GILBERT Chesterton once quipped that, “A puritan is a person who pours righteous indignation into the wrong things”. I was reminded of this due to the national convulsion in America over the fate of Terri Schiavo. She collapsed in 1990 from cardiac arrest and suffered brain damage because of lack of oxygen, and has been in the center of a decade-long legal tug-of-war between her husband and guardian, Michael, and her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, over whether or not to end life support and let her die.
The debate, as it developed, was peculiarly American, and highly puritan, in that those against letting Terri Schiavo die a natural death viewed their efforts as a moral crusade. The Puritan religious tradition of America makes no provision for a central religious authority to define right and wrong – therefore, those against removing the feeding tube that had kept Terri Schiavo alive did so as a loose coalition of concerned people; at the same time, their religiously-motivated efforts resulted in a demand for action by secular institutions. Again, this was quite American. The result is that while American politicians piously leaped to respond to the pleas of Schiavo’s parents, the most thoroughly secular of American institutions, the courts, worked in favor of Schiavo’s husband, setting aside religious arguments.
Here, to me, is a paradox for the modern era, then: America is closer, in a sense, to the Islamic ideals it is pitted against, than the liberal, post-Enlightenment attitudes of the Western nations it is expected to rub shoulders with as its natural allies. Those who oppose America as a Godless country, festering in the filth of its own materialism, must come to terms with the insistence on the part of many Americans themselves, that theirs is a profoundly religious country. The American religious right claims America has always been so, and it is time to recognize once more, that this is so: “One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”
Which is not to say a significant portion of America doesn’t feel God is best left to the churches and excluded from public discourse. There has always been such a faction. The debate between the two sides is actually a war over the soul of America that has been raging not just for decades, but for centuries. There is, on the one hand, the Puritan, dour, busybody underpinnings of rural American society on one hand, the America of today’s Red States – conservative, Christian, Republican – and the more liberal, even frankly contemptuous of tradition, morals, and piety of the American cities, beleaguered bulwarks of the Blue States – liberal, for whom religion is irrelevant, and Democratic — on the other. The war might be more of a Manichean struggle if it weren’t for the confusing situation of the United States being a nation avowedly secular in its institutions but explicitly Deist (meaning it acknowledges a fuzzily-defined “Supreme Being”) in its national ideology.
Not for nothing is “In God We Trust” emblazoned on American currency, or the pledge, “One Nation, Under God,” required of all Americans who take the pledge of allegiance to an object, their flag: Sanitizing religion was the compromise made by the patrician founders of the United States, who knew they could not eliminate, and thus had to moderate, the enthusiasms (including religious passions) of the yokel-citizens of their new republic.
170 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his famous book on America, noted that, “Religion in America, takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions…I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion — for who can search the human heart? – but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society.”
These pulpits have fulminated for centuries, to borrow an official American term, “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” The Puritan John Winthrop left England to establish himself in Massachusetts, proclaiming it the “New Jerusalem,” only to promptly banish Roger Williams, who, cast out from Winthrop’s Massachusetts Bay colony, then founded Rhode Island. The Puritan penchant for public investigations into private morality, and for legislation to promote cleanliness and Godliness, has surfaced again and again, from the Salem witchcraft trials, to the Temperance Movement and a constitutional prohibition on alcohol, to the seeking out of Communists in the 1950s and now, terrorists.
American political and military traditions are infused with visions of Biblical struggles between light and darkness, whether against bootleggers, socialists and communists, or in search of a “manifest destiny” for America, the chosen people. The struggles have been against Native Americans, overseas colonial subjects, fascism, or again, communism and now, terrorism.
So should we conclude, then, that between the religious police tactics of the Taleban, and the periodic episodes of witch-hunting in America, there is only a difference in methods, but not intent? But to say so would be heresy, would it not? At least, for an America that believes – and votes – out of the conviction that it remains a shining city on a hill, the New Jerusalem of the Western world.