is less disconcerting than their even stronger conviction that “liberty” means they should have the right to make everyone else live by their Truth.

These are the same irony-challenged theocrats who are running around proposing legislation to prevent imposition of “Sharia law.”

I’d guess they don’t have mirrors. Or a capacity for self-reflection.

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.

Political Fundamentalism

I had lunch today with a delightful young woman who, among other things, is active with the League of Women Voters. During our discussion, she remarked (rather plaintively) that she found it difficult to understand why the League was so often viewed as a “liberal” organization. “We don’t take positions until we have studied them carefully,” she said. “We gather evidence for two years, and assess it carefully, and base our position on that evidence.”

There you go! Basing positions on evidence is what is now considered liberal.

The conversation reminded me of an explanation from my book God and Country: America in Red and Blue. I was looking at the paradigm shift caused by the Enlightenment, and the profound effect that shift had on our Constitution.

When Francis Bacon insisted that laws governing the material world could be inferred through careful observation (a notion that, for contemporary Americans, is an unremarkable commonplace), it had enormous implications for the existing, traditional, deductive methods of understanding reality. The “old learning,” had begun with an a priori “given,” the bible, the absolute truth of which was unquestioned. The primary goal of Puritan education was thus directed at biblical understanding; one began with the text and learned—deduced—how to interpret it. Proper interpretation required the application of time-tested methods of exegesis and analysis, and instruction in historical context and meaning (mostly, what important theologians of the past had decreed to be correct understandings and approaches). One started with Truth, and education was the process of learning to apprehend and defend that Truth. Bacon changed the fundamental order of things by teaching that education must begin with observation of natural phenomena.

We are a country that was founded on a radical notion: evidence matters. Today, however, those of us for whom evidence still matters are dismissed as “liberals” by the political equivalents of the Puritans. Like those Puritans, our ideologues (of every stripe) begin with their “truth,” and look for evidence to support it and ways to impose it.

No wonder we find it so hard to communicate.