Some years ago, I read much of Perry Miller’s The American Puritans for a class. I came away from it with an appreciation both for the deep beauty of Puritan English and for the Puritans themselves, people who found morality and civic life serious enough matters that they dedicated great care to them.

Like most people who take morality seriously, they annoyed everybody else and have gone on doing it ever since. With my newfound affection for the Puritans came a heightened sensitivity to the word. Once you encounter even a little of the real thing—and, believe me, I’m not an expert on Puritans—it’s hard not to notice how often the Puritans come up as punching bag whose identity is always changing. Sometimes, “Puritan” just means “a person who thought something was bad”; sometimes it means “a person from the past.” Sometimes, as in this article in the Believer, the article cites The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible and then leaves it there, as if they form a reliable historical record.

So when WGN started a show about the Salem witch trials (called, appropriately, Salem), I was ready. Only tied to the Salem trials by the loosest of nods to historical fact—most of the names correspond to the names of actual people, but that’s it—Salem has a lot of fun depicting the Puritans as everything bad it can think them to be. They’re stupid and yet overeducated; they’re bigoted and fanatically religious but also, strangely, not all that religious.

But most importantly, the Puritans are backward and laughable because they believe in witches—except in this show, the witches are also real, and their plan is to frame people as witches because this will punish the Puritans for being the sort of people who believe in witches. Do you follow that? No? Well, the show doesn’t care.

The first episode of Salem delivered in spades, from the opening scene where somebody is branded with F for fornicator, to the scene where Cotton Mather has sex with a prostitute (really) while screaming out verses from the Bible (really), to the scene where a possessed victim is walked around the town on a leash to sniff out witches. Problems of historical accuracy are quickly overridden by problems of basic scene-to-scene coherency. Forget whether or not the Puritans branded fornicators with “F”—you’ll be stuck trying to figure out how one line of dialogue leads to the next.

This was supposed to be a funny piece—about the show, which is awful in ways that have nothing to do with Puritans, and about the Puritans, and so forth. And I was having a lot of fun watching the show and taking notes on the sheer silliness of it all, until Cotton Mather raped a woman in an empty church in this Sunday’s episode, and then I guess I lost the taste for it.

When I shut off the episode and sat there, feeling a little sick and mostly tired, my first thought was: “Is it too much to ask that a show this stupid not use rape?” But I already knew the answer was “yes.”

After the episode was over, I spent some time trying to look up Puritan attitudes toward rape, which I vaguely knew to be a hanging offense in Massachusetts Bay Colony. What I learned from this exercise is that the word rape, like the word Puritan, is often used to mean something else. You rape the earth or rape the soul (or you rape, in one case, “the American Puritan Ethic”); you protest rape merely because you are puritanical (or else must protest that your disapproval stems not from such causes). “Puritan” and “rape” are used either for the overtures they bring with them or for the violence they commit.

Actually, the two words go together more often than one might think; one recalls the accusations, after the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, that America remains too puritanical—that the trouble was not the crime but the caring about the crime, or even seeing it as a crime. (One headline: “Strauss-Kahn Braces for the Wrath of American Puritanism.”)

Salem, in this respect, is just part of a crowd: Its casual use of one word goes with its casual deployment of the other. It also joins the rising number of what I used to call, fondly, “my dumb shows”—Scandal, Downton Abbey, House of Cards—in using rape as just one shock among many. And if you object to it sitting alongside the rest of Salem’s dumb scares, well, you’re a Puritan; and we know what Salem thinks of Puritans.

Of course, as the examples above point out, disdain for Puritans is widespread and bipartisan. Here’s Katie Roiphe in the nineties: “Although [discourse about rape] wears a fashionable leftist mask, this is a neo-puritan preoccupation.” Here’s the American Conservative’s Rod Dreher, on that infamous Wellesley art installation of a mostly-naked man: “Pasty Penis Person Scares Puritan Wimmen.” Why precisely it would scare them is not really touched on; it doesn’t matter. A Puritan is a terrible thing to be, and to upset a Puritan is always a kind of victory, though for what cause is not really clear.

But maybe it is time for us to reacquaint ourselves with the Puritans, who no doubt would object to all these things—not so we can learn to dismiss their objections, or make fun of them a little more accurately, but so that we can, perhaps, become a little more puritanical ourselves. A modern-day Puritan may be a little less serious than his forefathers. But at the very least, he’s better than his peers.

B. D. McClay is a graduate of St. John’s College and a junior fellow at First Things

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Articles by B. D. McClay

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