Just In Time for Thanksgiving

Americans recover their inner-Puritan.

H. L. Mencken summarized the Puritan outlook wittily when he said “Puritanism is the haunting idea that someone, somewhere may be happy.”

But in his Book of Prefaces he made an arresting observation about American character and our debt to Puritanism:

This is the essential fact of the new Puritanism; its recognition of the moral expert, the professional sinhound, the virtuoso of virtue. Under the original Puritan theocracy, as in Scotland, for example, the chase and punishment of sinners was a purely ecclesiastical function, and during the slow disintegration of the theocracy the only change introduced was the extension of that function to lay helpers, and finally to the whole body of laymen. This change, however, did not materially corrupt the ecclesiastical quality of the enterprise: the leader in the so-called militant field still remained the same man who led in the spiritual field. But with the capitalization of Puritan effort there came a radical overhauling of method. The secular arm, as it were, conquered as it helped. That is to say, the special business of forcing sinners to be good was taken away from the preachers and put into the hands of laymen trained in its technique and mystery, and there it remains… .

But does all this argue a total lack of justice in the American character, or even a lack of common decency? I doubt that it would be well to go so far in accusation. What it does argue is a tendency to put moral considerations above all other considerations, and to define morality in the narrow Puritan sense. The American, in other words, thinks that the sinner has no rights that any one is bound to respect, and he is prone to mistake an unsupported charge of sinning, provided it be made violently enough, for actual proof and confession. What is more, he takes an intense joy in the mere chase: he has the true Puritan taste for an auto da fé in him. “I am ag’inst capital punishment,” said Mr. Dooley, “but we won’t get rid of it so long as the people enjoy it so much.”

Obviously, the scent of sin has hard dissipated, despite all the bemoaning of a loss of moral standards and the growth of relativism. Any number of celebrities have lost all chances for forgiveness — from Harvey Weinstein to Charlie Rose — thanks to America’s unquenchable thirst to punish the offender. The Puritans are alive and kicking.

What we are doing may even be worse than even what the Puritans devised by by putting someone in stocks. Damon Linker says it’s not simply moral condemnation but erasure:

Consider the case of actor Kevin Spacey. In the wake of sexual assault allegations, it makes sense to keep him from situations in which co-workers on a film set might be in danger. But Spacey’s career hasn’t merely been placed on hold. His long-time agents have dropped him, and most astonishingly of all his performance in a forthcoming movie, which was filmed months ago, has been edited out entirely, with the director scrambling to reshoot his scenes at the last minute using Christopher Plummer as a stand in.

It’s almost as if Spacey had never existed.

Rather than finding this return to moral decency encouraging, I find it disturbing. As Puritan poetry had it, “In Adam’s fall we sinned all.” Every American has a Charlie Rose Louis C. K. inside. That’s the nature of original sin. Spotting sins in others exclusively is not becoming of Christians, who should know better the nature of human nature, or secularists, for whom Scarlet Letter’s are oh so Puritanical.

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