Saturday, October 9, 2010

WE REMAIN PASSENGERS ON THE MAYFLOWER

America is the world’s only country which defines private commercial enterprises as corporations with the same rights as those of individuals. It is the world’s only country which defines money as a form of speech and gives it full legal protection. It is thus the world’s only country with a government comingling plutocracy and democracy as a matter of law.

This formulation may come as a surprise to many, especially when it is stated so bluntly. But it does so only because almost all of us have forgotten those who had a decisive influence in shaping and guiding this country’s attitudes and values: the Puritans.

It is probably fair to say that very few Americans have read any Puritan writers. The Federal Period, then the Romantic Period, put them behind us. Or so we thought, though we once permitted traces of the Colonial Period into the curriculum. American history included the "Mayflower Compact" and John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity,” testaments to the mix of religion and politics inescapable in seventeenth-century Massachusetts. American literature began with some writings by Anne Bradstreet, Jonathan Edward, and Cotton Mather. But for the most part, we acquired any sense of Puritanism from reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s dark romantic novel The Scarlet Letter.

Many otherwise enlightened educators regard it as sufficient exposure to Puritanism. It teaches us to think of Puritans as the strictest moralists primarily focused on sexual morals. Adultery then rated pretty high on the list of sins—remember: a commandment forbids it. Today, it ranks as a common pastime often embarrassing, but otherwise unencumbered by any sense of sin—which may explain why many liberated from a sense of that particular sin are Christian preachers. These educators are wrong: Puritans were much more than rigorously moral, though Reverend Dimmesdale’s guilt because of his moral slackness and hypocrisy makes for a good story.

They omit the knowledge that Puritans were intensely religious, in two ways: outward and inward. In the outward way because of their desire to purify the Anglican Church of rituals and regalia which they associated with the Catholic Church; in the inward way because of their intense, almost obsessive, piety. Puritans were the fundamentalist Protestants of their day.

The most important part of Puritan piety is the nagging, quotidian struggle between a belief that faith alone justifies and the fear of that even the strongest faith cannot ensure salvation. As Milton, himself a Puritan, put it, “God doth not need / Either man’s works or his own gifts.” We do not understand such concerns or comprehend their intensity today any more than we can appreciate evil—it is all deprivation, not depravity, right?—but, for Puritans, the conflict between belief and fear created almost unendurable stress. Relief came in a strange form: the assumption that material success, the accumulation of wealth, was an earthly sign of one’s personal salvation by God’s grace.

As we have dispensed with mortal sin, so we have dispensed with a concern with God or his Grace. Instead, we preach the salvation of those who make themselves wealthy by their unaided efforts. In urban megachurches, ministers preach the comforting doctrine, perverse by Gospel standards, that Jesus wants us to be rich, happy—and good bowlers. In metropolitan office suites, they preach stock options, credit default swaps, and golden parachutes. Only in tin-roofed, clapboard-sided churches, do they preach damnation, especially for Muslims, homosexuals, and illegal immigrants. The bond between many Southern Baptists and most Wall Street moguls is the belief that wealth alone justifies, demonstrates the possessor’s moral and social superiority, and permits contempt of, and separation from, all others as pre-destined failures who, like suckers, are born every day. For them both, the economic but godless equivalent of Puritanism and related to it is capitalism, with winners, the wealthy, and losers, the rest of us.

American politics divides between Republicans, presumed religious, and Democrats, presumed secular. Perhaps. But, unquestionably, the Republican Party comprises the neo-Puritans of our times. It is a muddled mix of the Salem Witch Trialism in its hunt for perversion even more than sin and Robber Baronism in its adoration of amassed wealth by the elite—or, in the lingo of the earlier time, the elect, the saved. The moralists, like the poor, we shall always have with us; the materialists—who knows? The struggle to answer this question is central to American political discourse.

The Puritans on the Mayflower had a royal grant to settle in Virginia but decided to go north to settle in Massachusetts. In response, the non-Puritans passengers and crew—the “strangers” on board—decided that they were no longer bound by Puritan decisions since the Puritans had chosen to violate their obligation to the English crown and obedience to the king’s law. And so it is today: Puritans committed to a churchly “city upon a hill” and others determined to live free in a civil society.

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