Puritanism was primarily the religion of the new commercial classes. It attracted traders, money lenders, bankers and industrialists. Calvin had given them what the old order could not: a theological justification of commerce. Capitalism, in his teachings, was not unchristian, but could be used for the glorification of God.
By the mid-17th Century, most English Puritans saw in poverty "not a misfortune to be pitied and relieved, but a moral failing to be condemned, and in riches, not an object of suspicion … but the blessing which rewards the triumph of energy and will."
"Next to the saving of his soul," the preacher Richard Steele wrote in 1684, the tradesman’s "care and business is to serve God in his calling, and to drive it as far as it will go." Success in business became a sign of spiritual grace: providing proof to the entrepreneur, in Steele’s words, that "God has blessed his trade".
Tawney describes the Puritans as early converts to "administrative nihilism": the doctrine we now call the minimal state. "Business affairs," they believed, "should be left to be settled by business men, unhampered by the intrusions of an antiquated morality". They owed nothing to anyone. Indeed, they formulated a radical new theory of social obligation, which maintained that helping the poor created idleness and spiritual dissolution, divorcing them from God.
Of course, the Puritans differed from Bush’s people in that they worshipped production but not consumption. But this is just a different symptom of the same disease.
There were some, such as the Levellers and the Diggers, who remained true to the original spirit of the Reformation, but they were violently suppressed. The pursuit of adulterers and sodomites provided an ideal distraction for the increasingly impoverished lower classes.
So why has this ideology resurfaced in 2004? Because it has to. The enrichment of the elite and impoverishment of the lower classes requires a justifying ideology if it is to be sustained. In the United States this ideology has to be a religious one. Bush’s government is forced back to the doctrines of Puritanism as an historical necessity. If we are to understand what it’s up to, we must look not to the 1930s, but to the 1630s.
Tuesday, August 09, 2005
An interesting and relevant bit of religious history from George Monbiot - the complete article is at Religion of the Rich. The basic notion is that Puritanism (as it really unfolded, not as we imagine it) is easily seen as an "intellectual" ancestor to the recent crops of Republicans in
orifice office. In lieu of commentary, I've highlighted some of the most interesting (and contrary to what I regard as real Christian teachings), but I recommend the complete article.