Thursday, February 21, 2008

a listener asks about Puritanism in America

A listener to the RCIA Hollywood podcasts was kind enough to write on 2/21/08:
Hi Mr. Emmer,

Thanks for starting to upload RCIA Hollywood Podcasts again.

As I told Ms. Nicolosi via email last year, I came across the Tiber in the Easter Vigil of 2007, and I wished that my RCIA experience was as thorough as what the Catechumens are receiving in your program. It has been great going through the podcasts. It's been quite reinvigorating. I have especially enjoyed the bibliography posted. I never would have read any of the books or watched any of the movies listed without this site. What a treasure chest!

This most recent podcast I must applaud you on as the sound quality has improved by leaps and bounds!

Please keep up the good work.

I wanted to ask you a question about your comments in the Catholic Vision of the Moral Life. You referenced that America was not founded as a Christian Country; especially, your comments about Puritanism being a dualistic faith.

As a former UCC member, and having Mayflower ancestors, I would like to more about this concept. Any recommended readings?


PS: I am also subscribed to your DoxaPod Audio. I didn't know that you were related to both sources.
Thanks for the feedback! Finally (three months later) I am getting around to a thorough response to your question.

First, I meant to say that America was not founded as a Catholic country.

When Puritans came to America, they imported their Calvinist theology with them, a theology that is deeply dualistic. Literature that would demonstrate the way this dualism played itself out would be: Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Jonathan Edwards, The Scarlet Letter and Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and The Crucible by Arthur Miller.

After reading all of this literature, I wrote a poem based on Young Goodman Brown which explores Puritan dualism.

You might also be interested in a paper I wrote in college about the Puritan roots of Thoreau's transcendentalism. I think it goes a long way toward explaining the way American Catholics tend to misunderstand the place of authority and conscience in the moral life, as well as the role of the Church as a mediator of grace and revelation. I've posted the entire paper on my blog.

Finally, I, too, am a descendant of those who came to America on the Mayflower; John Alden (whose story is recounted in The Courtship of Miles Standish) is an ancestor of mine. So perhaps you and I are related!

Thanks again for writing, and for your patience in waiting for a reply!


Anonymous said...

I would also recommend reading Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, chapter 4: "The Religious Foundations of Worldly Asceticism," section A: "Calvinism." As Weber aptly puts it, in Calvinist theology, even God can't save you. This ironically leads to a freaky version of practical Pelagianism.

Clayton said...


Thanks for the recommendation. Based on your summary, Weber has it exactly right.

It's as if the Calvinists had such a dark view of humanity, that they felt compelled to sentimentality as a way of coping.

Clare Krishan said...

There's that well-intended prissy kind of dualism too, the kind Papa Benedetto alluded to in his funeral eulogy to Communion and Liberation founder Don Guissani:

"And the temptation was great to say, “Just for the moment we will have to set Christ aside, set God aside, because there are more pressing needs. First we have to change structures, fix the external things; first we must improve the earth, and after that we will be able to find heaven again.” The great temptation of the
moment was to transform Christianity
into moralism and moralism into politics, that is, to substitute believing with doing. Because what does it mean to believe? Someone may say: we have to do something right now. By substituting faith with moralism, believing with doing, though, we retreat into particularism. Above all, we lose the criteria for judging and the guideposts that orient us in the right direction. The final result, instead of constructive growth, is division."

[my emphases]

Its a kind of "I'm ok, you're ok" transactional thing goin' on. The moralists won't reliquish parental authority and thus infantilize the rest. Infantilized laxists don't grow up and assume responsibility for the consequences of their actions, reinforcing the moralists justifications for incarcerating 1% of the population:

Its a tragedy of monumental proportions...

Clayton said...


Thanks for passing along that insight. I hadn't thought of the prison system in terms of its Puritan underpinnings, but it's an important point. It seems we don't do much to rehabilitate criminals, but we merely quarantine them in pursuit of a "pure" society.