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Is Obama More Puritanical Than Romney?

Sure he is, according to Walter Russell Mead.  Mead’s Meadea, of course, is one of the most savvy and erudite blogs around.

One reason, it appears, that Mead is voting Romney is that he’s paranoid about all things puritanical.  Left-wing Puritanism is a greater threat to our liberty than right-wing Puritanism these days.  That’s because the puritanical right is so unfashionable and less and less effective.  The opposite is true of the puritanical left.  Mead’s judgments here, of course, might be questioned.

My own more fair-and-balanced judgment is that being puritanical is an indispensable component of being American. It can be both good and bad, and it’s mainly good when properly checked by our devotion to personal or individual liberty. If it weren’t for our puritanical streak, we Americans would be too libertarian, too indifferent to the well-being of our fellow citizens and fellow creatures.

If it weren’t for our libertarian streak, we’d be too intrusive and meddlesome; we wouldn’t leave each other alone in peace and freedom at all. 

We don’t want to be as sexually repressive as the Puritans, who wanted to punish adultery with death and even make kissing in public illegal.  But we don’t want to be so sexually amoral that we’re indifferent to how our sexual choices affect our lives as social and relational and familial beings.  

We surely don’t want laws that command the practice of the virtue of chastity.  That fearful coercion might make chastity not really a virtue at all.  But we don’t want to forget that chastity is a virtue that makes a basic contribution to the flourishing of members of our “eusocial” and yet highly self-conscious species. So we might want even public education to be somewhat pro-chastity.

Commentators are so psyched up by Romney’s prowess as a debater and his alleged lying about taxes and whatever that nobody much is noticing the words he spoke that got the highest rating on the approval-meter lurking beneath the candidates on the CNN screen were all about the Declaration, the Constitution, rights, and all that.  Romney’s constitutionalism impressed Americans most of all.  

Those words were a judicious mixture of our libertarian (or Lockean) and our puritanical heritages.

Rights are first of all individual rights, and everyone knows that our founding Puritans weren’t about protecting them.  They violated the right of conscience and other rights with their tyrannical and often ridiculous laws.

But Romney altered the emphases of the rather libertarian Mr. Jefferson in at least a couple of ways.  He highlighted that the right of liberty was mainly for religious liberty, by which he meant the liberty of churches to function as institutions.  He didn’t say anything Jefferson would have necessarily disagreed with, but he was surely more insistent that freedom of religion is freedom for religion as an organized body of thought and action.

And in discussing the pursuit of happiness, Romney connected happiness with the performance of duty.  His puritanical suggestion was that we are happy both in our freedom to follow our dreams and in performing our duties to others and God.  So he hinted, at least, at the puritanical connection between happiness and practicing the personal virtue of charity. Our dreams aren’t or shouldn’t be solitary dreams.

For John Locke, what distinguishes free persons from the other animals is the pursuit of happiness.  We are moved by a kind of uneasiness that pushes us along in pursuit of an elusive happiness that ends only in death.  Our libertarians, we often and rightly hear, are pretty lame in their indifference to what all our freedom is for. Being happy is, most of all, being in love in the present, not constantly sacrificing the here-and-now for some indefinite future.  Our Puritans, whatever their shortcomings, thought they knew what happiness is.

President Obama, in his acceptance speech and many other places, has said that our liberty is limited by our common conception of citizenship.  America is in many ways a project we share in common; we don’t achieve our successes and so we shouldn’t experience our failures alone.  In that respect, our president’s words echo the original puritanical concern for the quality of public life and provision for the unfortunate. Obama, in his way, agrees with Romney that our dreams aren’t or shouldn’t be solitary dreams.

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Mead is surely right that Romney’s neo-Puritanism flows from being embedded in the Mormon church.  The original intention of that church was to be in some ways as theocratic as the Puritans.  It is, I have to emphasize, not theocratic now, and it is not pursuing its charitable goals through political means.  No American institutional religion of any significance is now.

Mead is equally right to see the progressive Obama as heir to the intrusive nationalism that began in New England and surfaced among the abolitionists, the prohibitionists, the suffragettes, the regulatory, redistributive reformism of the welfare state, and the Civil Rights movement.  It continues with the paternalistic intention of regulating the details of ordinary people’s lives with their health and safety in mind.  Nobody can deny that the egalitarianism animating much of this intrusiveness has achieved much that’s good and enduring, but sometimes at the price of being too personally intrusive and undermining the virtues that flow from our localism, federalism, families, churches, and free economy.

I’m going to stop short of Mead’s judgmentalism by saying it’s worthy of wonder that no one is talking more about the especially strong puritanical dimension found in each of our two admirable candidates.


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