How our Puritan heritage has warped us

By James A. Haught | 24 May 2023
Freethought Now

The Quaker Mary Dyer led to execution on Boston Common, 1 June 1660. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Here’s a joke that reveals a truth. An Australian told an American: “We were the lucky ones. We got the criminals, and you got the Puritans.”

Harsh, judgmental, intolerant values pervade the United States more than many modern democracies.

Look at our horrible rate of imprisonment, for instance. In some recent years, the United States had more than 2 million citizens locked in federal, state and county cages — an astoundingly high number. Thanks to “decarceration” efforts, the number has dropped to 1.8 million, but it’s still astronomical. While this country has 4 percent of the world’s population, it has around 20 percent of global prisoners.

The latest “World Prison Brief” data says America’s lockup rate now is 531 per 100,000. In contrast, Iceland has 37, Norway 57, the Netherlands 66, Germany 67, Denmark 72, Sweden 74 and Italy 96. Are Americans many times more criminal than Germans, Swedes and Italians? Of course not! This nation’s punitive “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mentality is instead to blame. Think of the billions of dollars that America blows on police, courts, lawyers, stockades and guards.

More U.S. Puritanism: Fundamentalists never stop raging against sexy movies, magazines and nudity — and against gays, abortion, transgender people, marijuana, lotteries, liquor and the rest. And they never stop trying to force religion onto defenseless schoolchildren and into government events, or to halt teaching of evolution. Much of this prudery and mind control has existed since the beginning of the republic.

After Alexis de Tocqueville from France surveyed this country in the early 1800s, he wrote: “I think I can see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on those shores.”

And that legacy continues to leave a mark. Tom Jacobs of the Pacific Standard has written that “Puritan values still resonate in today’s USA.” He cites several psychological studies about teen sexuality and promiscuous women, and declares:

The Puritans’ value system remains lodged deep in our psyches, shaping our emotions, judgments and behaviors. And its effects can be seen regardless of one’s political orientation or religious affiliation. … So, it appears Puritan beliefs aren’t confined to evangelical churches or classic novels. That famous Scarlet A, and the value system it represents, may be branded on Americans’ brains.

During Puritan-backed Prohibition, legendary newspaperman H.L. Mencken famously called Puritanism “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.” He told his friend novelist Theodore Dreiser that the stern faith is a “philosophy of taboos.”

When early Puritans ruled England under Oliver Cromwell, their Adultery Act of 1650 decreed death for adulterous women and their partners, and jailing of single mothers. Sodomy was a hanging offense. Many other “sins” required public whipping or worse.

That’s the heritage lurking in America’s “collective unconscious.” In comparison, the criminals shipped to Australia as settlers seem charming.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

James A. HaughtJames A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s The Charleston Gazette-Mail and a senior editor of the Free Inquiry magazine. He is also the author of numerous books and articles; his most recent book is Religion is Dying: Soaring Secularism in America and the West (Gustav Broukal Press, 2010). Haught has won 21 national newswriting awards and thirty of his columns have been distributed by national syndicates. He is in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Contemporary Authors, and 2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century.

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