A Puritan Politics: Life, Unity, and the Pursuit of God
Had The Declaration been written a century ago, the defining phrase would have read “life, unity and the pursuit of God .”
Portrait of John Winthrop the Younger the second, showing the typical garb of the Puritan in the Massachusetts Colony’, circa 1640-50. (Photo by The Printer Collector via Getty Images.
The following is adapted from remarks delivered at the third National Conservatism Conference in Miami, Florida, on September 12, 2022.
Protestants often arrive late to the party. After all, 1517 is a little late in the game, we must admit. Then again, the preconditions necessary to a Protestant emergence did not manifest until the early sixteenth-century, and something like the Reformation was bound to happen given the widespread sense that moral correction of the church was past due–Constance (1414) was still fresh on the mind–and the introduction of technologies that democratized communication. The Reformation was not so much unintended as it was, at some level, inevitable. The Protestants are neither late nor early, and they arrive exactly when they intend to.
And so it was with the so-called “post-liberal conversation.” In any case, we are here now, fashionably late and ready to interrogate our own “dead consensus.” Our Catholic brethren needn’t have all the fun, and whatever some scholars insist, Protestantism is not synonymous with liberalism simpliciter. However, Protestants have been contented with baptized liberal sociopolitical assumptions, particularly on issues of church and state. We must join them in the cyclical practices of republics: The reconsideration of fundamentals, or first things. First, we need to know where they are.
Until recently–and we dissenters are still few–Protestants have adopted post-war conceptions of the relationship between church and state, mindless parroting Supreme Court dicta in the place of historic, confessional convictions. To our chagrin, typical Protestants have embraced, wittingly or unwittingly, a posture of public atheism, a standard right-liberal mood. Living as though there was no God. Not coincidentally, we have also ignored the robust resources of the western natural law tradition in our jurisprudence.
The public death of God, as it were, has been, in part, at the hand of the worship of unalloyed choice–usually coded as “religious liberty” in the twentieth-century sense of the idea–even in the public recognition of transcendent things and man’s final end. As D.C. Schindler has surmised, “the unfettered capacity to choose with respect to what is ostensibly ultimate decontextualizes every other choice in principle.”
And yet, evangelical Protestants are shocked when public memory is sanitized of our God and our Christian past. Why would our opponents consider us to be indifferent to something about which we seem so serious? It has often been Protestants who have provided cover for a secularization in public life, often in the name sacralized liberal truths. Often, Protestants have been leading participants in the festival of reason, as purveyors of the gospel of intolerance of intolerance, a commitment paradoxically justified on the basis of preserving cultural capital and space for evangelism. That is, what James Wood has dubbed winsome politics, which turns out to be a remarkably demanding but equally debilitating approach to politics. The Protestants simultaneously seem surprised at the increasingly unjust and arbitrary regime, whether it be on issues of racial tensions or public health or abortion. It is as if justice cannot be given to man before God gives it to a people.
Now, at this late hour, some Protestants are getting woke to these contradictions and seeking again a better country, reevaluating previously unquestioned norms (e.g., neutrality) and untouchable sacred cows (e.g., autonomy). This is the rediscovery and revival of political Protestantism.
This exercise requires the discovery of contrastive cases that illuminate the causes and consequences of the status quo, and expand the political possibilities. The realization of the limitations of American socio-political order. It does not have to be, and it has not always been, as it is now. Some in-house critics, so to speak–usually Baptists–accuse the participants in this reassessment of fanciful cosplaying, a pejorative that reveals more about the underdeveloped political imaginations of the critics than anything about the relative viability of post-liberal proposals. These critics seem to want the garden to be tended to indefinitely, to the neglect of the wild.
Protestants don’t need to look to nineteenth-century Papal Encyclicals for instruction. However, they would certainly benefit from it; past texts and movements that are native to Protestant confessional traditions, and Protestant soil, are readily available. I must also now remined my Catholic friends that Viktor Orban is a self-professed Calvinist, so if there is a question as to viability vis a vis a Protestant post-liberal order, at least at the national scale, I would direct them to the modern Hungary they so clearly love. In his Nat Con address viz., Albert Mohler wisely reminded all parties. , It is necessary to feel some theological discomfort at the moment, if effective political alliances are to be formed. (Mild, cross denominational banter should be accepted and, perhaps, embraced by the community as constructive.
Returning specifically to the Protestants, historical contrasts, and the correctives unto the recovery of a substantive view of social order considered lower, are not at all foreign to America or Protestantism. (Indeed much of what Catholic integralism skeptics froth at is nothing but pre-modern political assumptions that were common in Christendom up to the eighteenth century. We have enough ammunition to get into the fray if we look at the history of our country and traditions. If we want to make history useful and actionable, however, we need to get rid of liberal revisionism. Because our past has been partially obscured, we don’t yet fully understand ourselves.
In 1783, John Adams instructed the Abbe de Mably that if the French philosopher, or any interested observer, wanted to understand the meaning of the new republic, he must first study the colonial background, viz. , The seventeenth-century. The seventeenth-century. Few Americans today understand this period as it was. Our forebears are shrouded in a fog of negatives and projections by the dominant, liberal narrative: theocracy. Bigotry. Fanaticism. And oppression. Early New Englanders, in particular, serve as the “Dark Ages” residents, a historical, manufactured occasion for celebrating reason. They are also often portrayed by the evangelical right as harbingers for “classical” liberalism, democracy and limited government.
I want to briefly sketch colonial New England as it actually existed behind contemporary prejudices, specifically as relevant to the issues already raised, viz. , state, church, and public religion – although the true picture of the errand to the wilderness will be no less frightening for our liberal interlocutors but far more instructive for us. We must pierce the liberal veil to reacquaint ourselves with what Patrick Deneen has rightly discerned to be a pre-liberal past.
Our second president was right, of course, the seventeenth-century New England–in Perry Miller’s mind, the first politically self-conscious colony–teaches us much about what followed in the subsequent century. Gordon Wood has rightly pointed out that until Lincoln, invocation of the capital-F “Founders” referred to, say, John Winthrop, not George Washington. The first planters of these areas enjoyed prominence in the historical imaginations, even though the centrality and importance of state and township governments was still valued within our federalist structure. Their legacy was, therefore, normative and formative. They offer a correction for us so long as our memory is not completely snuffed out. Particularly for their Protestant descendants, the beginning of this corrective is found in the formerly dominant but not foreign sociopolitical assumptions. For the Puritans of the Bay Colony did not settle for quietist purposes, or even strictly sacramental-ecclesial ones, but rather sought to establish a socio-political order in their own image. As Edmund Morgan put it long ago, “[T]he Puritans came to New England not merely to save their souls but to establish a ‘visible’ kingdom of God, a society where outward conduct would be according to God’s laws, a society where smooth, honest, civil life would prevail in family, church, and state.”
In Puritan New England politics was based on unity and homogeneity and not division and differences. Diversity was not a virtue or a strength. Peace at all costs, achieved only through unity, was the object of political pursuit in New England even up through the eighteenth-century, as Michael Zuckerman has so expertly chronicled. To borrow Samuel Pufendorf’s terminology, the ideal was the composite moral person.
That is, a coherent whole wherein discrete parts were knit together as one man, as John Winthrop put it in his Modell of Christian Charity (1630). Winthrop repeated this theme throughout his tenure as governor. Central to this unity was shared religion, a prerequisite for true community, as the conventional wisdom held, and as even John Jay still recognized over a century later in Federalist No. 2. Without a common object of worship, the common good of the whole cannot be coherently asserted and pursued. Man is more than flesh & blood.
Second, this organic, basically medieval socio-political outlook yielded institutional implications. The structures of authority in society were intended to reflect classical anthropology. And so, we find in New England the Protestant revival of the Gelasian formula of church and state–the two powers or two swords (duo sunt)–and, as with many other central doctrines, a rejection of late medieval innovations that the magisterial Reformers designated a confusion of the two powers. (Catholics may disagree with this narrative but it was the operative narrative against whom the nascent Protestants responded. In Robert Walton’s unfairly neglected study of the Swiss Reformer Huldrych Zwingli he describes the magisterial position well:
The men of the sixteenth century still believe din the corpus christianum–the idea that society was a single Christian body. The corpus christianum was divided into two realms, the spiritual and the secular, which were ruled by the priesthood and the magistrate. They governed the Christian world’s citizens together.
The same position–conventional pre-modern thought–was perpetuated by the Puritans. It is easily found in seminal texts of the time from Massachusetts luminaries like John Cotton, John Norton, Nathaniel Ward, and John Davenport, among others. Even in the mid-to-late-seventeenth century, the Puritans stood behind Enlightenment innovations in political thought that did violence to this belief that the two powers were two species of the same genus within a Christian community.
Indeed, the Cambridge Platform (1648) still referred to church and state as “two twinnes” which had grown up together harmoniously in the new world exercising reciprocal affection while respecting the juridical boundaries and legislative competencies of one another. Each power or institution was charged with leading men to the final goal, the glory and praise of God. As Davenport and others stated, church and state were to be coordinated. This was not a fusion of church and state but a proper ordering of the two powers, a mirroring of God’s creation in man by the powers ordained to govern man according to his nature (i.e., body and soul).
The key post-liberal insight is that this is always the case. All regimes get their moral content, their religion, and that from a church. Check around to see if there are still blasphemy statutes. Also, check out what faith is being protected by these laws as the civic cult or moral adhesive. The law is always a teacher and authority is always coercive.
Finally, Protestantism in both continents sought to restore the religious role of magistrates where they felt it had been greatly diminished. Countless election sermons from New England pursued this point. Vicegerents of God receive power (unmediated), from God, and are charged with man’s good. His good is not limited to material considerations, since man is not a beast, but has a rational mind. The magistrate was responsible for maintaining religion. Franciscus Junius, to whom the Puritans often looked, went so far as to say that the magistrate “in his political order assists his society in aspiring to the gate of eternal salvation.”
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Since the magistrate himself lacks the direct competency to, inter alia, promulgate doctrine or administer the sacraments, this duty manifests as support for the spiritual power, her doctrine and well-being, in addition to providing an example of piety to the people, as Samuel Willard recommended in 1694. Magistrates were expected recognize Christ’s public preeminence and to believe that man’s happiness comes from the greatest, truly universal, common good, God. A polity without public religion, Richard Baxter instructed, is like a corpse, a body without a soul, in other words, inhuman.
If understood correctly, Jefferson’s “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, has a classical, defensible meaning. But had the Declaration been penned a century prior, the defining phrase more likely would have read, “life, unity, and the pursuit of God.” For these were the defining features, the central emphases, of Puritan politics in seventeenth century America around which their social order was formed, the vestiges of which were praised by Tocqueville even as the old “standing order” of the New England way was beginning to disintegrate.
We would be well advised to think about them, the Puritans, and their political disposition, rather than settling for wandering aimlessly in the political and moral wilderness of liberalism forever. Positively, if we want a Protestantism which accepts the whole counsel and authority of God in all matters of doctrine, life, and politics, then we might remember the last time that American Protestants did this.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.