Friday, August 04, 2006

Americans Reveal Their Puritan Roots Whether It's in Business, Sex or War

From the London Times online comes Americans reveal their Puritan roots whether it's in business, sex or war. This is fascinating to me because I am in the process of trying to get through Perry Miller's "The New England Mind", a comprehensive overview of Puritan thought. So much is laid at the Puritans' feet, but this article is a little different. I think I will be revisiting this one. In full ...

ANYONE WHO THINKS of American foreign policy in the Middle East as cussed, overzealous, hot-headed and hypocritical will be unconsoled to learn that this was the kind of thing people were saying about Puritanism and its adherents some four hundred years ago. Like so much else in modern America, its actions abroad should be viewed through the prism of the country’s root religion, Puritanism.

To understand its continued centrality, imagine an America with no Mayflower and no New England. The national temperament would be less earnest, less moralistic, gentler. There would be fewer people in jail, and no executions. There might also be fewer Republican presidents and Bible literalists, and because a non-Puritan America would be less mesmerised by sex and introspection, less pornography and fewer psychiatrists’ couches.

An improvement on the America we have got, you may say. But the country might also have been less energetic, less enterprising, less rigorously democratic, less uncompromisingly freedom-loving. A poorer, milder America would be less able to do good as well as harm in the world. More reluctant to become engaged in Vietnam, it might also have been less tenacious in its pursuit of the Cold War generally. It would certainly not have been in Iraq, but that would be small comfort to its French or British critics, because a softer, non-Puritan America might well have resulted in a Europe submerged by Hitler, Stalin, or both.

But America is what it is, a country that is still 60 per cent Protestant. This could be a handy guide to its behaviour, except that Puritan doctrine was notoriously contradictory. All you can be sure of is its tendency to fly to extremes. “Its theory had been discipline,” R. H. Tawney wrote, “its practical result was liberty,” and listening to the maledictions of right-wing evangelists on the La-La-land lifestyle you hear echoes of the same tensions. Whether the subject is sex, business or foreign policy, never have the conflicts within America’s warring soul been more apparent than today.

Nowhere are the paradoxes of the Puritan conscience more flagrant, or more entertaining, than in the sexual sphere. That Hugh Hefner had a Puritan upbringing and that Alfred Kinsey’s father was a preacher explains a lot. Now absolute sexual freedoms are demanded in the same self-righteous spirit as the Puritans insisted on absolute repression, and the determination to dispense with the inhibitions of the past has begun to assume the earnestness and intolerance characteristic of the Puritan originators of their problems. “Self-realisation” (a very Puritan concept) can be energising, or it can be a pretext for promiscuity, sexual egotism, exhibitionism and self-indulgence.

In New England, illicit sex was repressed, but in business the sky was the limit, in many senses. For Puritans commerce was a holy pursuit, a way of busying themselves in the world in the hope of showing themselves as members of the elect who would be saved, rather than as damned from birth (“losers” in modern parlance). The characteristics of pious business folk have changed little over time. Now they are frequently church-going pillars of the community earning their salvation through media companies that specialise in sexually risqué but financially rewarding products or a dot-com enterprise selling God knows what.

Abstemious in their own lives, they take brief working holidays in Mexico or Montego Bay, where their conversation is laced with laments about the drinking, drug taking and sexual improvidence of the young and the poor. To minimise contact with “losers” they live in gated communities, send their children to private schools and bequeath them just enough to provide a headstart for becoming upstanding self-made men, in the image of their fathers.

Scepticism about Puritan sanctification of commerce began in the 17th century and continues today. America has been called “the country where the Cross is only a plus sign”, and that American employers have taken to praying with their staff, or that Ken Lay, former chairman of Enron, rediscovered God before he died, somehow does little to remove doubts.

In foreign policy, too, the New England retrovirus remains active. Like the Puritan whose economic self-seeking and psychic self-immersion were always in danger of divorcing him from the more altruistic aspects of the creed, America has long oscillated unnervingly between isolation and engagement with the world. For a people who believed that most of it was inhabited by the Antichrist there were reasons to stay aloof. Many countries still appear to America as backward nations whose souls it makes intermittent attempts to save, but that often turn out to be beyond redemption.

Proclaiming itself a beacon of hope has rarely inhibited a pugnacious foreign policy, it will be objected, but then America cannot win. If it behaves like the French and puts self-interest cynically to the fore it is damned for selfishness. And when its actions are genuinely altruistic, it is accused of buying the world’s favours. If there is one thing America is accused of more frequently than imperialist interference, it is of not interfering enough.

America’s Puritan origins do much to explain why it is the maddening and exhilarating, ancient and modern, progressive and conservative, sophisticated and simplistic, creative and destructive country it is. It explains why it finds itself in the throes of religious revival when secularism is advancing across Europe. At exactly the moment when their Puritan habits of thought are in crisis Americans are being enjoined to return to their religious roots. A case not only of the cure being worse than the disease, but of the cure reviving the malady.

But that is how America is. In dealing with it, as with anywhere else, we must take account of its national temperament. Above all we should remember that, as Alain Minc, the French historian put it, anti-Americanism is the internationalism of imbeciles.