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It takes a generation: the Puritan route to Enlightenment

About the author
Dave Belden is managing editor of Tikkun

Since 9/11 the American people have believed that Muslim fundamentalism is the greatest threat to world peace and their own security. It is now clear that George W. Bush and Tony Blair’s concept of how to turn the tables against this zealotry is to attempt to impose something like the west’s economic and democratic system on Muslim nations, starting with Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Bush/Blair thesis is that prosperity and democracy will erode fanatical fundamentalism. Who in the west really disagrees? You can certainly doubt that prosperity and democracy can be imposed by conquest; or doubt that Bush/Blair are the team who can do it; or that western versions will work in Muslim nations. But if there were a homegrown Islamic prosperity and democracy – for example in Iran, where it seems most likely to develop organically – who doubts that fundamentalism would be eclipsed?

Read and contribute to discussion of the Faith & Ideas issues raised by Dave Belden, Khoren Arisian and Omair Ahmad

It’s not just capitalists who believe this. The left has hope of this kind: that the despair that has driven young people to suicide bombings and rewards in the hereafter, can be replaced by a hope for justice, democracy and rewards in this world.

But the left’s view of George Bush raises a gigantic question about this kind of thesis.

Read Khoren Arisian in openDemocracy. “The original Puritan settlers of this country [the US] in the 1620s were true believers,” he writes: “not radicals, but revolutionaries who proved to be religious and political killers, among other less lethal attributes. Today’s religious rights are in effect their doctrinal descendants.” He finds the Puritans’ fundamentalism to be ‘reminiscent’ of the Jacobins who created the Terror of the French Revolution, and even of the genocidal fanatics of the 20th Century. Bush, the new fanatic, is now ushering in ‘war without end.’

By this view, we have one set of religious fundamentalists up against another. Bush equals religious fanatic equals bin Laden. Both are creating the new wars of religion, without end.

But if the most prosperous economy and one of the most democratic nations in the world is run by religious fundamentalists, then what happens to the general western thesis about how to defeat Islamic fundamentalism? How is it possible that America has been taken over by fundamentalists? Is it like the question, how could Germany have been taken over by Nazis? To read many on the left, you would think it’s the same, only more inexplicable – because Bush, unlike Hitler, has not come to power in a depression. To read Arisian, you might think that the whole American religious tradition is toxic, authoritarian. What hope then, for the world? If prosperity, democracy and the finest universities in the world cannot halt religious fanaticism, we are doomed.

Take hope. Arisian has got it wrong. His story of American religion is too simplistic. He offers no understanding of the social causes of current US fundamentalism.

A second Enlightenment?

In fact the US provides the most interesting example in the world today of the thesis that prosperity, success and democracy undermine fundamentalism. But it also offers a warning that this undermining is only to be expected over a timescale of generations.

I will go out on a limb (one that I don’t see anyone else sharing) and predict that over the next two generations the US will provide us with a stunning example of a second enlightenment which will evaporate fundamentalism as a major force in the nation’s life. This will provide ample inspiration for the further time it will take fully to see the same effects in the Arab world. We are not talking fast spiritual food here. But we are talking hope – as long as steady economic progress can be made in poor nations, and economic collapse can be avoided in rich ones.

My argument has two halves. The first requires a quick tour of American Puritan history, which is not as Arisian portrays it. The second involves a quick review of what fundamentalism is, why it is a modern, not a Puritan thing, and why the conditions that created it in the US are already dissipating.

American Puritanism: theocracy plus democracy

To read Arisian, you would think the tale of American Puritanism is one of fanatical theocrats. But where does the following quote come from?

“Really I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he has not had a voice to put himself under…”
“This is the beginning, the absolute beginning of democratic politics,” says Theodore Roszak in his book The Voice of the Earth. “This is where it started, in this stammered outpouring of an unlettered soldier’s moral conviction.” The speech was made in 1647 by a bible-quoting soldier of Oliver Cromwell’s army, Colonel Thomas Rainborough. He was chosen to voice the demands of the mostly Puritan soldiers who were winning the English Civil War, and who would go on to cut off King Charles’s head.

These soldiers were cousins of the Puritans who settled New England. Some American Puritans returned to England to fight with them. Later, many of Cromwell’s men, disillusioned, went to America. Puritans on both sides of the Atlantic were the same ilk and often the same individuals. Yes, they can be seen as fanatical killers and theocrats. But truth requires that they also be seen as the first to voice the political agenda of democracy: universal (male) suffrage, equal rights, fair elections. Where do the ideas come from first, if not from here? All right, from ancient Anglo-Saxon traditions and medieval cities, but brought to new life in the modern world by these religious dissenters. Fiercely repressive, fiercely self-governing.

It started with these Puritans who believed that their direct link to God made them the equal of any lord or bishop. They would have a nation ruled by the godly, without priest or king. They would be republicans. Such vulgar democratic ideals were rejected by educated gentlemen in the 17th century. But, Roszak goes on, “Two generations later, [Rainborough’s] words, their grammar corrected and their rhetoric suitably polished, were on the lips of all the keenest minds of the Enlightenment.” The Puritans’ own descendants, risen to middle-class and educated status, helped create and spread the Enlightenment, including a religious toleration that was foreign to the Puritans but was a not unsurprising result of their self-governing congregations.

The American Revolution was part rejection by a new American elite of British taxation and rule. The revolutionary elite’s language was the language of the Enlightenment. But it was also part replay of the English Civil War: religiously-inspired populist democrats against the King. Many of the common people who fought George III still spoke the language of Cromwell’s soldiers, and were reborn at religious revivals.

Kevin Phillips’, in his book The Cousins’ Wars, tells us that the American Civil War was yet another replay. Now the Enlightenment and religious abolitionist descendants of the Puritans (the North) fought their moral and democratic cause against the descendants of the royalist cavaliers and Scots-Irish (the South). The royalists had invented plantation slavery in order to reproduce their feudal order in a new world that lacked a compliant peasantry. The Republican Party was founded to oppose the ungodly and undemocratic extension of slavery to the new frontier states.

So Bush as a Republican does inherit that democratic tradition. But it took me a good while living in America before I understood the turnaround that had happened to the major American parties. During the first decades of the Republican Party, every black citizen who could vote voted Republican. The Democrats ruled the South and were totally identified with racism and Jim Crow.

Then came the great Depression in the 1930s, and it was Franklin Roosevelt, the Democrat, who came through for the poor. He outraged his own Southern Democrats by suggesting that the black unemployed receive the same handouts as whites. Blacks started to vote Democrat. Somehow the Democrats kept that weird combination of social liberals, black vote and Southern ‘good old boys’ together for a generation. But after civil rights and the 1960s, the Republican Party reinvented itself as the party of the religious, white South. Now it has the same lock on the white South that the Democrats once had.

So Bush’s religious and socially conservative support comes above all from the descendants of the aristocrats, slave owners and romantics of the South and from fundamentalist Christians. These are angry groups – people who were once defeated and left behind by the modernising, secularising North, and are now having their revenge.

The essence of fundamentalism

Many affluent westerners think fundamentalism is caused by poverty. If I were poor and had no money for modern medicine, you can bet I would be signed up with whatever faith healers were around – if you doubt it, read my last column. I would not have had access to the kind of education that would tell me what modern science is really all about. I would be looking to my next life, or to heaven, for hope, because there wouldn’t be much in my daily life.

But that story describes most people in the world. That kind of belief is not necessarily fundamentalist. It can be eclectic: you can believe in Santeria and Catholicism at the same time; the Tao and the Buddha and the ancestors. It can be mystical or metaphorical: aware of the mystery of all things. It can teach humility.

By ‘fundamentalists’ I do not mean anyone with strong religious beliefs. I mean those believers who have rejected a complex, metaphorical understanding of the stories we have about the divine, in favor of a literal reading. For fundamentalists the world really was created in seven days (and so a scientific understanding of evolution is bunk), miracles contradicting the laws of physics really did take place (God stopped the sun in its tracks to help out, who was it, Joshua?), or Ayodhya really is the birthplace of one of the most revered deities in Hinduism, Lord Rama. Along with this literalism comes certainty and self-righteousness: only those who believe the same as us are right. With certainty comes permission to do what is needed: including killing.

Many experts on fundamentalism cite not poverty but humiliation as a decisive cause. And education. It is a modern phenomenon, this business of poaching a literal, logical, linear argumentative style from science, and applying it to defending scriptures and poetic myths. It is people who have received some education, who think that religion must be proven right or wrong by these kinds of arguments.

So humiliation, plus some education. Rajeev Bhargava argues also that as the aspirations of the poor are opened by a modern economy, which at first fails to satisfy those aspirations, simplistic, vicious scapegoating can become popular.

In the American South, after the Civil War, a people were defeated, humiliated by the more scientific, industrial, prosperous, liberal North. Blacks were scapegoated, lynched. Many whites turned to magical solutions: the Second Coming, the Rapture. Divine interventions would turn everything around. Today it will be the secular, unbelieving, or wrong-believing, liberal Northerners, modernisers, theological modernists and Darwinians who will be left behind when the believers are ‘raptured’ into heaven. Left Behind is the title of the best-selling series of novels in the US today: apocalyptic stories of the Rapture.

It wasn’t just the defeated Southerners. It was anyone who found the pace of change too dramatic, the creative destruction of old certainties too sudden and frightening. What country has changed faster than the US in the 20th Century? How did it happen that the liberal elite took over the country so thoroughly that in the late 1960s when 72% of the population opposed mixed race marriages, a liberal Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional for states to forbid them? How come the Supreme Court made abortion legal, when no politician could have put such a law through Congress? How could children be forced to go to school and be told that evolution was proven, when 45% of the US population do not accept evolution as a scientific fact?

In the mid-20th century the liberal elite got a virtual lock on the government, the arts, the media and the educational world. Despite the fact that the media are increasingly, thanks to Republican laws, controlled by right-wing tycoons, the right itself still constantly talks of the ‘liberal media.’ They still feel – or claim – they are the underdogs.

No longer left behind

Yet under the surface of American life a revolution was brewing. It was started by air conditioning, which made the sunny states the most attractive places to live and work. The states with the slackest labor and environmental laws were now doubly business friendly. The South became the powerhouse of the economy. No longer left behind, but getting ahead.

So they dropped the next world stuff and got liberal religion, did they? Hardly. Psychology doesn’t work like that. People create their whole selves around belief systems. Most of us don’t change overnight. That’s why there’s something called ‘cultural lag.’ The economic conditions change, but the culture doesn’t change as fast.

What happened first was that the fundamentalists started coming in from the prayer meetings and flexing their new muscles in this world. That was the Reagan era, the Moral Majority period. But they weren’t truly confident yet. They didn’t have Congress, or the Supreme Court.

Now they do, and the boldest of Presidents, child of the White House, favored son of the oil elite, but also a man who turned his addictions around through a prayer group, a true believer, humbly confident God is at his elbow. So what’s next? The Southern tradition is not as democratic as the Northern. We will see more civil liberties eroded, more fat cats fattened, but that will not be the whole story.

Who would have thought, fifty years ago, or even fifty days ago, that the most conservative Supreme Court in memory would strike down a Texas law against homosexual sodomy? A show about a gay couple is third in the nation’s TV ratings. A friend’s gay son has set his wedding date for this Fall, either in Massachusetts if they allow gay marriage by then, or else in Toronto. The flowers are already booked for the party afterwards in New York. Desperate republicans are thinking of passing a federal law against gay marriage – and they are the ones always trumpeting states rights and the evil of federal laws.

Now that the right controls Congress (barely, but enough for a radical president to drastically change foreign and tax policy), it finds it can’t make abortion illegal. The country now wants to keep the choice it would not have chosen to start with. To be on the right, and see the population suborned into approving abortion and homosexuality must be horribly depressing. The left thinks it is losing nastily at the moment, and has never won, but the right has felt that beleaguered for a long time.

The right has been settling old scores, but the longer it is on top, the more it has to face what governing means. The days of Reagan’s born again secretary of the interior, James Watt, who would turn over national parks to timber and mining interests, because the world was going to end soon, are long gone. Evangelical environmentalism is growing. The Christian term for it is stewardship: looking after what the Good Lord created. It’ll take a generation to mature.

The social gospel may even be making a comeback. The ‘born again’ governor of Louisiana was in the news recently advocating a rise in the minimum wage because Jesus said to look after the poor. What? Bush thought he had to talk about compassion to get elected, but I predict some of the next generation of Christian politicians will want to practice it. The message of Jesus has a way of breaking through, when you are no longer left behind and resentful. How come arch-conservative foreign aid opponent Jesse Helms got converted to helping the poor in Africa, and even to funding help for Aids? Bono has a sweet way of talking to these guys, and Helms now goes to his concerts, but it was more than that.

The Republican Party has its own bizarre combination: big business, which is the most socially disruptive force in history, and religious conservatives. Watch what happens in the next twenty years as:

  • social liberals like Andrew Sullivan, the most successful weblogger today, make headway in the Republican Party
  • the social gospel of a newly confident African American middle class recalls Christians to their founder’s social views
  • the next generation in the South turns from ‘the Rapture’ to a worldly theology
  • evangelical environmentalists grow in influence
  • Creationism loses out as it becomes inescapable to the next generation of creationist biologists that biology simply doesn’t work without evolution.

It will be a replay of the 18th and 19th centuries when the descendants of the Puritans, empowered by their success in the New World, extended the liberal trends in their own beliefs and came to oppose slavery and child labour as morally wrong, pursued scientific enquiry, invented liberal theology, the social gospel, feminism and universal suffrage. The descendants of today’s fundamentalists, empowered by their worldly success and inspired by their religion, will do no less.

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