Dick Sciaroni: The new Puritanism
Ever since they arrived in New England hellbent on establishing God’s reign on Earth, there have been many definitions of the Puritans and Puritanism. While some are serious attempts at understanding the Puritan mindset, others, although on the surface less serious, nonetheless accurately describe that very American view of the world, a world based on fear. One definition, both illuminating and humorous, posits that Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.
Most Americans believe the Puritans disappeared long ago, and to some extent, they did. We rarely see people in drab dark clothing and funny hats. Few advocate for the state to punish religious dissenters. We no longer follow Puritan notions of child-raising: “there is in all children, . . . a stubbornness, and stoutness of mind arising from natural pride, which must, in the first place, be broken and beaten down.” And slavery is now outlawed. Yes, Puritans owned slaves.
But America still suffers from a new Puritanism, one seen most clearly in our national penchant for an insidious mixture of fear and intolerance. Not the usual intolerance and fear based on race, ethnicity, religion or gender that plague us in the 21st century. This new Puritanism is more subtle, and it permeates society. In simple terms, it is a fear and intolerance for anything other than what one wants to believe. It is neither Republican nor Democrat, right nor left, gay nor straight, white nor Black nor any of the other labels we use to pigeonhole people. We see it most clearly in politics and in those we choose for our leaders.
Like its predecessor, the new Puritanism begins with the notion that belief triumphs over reality. Whatever the topic, humans by and large rely on beliefs. But this reliance comes at a cost. When difficult issues like gun control, inequality (social, economic or gender-based) or reproductive rights are in question, we too often fall back on beliefs rather than undertake an honest and full-throated examination of the issue at hand. We become new Puritans, adhering to our beliefs because the very thought of the change is too dreadful to contemplate. We refuse to consider that someone else may have a better grasp of the issue because to do so means that we would be wrong.
Yet the new Puritanism is not really new at all. It is nothing more than humans acting as they have always acted since we crawled out of the seas and spread across the planet. And the reason is simple enough. Every human being needs family, food, shelter, security, and friendship to survive and thrive. The more we have, we tell ourselves, the better off we are. Unfortunately, those simple enough needs that should guarantee a modicum of happiness and security no longer seem to satisfy. We now see the key to happiness not in getting what we need but in getting what we want.
The dichotomy between what we need and what we want is the linchpin of present-day politics. Too often the candidate who says what we want to hear, rather than what we need to hear, gets our vote. All that seems to matter nowadays is that our candidate claims to believe what we want to believe. If enough people vote for our candidate, we will be on the winning side and our fears, however irrational, will disappear . . . if only until the next election.
This is where the new Puritanism comes into play. Just as the original Puritans were haunted by a dread that someone might be happy, the new Puritans seem haunted by a fear that their side might be wrong. They look for candidates who tell them what they want to hear, even if it is grounded in fear and intolerance. The new Puritans feel compelled to vote not for whomever would best solve the country’s problems, but for whomever will calm their fears. What goes ignored is that politicians, too busy campaigning for votes, will do little to lessen schoolyard or workplace violence or promote social and economic equality. Their goal is getting elected; and they will say whatever they hope will get our votes. We need only look to our former president for an exemplar of the new Puritanism: the thought of losing an election so haunted him that he tried to turn the Constitution on its head and steal an election he and his advisors and followers know he lost.
Dick Sciaroni lives in Grass Valley
Novelist Quentin Reynolds was a combat correspondent in North Africa during World War II. My grandfather, Barry Faris, was editor-in-chief of William Randall Hearst’s International News Service.
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