The Puritan Impulse – Again

Down through history different religious groups have displayed a puritan impulse. When they command the power of the state it becomes deadly.

A story I’ve told often is of my first American ancestor, Jacob Hunt. He arrived in Puritan Boston in the 17th century and was quickly expelled for his religious views. The Puritans hadn’t come to America to create a modern pluralist society. They came to purify their society of anything less than their own perfect Christianity, possibly because they had failed to purify England when they controlled it. But they weren’t the only purifiers in the game. The Catholics brutally sought to purify Central Europe of Protestants, and at one point or another Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox  alike expelled the Jews.

It isn’t just history. In Pakistan the percentage of religious minorities in the population has dropped from 40% to 4% since independence. Much of this has come about as non-Muslims have fled generations of puritan Muslim persecution, aided and abetted by bad laws and corrupt and incompetent government.

In Indonesia church burning has become something of a national past-time for some puritanical Muslims, particularly when there are also ethnic conflicts involved. In northern Nigeria the Boko Haram wants to cleanse the state of Christian influence and hasn’t hesitated to use terror to that end.

Less violent are the puritan Christians in Murfreesboro Tennessee and a dozen other places in which American Christians are anxious to keep their town free of Muslim influence and don’t mind making life hell for the Muslims in order to get them to move on. In Israel there are equally adamant puritan Jews. In India and Nepal no shortage of puritan Hindus, and in Sri Lanka puritan Buddhists.

These puritan experiments always end badly. As soon as the supposed aliens are driven out the puritans fall to fighting among themselves over who is most pure.

Indeed, and this is critical, the puritan impulse is socially dysfunctional. When it causes a group to withdraw totally from the larger pluralistic society the group eventually diminishes through attrition and fades from social significance. Whatever it stood for disappears from the consciousness of the larger society. When it causes the group to dominate and try to purify the larger society the result is inevitably oppression, violence, and an end to its credibility as a human way of life. Christian puritanism (Catholic and Protestant) in Europe is one reason Europe is no longer Christian. Muslim Puritanism today is one reason its hard to take Islam seriously as a religious alternative – and it is tearing Muslim societies across the world to pieces. The present pseudo-Christian puritanism promoted by some of our political and religious leaders settles in as a real political option it will do the same to American society.

The appropriate response to the reality of religious pluralism isn’t puritanism. It is a vigorous civic dialogue over how to not only live together, but to thrive together. A lesson our political leaders must ever learn.

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