Just over twenty years ago I spent weeks reading and then re-reading Christopher Lasch's masterpiece, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics. No other book that I have read has had such a powerful influence on the way that I view religion, politics and contemporary culture. Among the many things that surprised me in my encounter with Lasch's work was the way that I responded to his explication of and praise for Puritan theology. As a Twentieth Century American steeped in a culture that mocked Puritanism as, well... puritanical (up-tight, hypocritical, judgemental, violent,dogmatic etc.) I could not believe that I found myself admiring - and at times envying - Puritan culture. There were many eye-opening moments in my encounter with Lasch, but this was certainly the most shocking.
This morning, I read this piece by Jim Sleeper titled, Our Puritan Heritage, on the Democracy -A Journal of Ideas website. Its a long read, but I strongly recommend that you take the time to explore it.
Ever since Mencken, the Puritans have had a terrible reputation. They deserve a better legacy, and it’s time we rediscovered it.
When the Iron Curtain collapsed 25 years ago, leaving what seemed a world without walls, many Very Serious People heralded neoliberal capitalist democracy’s triumph on earth. “One thing the Cold War did accomplish,” wrote the Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis, “was to vindicate democracy and capitalism.” Thomas Friedman gazed at multinational corporate logos on buildings and baseball caps in Bangalore and announced that The World Is Flat, reflecting a belief that cosmopolitanism and liberal democracy would inevitably follow open markets. The Harvard economists Jeffrey Sachs and Andrei Shleifer coached Russia’s fitful movements in that direction. The European Union contemplated admitting 60 million Turks, pending economic and political reforms. If this newly flat world had a summit, it was Davos, and when September 11 revealed that it also had an abyss or two, an American President from an old, Puritan lineage led a “coalition of the willing” on a mission to carry democracy and capitalism to millions presumed eager to embrace it in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But even as many societies embraced variants of a neoliberal economy, their ruling elites had to reconcile its benefits with its social disruptions, which often aroused not liberal-democratic enthusiasms but religious and tribal resentments—Jihad vs. McWorld, as the title of Benjamin Barber’s 1995 book put it. Rulers eager to escape that conflict have tried to revive national religious and mythic traditions to sanctify modernization and reconcile it with their own power. India’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has displaced the Congress Party, the long-dominant carrier of the vaguely social-democratic legacies of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. China’s Xi Jinping is reinforcing an oxymoronic communist state capitalism with appeals to ancient Confucian understandings of the state as an organic, familial structure, with himself at its head. Vladimir Putin is stoking Russian-Orthodox and Slavic resentments against what he casts as a decadent but imperious Western liberalism. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is brandishing trappings of Ottoman imperial glory and sending a frisson or two of that glory from the gates of Vienna (besieged by the Ottomans in 1683) to Brussels today. In Iraq, where only 12 years ago young Republicans were reconstituting the Iraq Stock Exchange, and in Afghanistan, tribalism and fanaticism have buried liberal democracy.
Neoliberalism’s quarter-century seems to be stagnating even in America, amid deepening inequalities, school and police shootings, mass incarceration, tech-driven tsunamis of empty information, dangerous climate change, chillingly intrusive surveillance, degrading marketing, and our own tribal and sectarian reactions. The reason is that even if open markets brought liberal democracy, omnivorous, distorted markets are capturing and corrupting it, turning the United States into an un-developing country, ruining its democratic habits and institutions and, with them, Americans’ well-being and morale. That in turn has prompted panicky, shortsighted reactions from Tea Partiers and some religious activists, not to mention from “lone rangers” of all sorts—rogue cops, school shooters, “militia” warriors in the hills.
Can those of us who have felt helpless before such reactions do better? I want to show here that as other societies around the world are tapping their ancient wellsprings for antidotes to neoliberalism’s supposedly flat world, we Americans can learn a lot about ourselves and our society by revisiting—but not by reverting to—our republic’s distinctive Puritan origins, which anticipated our present dilemmas and strengths far more acutely than we acknowledge. Unlike Russian Orthodoxy, Confucianism, or the Ottoman Caliphate, Puritan premises and practices gestated and channeled some of the liberal-capitalist premises, practices, and paradoxes that are now embraced and reviled the world over. I want to sketch what those were and how they shaped much of the American republic and, arguably, sustained it through the New Deal and through the civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, and Watergate confrontations. Puritan conceits and hypocrisies certainly seeded some of these messes, but Puritan principles and virtues clarified and rescued the republic from the very worst of them, as they had done in the Civil War.