Tuesday, 17 October 2017

The Puritan origins of Trump hatred

To Americans, religious conflicts happen in other countries. The Sunni fights the Shia in Iraq, which is why the country is broken. Hindus don’t like Muslims (and vice versa) in South Asia, explaining the nuclear-tipped tension. And Russian Orthodox Christians still don’t get on with Roman Catholics in Europe.

Yet modern Americans think of themselves as "freethinkers" and “progressive,” reinforcing the narrative that faith is something other people do. But how is it that the US displays all the hallmarks of a religious conflict and yet simultaneously denies it? This hatred of Donald Trump is no ordinary revulsion. It deserves a better explanation than “racism” or “nationalism.”

Judging by intellectual descent, teacher-to-student, modern American progressivism is not a secular ideology at all. It is a Christian ideology. "Progressive" originates as an adjective to Christianity. Modern American progressivism is a Puritan revival, with roots in the Social Gospel movement of the late 19th century. There is no serious historical dispute of this – it is traced superbly over 350 years in George McKenna’s The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism.

The title is slightly misleading – it might as well have been called The Puritan Origins of Everything Everyone Believes, Or At Least Is Supposed To – and it focuses a little too much on the US and not enough on English thinkers. McKenna should have at least started at the Cromwellian period. But it’s a masterly intellectual history of the modern universe and it’s published by Yale, so it must be right.

Studies like this show left-wing “atheism” is really just an extreme version of the Puritan opposition to idolatry in religion. The Puritans hated Christmas for exactly the same reasons: as an idolatrous, superstitious festival. Removing the theological component once and for all is simply the natural last step in the Puritanisation of Christianity.

The conversion of American Puritanism – whose mainstream always has been, and always will be, whatever young people are taught at Harvard – from a Christian sect into a secular/civic religion is a fascinating process. Note, for instance, the political importance of institutions such as the YMCA a hundred years ago. The YMCA was holy when Washington was unholy. Now that progressivism has captured the Beltway, what is the YMCA? A gym.

Also, note separation of church and state doesn’t apply to progressivism because it is “atheistic.” Who cares where the lines are drawn, ask who draws the lines. History shows progressivism’s historical roots are in America's most prestigious and powerful form of Christianity – Massachusetts Protestantism. Only 60 or 70 years ago, this belief system was described as not just religious but fanatically religious.

The basic problem with conservative critiques of socialism is their refusal to recognise that socialism is fundamentally Anglo-American in origin. They focus on thinkers such as Karl Marx who, while born a German Jew, did most of his work in the British Museum and, when he wasn't leeching off Friedrich Engels, made his pay-check by writing columns for Horace Greeley's New York Tribune. Distracted by Marx's enormous beard, they miss the obvious (and much more embarrassing) WASP-Puritan connection.

Marxism has little to do at all with the modern progressive movement. Until the past few decades, the socialist and radical movement in the Anglo-American world was always associated with Christianity. Before the 1950s, the US as a Christian nation was generally accepted. But when the Warren Court revised this tradition by dramatically expanding civil rights, civil liberties, judicial power and the federal power, it had the letter of the law on its side. Effectively, progressivism rose to power through Christianity and then used that power to "pull up the ladder" – a classic Machiavellian manoeuvre.

It’s all the same Christian tradition. The details change. The details will always change. In French theologian John Calvin's day, they took Corinthians seriously that men with long hair offended God. Today, burning fossil fuels is bad for the environment. Logicians can argue either point. All kinds of evidence – biblical or scientific – can be deployed. But no progressive will ever conclude burning fossil fuel is good for the environment.

Religions should not be analysed by their doctrinal elements, which are constantly shifting and often intentionally confusing. It’s much more enlightening to judge them by the organisational structures they create in the real world. Only then can one understand this strange Trump hatred, and why progressives change the subject every time someone mentions Edward Bellamy's utopian novel, Looking Backward.

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