I made a couple of attempts in February here and here to talk about the effect of the Puritan mind on contemporary culture. I was interested in those pieces mainly about the peculiar psychology that is associated with it, and how that psychology shapes our politics. ForestWalker sent me a related article that came out in the Guardian a couple of years ago. Some key excerpts, and then some commentary:
Puritanism is perhaps the least understood of any political movement in European history. In popular mythology it is reduced to a joyless cult of self-denial, obsessed by stripping churches and banning entertainment: a perception which removes it as far as possible from the conspicuous consumption of Republican America. But Puritanism was the product of an economic transformation. . . .
Puritanism was primarily the religion of the new commercial classes. It attracted traders, money lenders, bankers and industrialists. Calvin had given them what the old order could not: a theological justification of commerce. Capitalism, in his teachings, was not unchristian, but could be used for the glorification of God. From his doctrine of individual purification, the late Puritans forged a new theology.
At its heart was an "idealisation of personal responsibility" before God. This rapidly turned into "a theory of individual rights" in which "the traditional scheme of Christian virtues was almost exactly reversed". By the mid-17th century, most English Puritans saw in poverty "not a misfortune to be pitied and relieved, but a moral failing to be condemned, and in riches, not an object of suspicion ... but the blessing which rewards the triumph of energy and will".
This leap wasn't hard to make. If the Christian life, as idealised by both Calvin and Luther, was to concentrate on the direct contact of the individual soul with God, then society, of the kind perceived and protected by the medieval church, becomes redundant. "Individualism in religion led ... to an individualist morality, and an individualist morality to a disparagement of the significance of the social fabric."
To this the late Puritans added another concept. They conflated their religious calling with their commercial one. "Next to the saving of his soul," the preacher Richard Steele wrote in 1684, the tradesman's "care and business is to serve God in his calling, and to drive it as far as it will go." Success in business became a sign of spiritual grace: providing proof to the entrepreneur, in Steele's words, that "God has blessed his trade". The next step follows automatically. The Puritan minister Joseph Lee anticipated Adam Smith's invisible hand by more than a century, when he claimed that "the advancement of private persons will be the advantage of the public". By private persons, of course, he meant the men of property, who were busily destroying the advancement of everyone else.
This excerpt focuses pretty much of the dark side of Puritanism, and as I've written in my pieces about the Whigs (see here and here), I think about the Puritan impulse more ambivalently. Nevertheless, the article describes how the positive spiritual impulse that inspired (and still inspires--Bill Moyers comes to mind) the best among the 17th-Century Puritans, calcified into the coarse, bizarre religiosity of a guy like Tom Delay. The niggardly, moralistic, avaricious religiosity of the Puritanical Christianist has nothing to do with the spirit of the Gospels; there are few things I can think of more alien to it.
As I suggested in one of the posts referenced above, the Frank Capra Christmas classic, "It's a Wonderful Life" is an American Puritan fairy tale that pits the dark Potteresque side of the Puritan Spirit against the idealistic, Whiggish side represented by George Bailey. George Bush shares Bailey's first name and looks more like Jimmy Stuart than he does the villain Lionel Barrymore, but is there any doubt that Mr. Potter's America is Mr. Bush's?