The Puritan punching-bag

In the never-ending discussion about Puritanism and its supposed effects which continue to this day in our American society, at the OD blog, Hunter Wallace quotes Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, from her book American Nietzsche: an Icon and His Ideas.

“While today it is commonplace to bewail the puritanical prudery and provincialism of American culture, the Puritans didn’t always have such a bad reputation. Only when early twentieth-century critics like Goldman, Mencken and [Randolph] Bourne started to excavate the past for the historical conditions conspiring against the free intellect did the modern conception of the Puritan develop. The radicals collapsed Nietzsche’s analysis of Christian asceticism and sentimentalism into a critique of the lingering effects of Puritan psychology and piety. While the philistines treated ideas as if they were merely decorative, the Puritan viewed them as disciplinary. In their efforts to find a usable past to critique what they regarded as a culture of rigid moralizing, the radicals discovered the wrathful “Puritan” who policed free thought, hounded liberated spirits, and damaged the free play of personality. …

Once the impressionistic archetype of the austere, self-righteous premodern Puritan began to take shape, it was relatively easy to survey American society – from the vice campaigns of the Progressive Era through the wartime hysteria to the postwar return to “normalcy” – and discover modern Puritans incapable of free thought and eager to police those who weren’t.”

It’s little wonder that the Puritan has such an unfavorable reputation in America these days, given that the people who have given so much attention to fashioning the image of the Puritan through their own lenses of resentment and contempt: H.L. Mencken, with his profoundly anti-Christian ax to grind, for example. His own popularity amongst young males who see in him a symbol of rebellion against ‘repression’ says something about our society, which has become mostly libertine, anti-Christian, libertarian, focused on the individual — of course the Puritans will be seen as the enemy.

Randolph Bourne, however, though he was part of this circle of ”intellectuals” who were very anti-Puritan and anti-Christian, was willing to look at Puritans through a slightly different lens, and considered that the conflict with Puritan principles of ‘repression’ or tyranny was a conflict within the Self. Here we enter into the speculative nature of psychology, which purports to have all the answers when it comes to human behavior.

Most of the negative things I have read about Puritans amount to juvenile whinings about ‘repression’, which seems to be the standard Freudian reading of human nature: all our problems are due to sexual repression and the lack of opportunity to be a ‘free spirit’ who makes up his or her own rules, complete autonomy supposedly being a good thing. These are all adolescent preoccupations. They are not the hallmark of a mature adult.

But then what do I know? I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist; only experts understand human behavior, right? I have a friend who is degreed in psychology and who counsels people. She informs me that Freud is passe, he’s old hat and nobody takes Freudian ideas seriously. But those ideas do live on, because, in Christian terms, they appeal strongly to the ‘flesh’, and we are all susceptible to that pull.

Almost everybody believes in the validity of psychology despite the obvious fact that it hasn’t improved our society in any visible way, in fact it has produced more people who love to be victims and who accept anything found in a pop psychology book.

And let’s face it: psychology is a rival belief system, counter to Christianity. Our Puritan ancestors believed the Biblical teachings, and today’s people, “wise in their own estimation” scoff at those Puritans for believing in Calvinism. Calvinism is little understood and is one of those belief systems that is highly unpopular now; the ‘scholarly’ sources written about Puritanism sneer at the idea of predestination — though it is explicitly in the Bible, in more than one place. People tend to cherry-pick, and grasp onto those things which please them. Our Puritan forefathers chose a serious, austere form of Christianity not because they were all naturally prone to those habits — but because they wanted to be true to the Bible. Nowadays that’s neither popular nor ‘cool.’

The Puritans were the ancestors of only some of us; the latecomers to this country had no act nor part in Puritanism. I suppose naturally it feels alien to them. Fine; they have their right to worship in a way that they ‘enjoy’ more if that’s how they see it.

What with recent events we ought to wonder if any form of Christian worship will be allowed in public. History may repeat. Our ancestors proved that they were stoic and strong and that their faith could tide them over. If we are true to our forefathers maybe we will have an advantage in situations where religious freedom is curtailed. Our ancestors will be our inspiration, then, I hope.

I suppose those who find some outlet in vilifying Puritans will continue to use our ancestors as their punching-bag. Can’t they find some real threat to be incensed about in this world? One would think there is no lack of targets for animus or suspicion.
The mature people will turn their attention to something more urgent than fighting against people who are gone to the grave centuries ago. And Puritans are no threat to anybody, insofar as any Puritanical people still survive in this sex-and-corruption-obsessed world.

I’m reminded of a quote from C.S. Lewis, who was a Christian but not a Puritan:

“We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.

Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of mere ‘understanding.’ Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism.”

The Screwtape Letters

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