It might be shocking, indeed scandalous, to assert that the heirs of America’s Pilgrim and Puritan founders are not Christian conservatives but American progressives. Sure, the theology of progressives has evolved dramatically from the restless orthodox Calvinism of the Pilgrims and Puritans, but the underlying groundwork of creating a morally just, liberty-loving, and universal community committed to righteousness and equality has remained the same. In fact, the left-right divide in America is the schizophrenic vision of America rooted in her very foundation: one puritanical and moralist, the other cavalier and individualist.
At face value, it seems logical to view the contemporary religious right—in its fundamentalist brand of Christianity—to be the natural heirs of the Puritan tradition. The prudish Puritans are the same as the prudish and socially conservative fundamentalists who continually push back against social reformism and progress. This, however, is a terrible misreading of the Puritans through the lens of presentism—a guilty sin that anyone trained in history knows to avoid, the application of contemporary sensibilities to older periods without giving consent to the historicism of the movements of an earlier history.
The claims too, that the conservative theology of the Moral Majority as being analogous to the conservative theology of the Puritans is the guilt of presentism. In the 17th century, Puritan theology was deeply radical, iconoclastic, and utopian. (It is still true that it was deeply conservative on moral issues, but this same-old story negates the utopian restlessness of Puritan theology and the ramifications thereof.) This infused theology is what inspired their pilgrimage to the New World, and their relentless effort at building a community of righteousness and justice. The essence of Puritan religion was the reformation of human character. No community of justice and equality could be achieved without reforming moral character.
To understand the Puritan legacy, one must necessarily wrestle with what Martin Heidegger calls our Dasein (or being-in-the-world). Existence itself is a burdensome experience. Our presence in the world something that cannot be shrugged off, ignored, or tucked away into a corner. Our being-in-the-world demands thought and action, and always a combination of both.
Religion has often been one of the dispositions for grappling with our Dasein. But outside of the common trope of being a temporary pilgrim waiting for rapture, the Puritan disposition of being-in-the–world was much more secular, and temporal then let on. It is this temporal righteousness—the Puritan desire for a just community in the world (saeculum), infused with the universalism that God’s existence can be found in Nature itself—that established the progressive disposition in the United States. Progressives ought to reclaim, or more willingly accept and acknowledge, that their tradition is the tradition of America’s Pilgrim and Puritan founders rather than let the twisted revisionism of the right castigate progressivism as something foreign and parasitic.
Indeed, the very desire for a community of justice and righteousness flows straight out of Puritan theology—itself deeply influenced by the social justice emphasis of Prophetic Judaism, albeit anchored by the stern God of Isaiah and Ezekiel moreover than the passive sacrificial lamb of Jesus of Nazareth. This is what gives the Puritans their conservative connotations, even though their own theology was heavily influenced by Enlightenment scientific understanding—especially that of Newton. Two of the greatest Puritan thinkers, who also rank highly in the pantheon of American intellectuals some 300 years later: Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards were as much philosophers of science as they were theologians, having read Newtonian physics and interwoven Enlightenment science into Reformed theology.
The Puritans are not without their own paradoxes and seeming contradictions. Being of the Reformed Calvinist tradition, they were deterministic in outlook rather than freewill, yet embarked across the Atlantic on their own accord, yet the deterministic outlook fit well with Baconian and Newtonian science and Puritan theologians often rested on citing the New Science for their theological determinism. They held to a low view of human nature, one marred in sin and immorality, but believed that a society of perfection and upright morality could be built and maintained. They were deeply suspicious of outsiders, but also enthusiastically embraced the traditions and ideas of Jews, Enlightenment thinkers, and even Muslims. (Cotton Mather took inspiration from the writings of the 12th century Sunni philosopher and writer Ibn Tufail.)
The Puritans were also the most ardent proponents of progress. Human progress, liberty, and social justice could be—must be—achieved. In fact, it is the great paradox of the story of progress and liberation. If humans were already good and moral—without sin and wrongdoing—then there would be nothing to strive for. No justice necessary to be dispensed. No righteous cause for social justice. No confrontation with the forces of authoritarianism and persecution. Our continual struggle for social liberation, the establishment of a just community, all seems to validate the Puritan disposition. We are frail, moral sinners guilty of the worst possible grievances—yet, in our frailty we struggle for righteousness, justice, and the establishment of liberty and equality. Our movement away from immoral frailty and social grievances towards a community of justice is progress.
Progressivism’s modern call for a universal community of moral righteousness and equality is but the unconscious theologizing of the Puritan theology of confrontational progress. It is deeply Rousseauian, the yearning for the restoration of God’s original creation—or for a more secular audience, the primitive state of nature of equality and liberty before the advent of social institutions that buttress inequality in society. (The Puritans were the most successful movement in Christianity to preach progress as restoration, something that later became common to Rousseau and the Jacobin tradition, that a return to purity over some straw-man force of corruption was the essence of the unfolding of History.)
One should not forget the Rousseau himself, although not particularly religious late in his life, was significantly influenced by the Calvinism of Switzerland; in many ways, he was the secular heir to the Reformed tradition—secularizing the ontological principles of Calvinism without the metaphysics. In fact, this relationship between Reformed Calvinism as the origo of progressivism is well attested to in philosophical and sociological scholarship.
For the Puritans, our Dasein is one of perpetual struggle. It is a struggle against the forces of institutional oppression: the absolutist monarchies, Catholic Church, and state churches of their era. It is a struggle against immoral society, because of original sin and the immorality contingently produced. It is a struggle to build a community of righteousness and justice, and since the Puritans viewed themselves as the New Israelites their story mirrored the story of the Old Testament Jews (Cotton Mather explicitly linked the Israel of God with the New Israel of New England). Like the Jews who set out to build a community of justice—or as Michael Walzer calls it in In God’s Shadow, an “almost-democracy”—the Puritans were a migratory people oppressed by kings and superstitions who sought to establish a community of justice free from persecution and oppression. Their journey to a “promised land” was to inspire the entire world, a “light to nations” for all to see.
This perpetual struggle against the forces of sin and darkness, oppression and bigotry in more secular terms, is what truly inspired the concept of American Exceptionalism. America was not exceptional because of its culture, its deeds, or even its ideals. As Pulitzer Prize winning historian Walter McDougall has noted, “American Exceptionalism as our founders conceived it was defined by what America was, at home.”
Although progressives are generally shy to use a term that has been co-opted by the extreme right, American Exceptionalism flows through the veins of progressives who seek to establish a just America at home—even if progressives do not speak in that terminology for fears of appearing too insular and muscular. But that is the original exceptionalism. It is the “shining city” that Winthrop spoke of. America was not meant to be a crusader state toppling dictators or governments with whom it had quarrels with. Through Puritan ingenuity and determination, America was to become a beacon shining bright for the world to emulate and emigrate to. The progressives who defend America’s open immigration laws and fight for a more just society at home have much more in common with Winthrop and the migratory pilgrims of our past than the cheap, ad hoc, lip service to vague notions of exceptionalism and greatness which miss the very essence of that ideal often offered by the right.
For the Puritans, much like contemporary progressives, the state was not an enemy of liberty. The state ensured liberty. But more importantly, the state was society’s moral agent. If individuals would not conform to the moral righteousness of the collective covenant agreed upon, the state would ensure it.
Standing in contrast to the Puritan call for a community of justice and righteousness was the other half of the American founding story. The Pilgrims left the Old World to escape persecution, oppression, and to build that just community shining upon a hill free of those ills. But the English Crown, for economic and political purposes, chartered colonization efforts in North America too.
Virginia was originally established for economic reasons. Its colonists, through the depravations of starvation and a foreign world, came to embody a cavalier and individualist attitude—in part, because many of the Cavaliers and their supporters who lost the Civil War against Cromwell fled to Virginia and other Mid-Atlantic/Southern American colonies. They had to, in order to survive and eventually thrive. The Virginian settlers viewed themselves, first and foremost, as English subjects. Entitled to all the rights afforded to them by their English heritage. After all, they were English—not religious separatists who migrated across the Wilderness to the New Canaan.
The Puritans of New England, moreover, only viewed themselves as English as long as it suited them—for charter renewals, military protection, and political support against their struggle against the “agents of Babylon” (France). In 1689, the Boston Revolt deposed the royalist governor of the newly established “crown colony” of New England—something considered an affront to dissenting Puritans. (Cotton Mather was among the leading agitators.) They were, first and foremost, Puritan—the New Israelites adopted into Abraham’s family. A separate and independent people built upon a contradictory covenant of individual collectivism. As Barry Alan Shain notes in his iconoclastic The Myth of American Individualism, the founding spirit of America—that of our Puritan founders—was individualist for collective ends. The individual was free insofar that the individual consented to enter a covenantal union to be guided by law so to build a just community that could last forever. It is also deeply Hebraic in its origin.
The coastal south and Mid Atlantic came to embody a certain sense of English cavalierism that was otherwise anathema to the Puritans, David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed captures this cultural dynamism between the Puritans and Cavaliers (and Scotch-Irish and Quakers) very well. The Puritans were democratic, albeit for theocratic reasons. It is not a contradiction to view Puritan New England—the true genesis of American popular democracy—as a theocratic republic, theocratic in that rule by God was the essence of the political philosophy, but radically democratic insofar that each individual interpreted Scripture and shared in the decision-making of the Godly community. As Steven Smith has put it, the Hebrew Theocracy—which the Puritans unabashedly modeled themselves after—“was also the most democratic form of government that ever existed…the de jure theocracy was also a de facto radical democracy” because every individual had a stake in the direction the theocracy took. Congregational voting, which influenced the direction the Puritan government moved, sought the input of each congregational member. And congregational voting is, unarguably, the basis of American democratic roots.
But as the explicit theocracy faded, the implicit republic remained. That republic inspired America’s founding democratic traditions. The traditions of town halls spawned from congregational voting. America’s primitive democracy was the result of the “almost-democracy” Walzer sees in the Old Testament, which the Puritans sought to emulate.
The cavalier south and Mid-Atlantic was much closer to the English Crown throughout its history. Its population often exuded a sense of Anglophilia (perhaps with the notable exception of Thomas Jefferson who was much more a Francophile). It comes as no surprise that prior to the rise of the modern right America’s most articulate defenders of conservatism were proponents of an agrarian Anglophilia that reflected their own status as the New World equivalent of the virtuous “Little Englanders” (like the “Southern Agrarians”). This region’s closeness to the Crown was one of the main reasons for Britain’s southern strategy during the American Revolution. The southern colonies, with their English charters and commerce with English merchants, were thought to be more loyalist than the feisty and militant children of New England’s old Puritan stock who were born of revolutionary fervor to purify the Church of England and now exuded that revolutionary spirit against the English Crown.
Conservatism in America has always searched for a heritage. The wandering conservative never truly felt at home with the Puritan legacy—and for good reason. Apart from the rightwing populist rabble that calls itself conservative, the American conservative intelligentsia has always viewed itself as English; heirs of the Anglo-Saxon liberal tradition, a combination of John Locke and Edmund Burke. (The populist-right, by contrast, was generally Anglophobe, Germanophile, and isolationist—having greater affinity for Germany than England, the Continental and Romantic philosophical traditions than those of the English Reformation and Enlightenment.) But the high liberalism of Locke and Burke are but one side of English liberalism, the Puritans are equally another variant of the Anglo-Saxon liberal tradition of a much more radical and egalitarian stripe. The Scottish philosopher David Hume, in his The History of England, commented on how Puritan theology wasn’t much a traditional religious doctrine, as it was the world’s first systematic political ideology.
This also explains the antipathy of Anglophile conservatism to the more radical, iconoclast, moralist egalitarianism of the Puritans and their intellectual scions. The adopted High Toryism of Burke wants a culture of deep roots; the Puritans reject any culture of tradition for the eternal endeavor of building a righteous community of justice. These cavaliers were much more nuanced if not otherwise unconcerned with the moralism and social reformism of their New England brethren. The cavalier south saw itself as the continuation of Anglo-European culture in the New World—the very culture that the Puritans had once tried to purify then escape.
This schizophrenic foundation ensured deep divisions between the moralist, reformist, and utopian north and the more economically-oriented, stable, and traditional south. The American Revolution was spearheaded by the children of our Pilgrim and Puritan founders. So too was the Civil War, where our popular consciousness often forgets the theological and religious spirit that animated the north (while often too heavily concentrating on the south).
Indeed, the Civil War was the last great moment of Puritanical restlessness in American history. It was the Puritan apocalypse they always saw forthcoming. No community of righteousness and justice could be established without first eradicating America’s “original sin” of slavery. The abolitionist and northern elite who marched off to war in 1861 were convinced of their righteousness. No cause was more Christian, purer, and more holy than to free the bonded captives. Just as Christ had said “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,” the children of the Pilgrims and Puritans sounded the trumpets of the millennium and Isaiah’s God of righteous retribution to stamp out the most despicable evil that corrupted America. They were literally anointed with the spirit of the Lord to deliver the captive from their chains and bring liberty to the transgressed.
But over 600,000 dead and wounded later (for the North), the war for righteousness shattered the stern Calvinist disposition of Puritanism. The wounded northern elites concluded that no cause—no matter how righteous—merited the sacrifice of so many young sons and men. Just as the suffering of the Jews had led many to question their faith, the faith of America’s Puritan children was shattered from the demands of being God’s chosen people on the battlefields of the Civil War. It was a burden too hard.
While the Civil War may have shattered the mindset that we were the adopted children of God—the New Israelites of an explicit Calvinist theology, the Puritan dream of building a community of justice and righteousness lingered on. The war for righteousness that demanded human sacrifice had now been passed over for the war for social righteousness. The new sin was not an institution one that needed eradicated, but the many social ills that plagued America and her people: alcoholism, racism, gender inequality, and urban poverty. Many of America’s earliest progressive reformers—themselves the scions of noted families that had made the pilgrimage to North America—were animated by the new spirit of Social Evangelicalism and the dream of their Puritan ancestors.
As George McKenna noted in The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism, “The Progressives loved America, but the America they loved was one that began in New England, traversed the North, and defeated the slave-holding South…It was the muscular, activist strain of Puritanism that was Arminianized during the Second Great Awakening and liberalized in the post-Civil War period.” Like their Puritan forebears, the new progressives—without the strict Calvinist disposition of their Puritan parents—set out to renew the spirit of creating a republic of moral righteousness free from social sins, or evil. In his seminal study of the progressive era, Robert Crunden described the progressives as “ministers of reform” and noted that most—but not all—had a Puritan familial lineage. The Puritan spirit of reforming moral character had been liberalized over two centuries, but that essentially Puritan disposition remained intact. The progressives sought the same mission as the Puritans, but through different means.
But this turn of the century progressivism rejected the demands of collective sacrifice implicit in the Puritan’s theology and America’s early utopian character due to that liberalization after the Civil War. Human nature was malleable rather than completely sinful. It was something that could be tinkered with to achieve that dream of utopian idealism. The eradication of social sins would allow the goodness of humanity to flourish. Change to external social forces was the new path to take. It was the newest incarnation of the Puritan spirit, the dialectical antithesis to the original Puritan thesis. Moral character could be changed without religious conviction through the transformation of external social conditions.
But just as the Civil War had crushed the emphasis on sacrifice for righteousness, two world wars and nearly 100 million dead shattered the belief that human nature could be changed through incremental social improvements that would lead to the end of all social ills. This disposition was too naïve, while the stern righteousness demanded of Puritan theology too demanding and sacrificial. The Puritan dream seemed at a loss.
In its place arose a technocratic managerial liberalism, concerned with the management and distribution of the programs and policies of the New Deal and Great Society. This was the politics of Reaganism at its finest. It captured the lost spirit of progressive Americanism which had been shattered by the Civil War, two world wars, Vietnam, and the Iranian Revolution—but repackaged that lost spirit for something else, the re-embrace of the other half of America’s founding story: the cavalier, economical, and individualist spirit that is the closest reflection of a conservative tradition in America with its explicitly English heritage absent puritanical insistence for reform and collective sacrifice.
Here, Reagan’s revisionism of American Puritanism and Exceptionalism begins. Whereas for progressives and liberals, that disposition came naturally to them by virtue of their lineage (scions of the Puritans), the Reaganites had to brand themselves as something of an heir to this tradition to which liberals and progressives have no connection to. After all, many Reagan voters and supporters were Catholic, working-class, and southerners—historically the groups often at odds with the messianic consciousness of progressive puritanism. This managerial liberalism called for new risk taking, invoking the pioneer spirit of the past, but completely missed the foundational importance of collective sacrifice and utopian idealism so inherent to the Puritan mindset.
Indeed, the old cavalier and economic heritage of the other America rallied to Reagan to escape what had been a century of “persecution” by the Puritans and their descendants. The business communities, which were forcefully told that they too had to accept sacrifices on behalf of the collective good, saw an opportunity to restore their foundational economic impetus of the old colonial charters. America’s malaise was because of too much sacrifice, not a deficit of sacrifice. This new narrative, mixed with the radical re-interpretation of America’s founding, helped produced a lasting mythology that aligns America’s Pilgrim and Puritan founders with the political right rather than the obvious lineage of American progressivism long noted by many scholars. Sadly, many progressives have swallowed this new mythology hook, line, and sinker.
And for the next 30 years, the Puritan blues commenced. The age of individualism and consumerism was born. These ideas too, were re-contextualized to be the universal founding of America—in reality, it was just one half of America’s founding. (But it was the half that had not enthusiastically embraced the Revolution, lost the Civil War, went into hiding during the Progressive Era and New Deal, and only re-emerged in the 1980s.) But America’s progressive restlessness was but slumbering, needing to be awakened from its deep sleep and lack of confidence and public will. The Great Recession awoke that slumbering spirit of eternal restlessness for a just community of righteousness.
As Franklin Roosevelt said—a phrase essentially Puritan in spirit—“we have a rendezvous with destiny.” While the explicitly Reformed Calvinist overtures that the social engineering of the Puritans is now passé, the Puritan spirit of restless reform, change, and establishing a community of righteousness and justice lives on in America. Ironically, the election of Donald Trump may provide the so-called “left” in America to reattach itself to the social engineering nationalism that the Puritans bequeathed to them. As Talcott Parsons, the great 20th century Harvard sociologist, wrote, the greatest Puritan legacy to America was imparting to the world the spirit of “instrumental activism.” The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
This essay was adapted from a post on Hesiod’s Corner, September 1, 2017.