About |Puritanism|


I was remarking the other day how much my reading history has impacted my theological thinking. It’s made me more wary both of theological populism and institutions which claim they’ve always been the way they are. Of course, this theological wariness will often set me in position to be torn apart between warring factions which demand I chose one of their sides 1. Charting a third way course often feels like I’m using the third rail as a balance beam.

I’ve been pondering my unease with the theological populisms and institutional doldrums of both progressives and conservatives for years. And yet I have failed to come up with language concise enough to explain why. I am able to use paragraphs, or even comics, to unpack my struggles. But I had no word which could act as a focal point which communicated the rapid heartbeat of my unease.

After my recent trip, however, I believe I’ve found a word which depicts my heart. It is a mirror which forces every person to accept the critique of their adversaries.


Of course, I’ll have to unpack this word for it to make any sense 2.

Puritanism is a frequent shorthand utilized by progressives to identify those who wish to keep out “the other” — such LBGT, Ethnic Minorities, Women, or Immigrants. “Puritans,” in this interpretation, are those who believe the church can only be pure when it forces rigid conformity upon the community. It’s not incorrect. While the Puritan establishment in New England accomplished a great many things, they were obsessed with enforcing conformity for the good of the commonwealth. The inference in using this language is progressives do not wish to enforce any conformity on the community whatsoever.

And here’s where we all need to look into the mirror.

The brackets surrounding |Puritanism| mark it as a statement of absolute value 3. That is, it has no ideological bent — neither positive or negative, nor left or right. It is, rather, the way ideology is imposed on the community. That is, it describes the communal response to non-conformity — be that progressive or conservative in temperament.

One simple example may be used to highlight the nature of |Puritanism|.

Read from a non-inclusive language translation of the Bible in a progressive community and you’ll be told, “We don’t do that here.”

Read from a gender-inclusive language translation in a conservative setting, and you’re likely to hear, “We don’t bother with political correctness here!”

In both instances, the response is the same. “This community doesn’t do that.” The inference is also identical. If the offending person wants to feel welcome in the community, they must conform to the community standard. If they do not, the community will move to exclude the offender — sometimes through direct confrontation, sometimes passively 4. Conformity must be enforced, for the good of the commonwealth.

We can get away with a |puritanical| bent when we isolate ourselves in walled-off enclaves, or among alliances of like-minded enclaves. But when we try to come together across our comfortable allied lines, |Puritanism| shifts. In closed communities it squelched non-conformity. In a mixed-multitude of different communities |Puritanism| becomes a rallying cry to overcome the enemy.

This becomes evident in the language we use to describe our interactions with people who do not share our ideological viewpoint. Terms which reflect a militant stance slip into our statements unnoticed, coloring our understanding of the issues at hand. Take, for instance, a comment a friend of mine made as we discussed the content for this post,

Human nature is difficult. As someone who sides with progressive liberalism, it’s hard to want to give quarter to people who are polar opposite from what you feel is the best for society 5.

What I found interesting in the statement is the language of “quarter.” In 18th Century warfare offering “quarter” meant those who surrendered would be taken prisoner and given a reasonable level of care. When “no quarter” was offered, it meant wholesale slaughter. No prisoners would be taken. My friend’s statement, which expresses a struggle rather than a desire 6, reveals the temptation to metaphorically slaughter an opposing ideology.

If we are going to insist on being |Puritans|, then we may be left with only ideological warfare as our legacy. And, sooner rather than later, I fear the weapons used in this warfare will become physical rather than philosophical. For us to move forward we must all admit our bent towards |Puritanism| — toward the enforcement of conformity and the dehumanization of “the other.”

So what is the way forward? As my same friend who wrestled with “giving quarter” described it, we must decide to respond toward those who hold to different ideologies with the Cross instead of the Sword. To that excellent thought I add, “And if we want to respond in the way of the Cross, we must give up attempting to disguise our swords as that symbol of reconciliation.”

Can we make room for the Other we are inclined to treat only as the Enemy?

  1. As a gen-xer I’m not really much of a “joiner.” 
  2. Oh the irony. 
  3. Yes, I’m mixing mathematics and philosophy. It’s my blog, I’m allowed. 
  4. And neither response is exclusive to a particular ideology — human beings seem to be equally militant and passive-aggressive across the spectrum. 
  5. As my friend and I discussed my first draft of this post he pointed out he used the language of quarter because he remembered me using it first — either in a blog post or during one of our many conversations. I can’t find a specific example, so I can’t provide a link, but I have no doubt he’s correct. It also further illustrates the point. The shift to militant language is something we all do. 
  6. So, please, no “See how awful liberals really are!” statements. When someone reveals a human struggle, which is common to all of us, the appropriate response is, “I empathize.”