Skip to main content

Except for early Puritan Massachusetts, American conservatism was long dominated by a pro-business libertarianism that was skeptical of most proposals for government to regulate the economy, and tolerant of most religious persuasions (even Jews, Catholics and discreet atheists). Ronald Reagan (or one of his speechwriters) perhaps said it best: “Government is not the solution, government is the problem.”

In recent decades, though, the puritanical current of conservatism has become much more powerful, even eclipsing libertarianism. This shift probably started in the 1970s with the anti-abortion movement that emerged after Roe v. Wade legalized and regulated abortion in 1973. If fundamental moral principles were at stake, the New Puritans asserted, government had the right and the obligation to intervene in the most intimate, personal ethical decisions, to enforce conformity to a particular moral and religious orthodoxy.

This was notwithstanding the provision of the First Amendment to the Constitution, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The libertarian current found itself increasingly restricted to the economy, defending business from government regulations, while ceding ground in the defense of religious liberty.

The New Puritanism has matured in the quarter century since the Gingrich Revolution of the 1990s. Particularly in the last few years, with Republicans in control of many states and the US Supreme Court (and able to immobilize the Congress even when they don’t control it), we find the New Puritans moving from attempts to impose orthodoxy on school curricula and school libraries, to actual intervention in the rights of parents to make decisions about the well-being of their children.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

Photo by Tom Driggers, Flickr, Creative Commons

Photo by Tom Driggers, Flickr, Creative Commons

There have been several state laws that imposed restrictions on public school curricula and libraries, prohibiting discussion of homosexuality in any form in the lower grades, and prohibiting the presence of suspect books in school libraries (most prominently the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law in Florida). When the Disney Company (huge in Florida) opposed the Don’t Say Gay law, governor Di Santis broke Republican libertarianism by threatening Disney if the company got out of line.

In Texas, the governor has issued an order requiring state authorities to investigate child-abuse charges against parents who authorize medical treatment of their children in support of their trans-gender identity.

Not surprisingly, most of these New Puritan initiatives have to do with sex, and a rejection of increasingly permissive attitudes prevailing in more cosmopolitan parts of our culture. From their point of view, change is coming too fast and going too far. When I was growing up in the 1950s, we kind of knew about Queers, sniggered about them, but mostly didn’t talk about it. Now, we have to remember to add the “+” to “LGTBQ” to try to include all options of sexual identity. And we’d better remember what each letter stands for. It is, for New Puritans, too much, too fast, and most importantly, too wrong to tolerate.

Perhaps most striking in the current New Puritan playbook is the virtual demonization of teenaged trans-sexuality. When medical science has made it increasingly possible to change one’s gender, and when the teen years are the best time to take the measures needed to accomplish that, New Puritans say, “We will make you accept the body and the sexual orientation that God wills. And we alone know what God wills.”

Where they have control, the New Puritans will do their best to carry out that pledge. And it is unlikely that the current Supreme Court will find anything in the First Amendment to prevent them from doing it. The only religion whose “free exercise” is protected is the New Puritanism.

That seems uncomfortably close to “an establishment of religion.”