Our Puritan Heritage

AMERICA GOT its original conception of God from those English Puritans who in 1630 deliberately left the Old World to establish an ecclesiastical polity in the wilderness of North America. By the standards of their day, the Puritans were robustly secular (which did not prevent them from taking their religious faith seriously). “Tether a dog at night,” the Puritans said, “and by morning he’ll know the length of his chain.” The lesson applied to men as much as to canines, and its meaning was: unbounded power was a danger for individuals bound together in a society. Boundlessness belong to God, not to humans.

THE PURITANS’ CALVINIST GOD was omnipotent, omniscient, unpredictable, even capricious; man served at God’s pleasure, not the other way around. Not surprisingly, the Puritans of the Bay Colony identified their God—not always consciously or literally—with Nature, the wilderness, which might at any moment erupt in hurricane and shipwreck, flood and drought, smallpox and influenza, witches and Indian attack. They believed in election for a select few whom God would favor, in reprobation for many or most, and in predestination: an all-knowing God who lives in eternity would of course know in advance what no Puritan trapped in time could say: how things would turn out for each person.

BUT THE PURITANS also got something right. Because they believed themselves bound in a covenant to their God, they were able to balance their Protestant individualism and the collective responsibility of all to their community. If God ordained suffering, He also bestowed joy; if drought, then bountiful harvests too. If the Puritans, as the people of God, lived righteous lives according to His commands—if they did not let themselves get distracted by making money, pursue carnal pleasures, lie and cheat, if they did not get into the habit of worshiping “false gods”—He would reward them. If they failed to live up to their creed, God’s wrath would punish them with hurricanes and shipwrecks, epidemics to wipe out their children, rapacious Indian raids, let England take back their charter, or make them forswear their Puritan faith and become Anglicans, Anabaptists, Arminians, or Quakers. And it worked—for awhile. The Puritans did not believe in democracy at all; they did believe in education of a sort, but not what you’d call progressive. And the tenets of their faith provided the Puritan society with a cohesion and solidarity that seems lost to us today, except for rare moments—a 9/11, an AIDS epidemic, or  a Predsident’s assassination—when Americans rediscover their solidarity . . . in suffering.

THE ORIGINAL PURITAN SOCIETY was dead by 1700, and the poor were numerous.

ALL OF WHICH is to say that New England had unwittingly, perhaps unconsciously, inaugurated the process of transmuting Calvinist tenets into strictly economic and instrumental terms. God’s arbitrary grace becomes instead a matter of competition, the wealthy the “elect” to whom God has granted grace and salvation in the form of worldly (not spiritual) success, the poor become the “reprobates’ forever doomed to perdition, expanding free will (the Arminian heresy) in place of man’s submission to God’s Supreme Will pervading the universe. God now  is cast in the role of servant wanting to help man prepare for salvation, to assist in humankind’s redemption. And predestination is reduced to the foreordained operation of a principle of economic survival, a “survival of the economically fit,” driven by the marketplace of “unmet needs” (that are really only manufactured “wants”) and money, an ideology ultimately known as “social Darwinism.”

THE PURITANS, writes Perry Miller, “would have expected laissez faire to result in a reign of rapine and horror.”

WHICH BEST DESCRIBES our current world: economy as freedom or rapine and horror?

HAS THE UNITED STATES OF AMNESIA become the Vanity Fair of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress? (Think not? Just you wait until they extradite Julian Assange, Lord Hategood assumes his Judge’s Robes, and they start warming up the stakes for a little AUTO DA FÉ for Assange and Chelsea Manning.)

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