Puritanism and the American Project

The Puritans have received a lot of praise for being among the first and most successful American colonists, as well as for imparting a unique individualism and work ethic onto the American political landscape.

It’s been my view for a long time, however, that while individual Puritans may or may not deserve praise, Puritanism itself does not. In fact, I think quite the opposite is the case: that the noose gradually tightening for years around the neck of our political and civic discourse has been nothing other than a resurgence of Puritanism in American culture.

I should probably define my terms. I use “Puritanism” to refer to intrinsically antiseptic, at times anaphylactic reaction to life, experience, and its possibilities. Like any good Calvinist, the Puritan divides up reality between an all-good God and an all-terrible human and physical nature, and looks at life as a series of unending chores to be responsibly, humorlessly, and stoically performed.

To quote Nietzsche, Puritanism is life-denying, rather than life-affirming.

Now it’s not bad to be a Puritan when you’ve got actual chores to do, work to get done that’s not intrinsically pleasurable or otherwise gratifying, or a whole lot of sensuous temptations at your doorstep. As with anything else, we can overdose on life and its possibilities, and it’s good to take a breather from it every once in a while, if for no other reason than to organize ourselves and/or get our bearings.

It’s when that breather becomes crystallized into a moral stance that the trouble starts. Austerity, a necessity under conditions of economic hardship, gets easily generalized for some into a global virtue. Regardless of the state of the (or our) economy, we find ourselves as conservative with respect to our bodies and each other as we are with our dollars.

Conservatism is the key phrase for the Puritan, as in “be careful.” Too much food will make you fat. Too much sex will make you unfit to stand before God.

Too much compassion for others will make you weak, effeminate, drain your resources, or needlessly protect others from the liberating (and God-ordained) consequences of their own behavior.

Too much imagination will compromise your grip on reality. Too much wishing will do the same, but faster. Too much passion will dull your mind, and bring you that much closer to the animals we’re all so superior too (we have to eat them, after all).

And if you derive any pleasure at all from the exercise of the intellect…well, then…you know what to do. For Puritans, Anti-intellectualism can be as much a sacred calling, after all, as purging the art and other extravagance from your home.

In short, too much life will make you dizzy, so the message is: be careful when dipping into the sauce, literal or otherwise.

At the heart of the Puritan response to life is the cold, lonely individualism of Calvinism. In Calvin’s world, we are all fundamentally alone and cut off from one another, so we cannot depend on anyone but God for help when things get tough (it goes without saying that, others, being human and sinful, cannot possibly be coextensive with God).

It is thus that resting your head on the shoulder of another — whatever the reason or purpose — is forbidden. And there goes the social contract, replaced instead by the contract on all of us taken out by a petty, vindictive, and all-powerful celestial being who’s already picked those he’s going to save, and is just not telling us.

You know, like any good loving father would.

What Puritans are telling us is that they’re cold, they’re frightened, and that whatever love they have left feels like the precious bodily fluids of the general in Dr. Strangelove: something that could be stolen by others on a moment’s notice.

Love is a zero-sum game for Puritans: the more you withhold, the more you have. When you share it, it disappears; when you hoard it, it appreciates in value.

As with cash, a dollar spent is a dollar lost. Returns on investments of love or compassion are almost unheard of for the Puritan; in fact, the very notion of a stock market is like gambling. And we know how we feel about that.

In politics, the individualism at the core of Puritanism takes on a perverse twist. It’s not just when times are tough, economically or socially, that we have to fend for ourselves. It’s always.

That’s why helping one another out with things like universal access to health care would corrupt them: you’re giving someone a fish instead of teaching them how to fish for themselves.

And there lurks another hidden fear of the Puritan: depending on others. God help you, the Puritan shouts from the rooftops, if you’re ever forced to rely on anyone for anything. Not only is this unnatural, they claim, but unholy: one should only rely on oneself and God.

For the Puritan, depending on others is like giving another sinner the keys to your house. Do you really trust that stranger? Of course not! Then see to it you never need them for anything. Ever.

Puritanism is, by that score, also deeply apolitical. If politics — at least at the professional level — is about cultivating relationships of mutual reward and dependence, then the Puritan can have nothing of it.

Unless, of course, she’s in charge of the whole colony.

In addition, helping the poor, unfortunate, and afflicted on anything but an individual-to-individual basis only interferes with God’s plan to condemn the unholy. And we know, from Calvin, that God’s held that lottery already.

This is the crowning achievement of someone like Ayn Rand: the ability to combine the uniquely Puritanical mixture of selfishness, individualism, condescension, mean-spiritedness, and authoritarianism into a single “philosophy” and market the entire package as a virtue.

So what’s the answer? I don’t know. Part of me thinks you can unfreeze a Puritan by giving them the kind of love and compassion they’re so unwilling to bestow on others, but experience teaches me this can be very, very draining. Poor souls are so starved they either lick it right up or toss those cookies right back at you.

I think, rather, the Puritan spirit needs to be deconstructed, analyzed, and understood. Only then can we recognize its workings in each and every one of us; we are, after all, our own best bomb squads.

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