Once again I’m overwhelmed by the heartfelt excellence of recent posts. Instead of commenting on each of them as I should, I only have time (studies show that you should never believe a sentence that begins that way) to, quite self-indulgently, post something about our Puritan heresy from a Puritcanical point of view.
Our Declaration is Thomistic at least to this extent: Because of Congress’s amendments to the original draft, the God of Nature becomes emphatically also the living God of the Bible. That’s in the context of free persons pledging all they have and are to each other in a sacred cause they share in common.
Had our Declaration been the exclusive or even the primary product of the original Puritans, it would have been theocraticthat is, not orthodox Christianity. The Puritans, Alexis de Tocqueville tells us, were heretics in the sense that they were about basing the law of their political community on the law found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. Theres not a word in the New Testament that would justify their effort, in effect, to criminalize every sin.
The Puritans were authentically Christian in their view that every person has a soul that needs to be informed about its origin and destiny with the word of God, and in their political view that under God all sinful persons made in Gods image are equal. The American Founding balance was achieved through the Deistic or individualistic criticism of the Puritans idealistic, intrusive, highly personal idea of Christian citizenship, and the Puritanical criticism of the Deistic detachment of one person from anotherand, of course, from the personal, relational, judgmentally and providentially intrusive God.
Sophisticated Americans, from our Founders until today, have always resisted the Puritanical correction to their enlightened individualism. Douthat is correct that one reason that correction is indispensable is that the devotion to individual rights, by itself, doesnt justify the personal sacrifice required to achieve egalitarian political reform.
It was the neo-Puritanical abolitionists, located, as the neo-Puritanical novelist Marilynne Robinson has reminded us, more in the Midwest than New England, who produced the relentless egalitarian agitation that made the Civil War inevitable. Those neo-Puritans were also the main source of the bloody ferocity celebrated in the Battle Hymn of the Republic that brought victory to those fighting on behalf of free persons. The Civil Rights movement, Douthat reminds us, wouldnt have succeeded without the social reformism based on a kind of residually Puritanical or Biblical conception of citizenship, one also that didnt shrink from the sacrifice of ones own blood for justice. That Old Testament devotion to justice is one reason the Civil Rights Movement was so attractive to Jewish Americans.
Christians cant simply reject some of the Puritanical concerns of the Progressive movementsuch as worry about the souls of mothers and children, and Christians cant be so realistic as to see nothing admirable at all in the Wilsonian instrusiveness that fuels often misguided American efforts to secure justice for people everywhere.
One reason American citizenship seems so obviously impoverished today is that too many of us pride ourselves too much in having freed ourselves from Puritanical moralism, from our duty to be of service to others. So rich and sophisticated Americans seem more indifferent than ever to the inegalitarian excesses generated by the rigors of the competitive marketplace of our free economy. Douthat is surely right that no orthodox Christian should be too complacent about capitalism, even after concluding, truthfully, that a free economy corresponds to part of the truth about free persons.
Tocqueville marveled maybe most of all at the American determination that all persons be educated to exercise their freedom. No person, the Puritans and Jefferson agree, exists by nature to be dominated by another, and slavery is contrary to the truth about who each of us is. That truth shouldnt be hidden from anyone.
Our egalitarian individualismunderstanding every person to be middle-class or a free being who worksproduces universal literacy and universal technical education. Everyone is obliged to and deserves to work for him- or herself. But its from the Puritans that we get the idea that freedom is about more than work or productivity. Every person has a soul, and so everyone should be able to read what the Bible says about ones personal destiny and charitable moral responsibilities for oneself.
The Puritans, Robinson explains, are a potent source of our devotion to liberal education, to education for civilization. The Jeffersonians, we might say, excel in the pursuit of the means or conditions of freedom, but its the Puritans who supplied us with our original insight about the personal end or point of our freedom. Freedom of religion is for freedom of religion—understood as an organized community of thought and action in which particular persons participate.
Most of our best colleges have had a religious or church-driven inspiration, and they suffer in the most important respects when they lose confidence in what they can do for souls. And the true understanding of our religious liberty has typically depended on public education being completed by Sunday schools.