Understanding American Authoritarianism and the Atheist Puritan Theocracy

How do Americans and the American political system express authoritarianism? As social mood declines, how will authoritarian policies develop, what areas will see increased authoritarian control? Passport seizures and capital controls are easily predicted financial repression; how will authoritarianism express itself culturally? Where is the opposition to the system and how will it express itself? Most people think about politics within an existing framework of right-left that explains the differences within the system. One can also look outside the system as well and see it for its whole, an important perspective to take at major turning points in social mood because the entire system becomes unstable.

The following is one such view that steps fully outside of the left-right paradigm in American politics and sees it for its whole. Below is a short excerpt (yes, this is a short excerpt from a very long article that is only part 1 of a series) that lays out the basics of the author's opinion, namely that the U.S. is in fact a Puritan theocracy, sans God.

A gentle introduction to Unqualified Reservations (part 1)
The root problem with a state church in a democratic state is that, to believe in democracy, one must believe that the levers of power terminate with the voters. But if your democracy has an effective state church, the actual levers of power pass through the voters, and go back to the church. The church teaches the voters what to think; the voters tell the politicians what to do. Naturally, it is easy for the politicians to short-circuit this process and just listen to the bishops.

Thus the government has a closed power loop. With the church at its apex, of course. Which is exactly what we were hoping to avoid when we decided to make our state democratic, rather than authoritarian - an independent and unaccountable authority, which is in charge of everything else. In this case our authority is, of course, the church itself. Oops! We have engineered ourselves a big bucket of FAIL.

In other words, our so-called democracy is dependent not on the wisdom of the people, but on the internal power politics of the official church. If these politics produce a political platform which translates to responsible and effective actions, the government will be good. If they don't, it will suck. Either way, we have consigned the state to an unaccountable conclave of bishops. Why this is an improvement on monarchy, or any other form of autocracy, is unclear.

This political architecture, an abortion by any standard, is commonly known as a theocracy. Oddly enough, the classic historical case of a theocracy is... wait, hang on, I'm forgetting... oh, yes! Right here, in North America. Under those strange people we call the "Puritans."

For those who prefer their history fresh rather than aged, we can turn to Darren Staloff, whose Making of an American Thinking Class: Intellectuals and Intelligentsia in Puritan Massachusetts is badly-written but quite informative. Professor Staloff writes [italics mine]:
The Puritan ministers [...] created a completely new form of political authority - in the Weberian sense of legitimate power - which I have called cultural domination. Cultural domination, as here conceived, requires four formal supports.

First of all, like charismatic authority, it requires recognition in the form of ritual election or some similar mechanism of oath swearing or covenant signing. Fealty is sworn to the "correct" cultural formation, in this case Puritan biblicism, and the officeholder is empowered only as the specially trained bearer and interpreter of that cultural tradition. The "laity" generally conceive of this high cultural training - whether centered around biblicism or some other intellectually legitimating principle like reason or rationality - as being endowed with an automatic efficacy that need simply be applied to any problem to generate a univocal solution. The biblical truth is eternal and immutable, claimed Thomas Hooker, "but the alteration grows, according to God's most just judgment, and their own deservings."

Such belief gives rise to the second formal requirement, that officially authorized bearers of the cultural tradition must always agree in their public formulations or at least not disagree. If this condition is violated, the laity may come to see the cultural tradition as an amorphous collection of expressions or principles manipulated by "mandarins" for their own aggrandizement.

The third requirement is that all public expression of the culturally able must be bestowed on these public acts, including forced attendance, titulary homage, and silent obedience. Finally, to ensure the stability of the entire system, unauthorized cultural expressions must be carefully monitored and severely suppressed when they contradict or threaten to "desacralize" the authorized formulas.
The last explains political correctness clearly. Deviations from the mainstream discourse are treated with revulsion and disgust, essentially religious and emotional reactions to different opinion.

Emphasis in the passage below is mine:
And there is another card I've been holding back on. You see, the problem is not just that our present system of government - which might be described succinctly as an atheistic theocracy - is accidentally similar to Puritan Massachusetts. As anatomists put it, these structures are not just analogous. They are homologous. This architecture of government - theocracy secured through democratic means - is a single continuous thread in American history.

An excellent historical description of this continuity is George McKenna's Puritan Origins of American Patriotism - it gets a little confused in the 20th century, but this is to be expected. However, as a demonstration, I am particularly partial to one particular primary source - this article from 1942, which I found somehow in Time Magazine's wonderful free archive.

The nice thing about reading a primary source from 1942 is that you are assured of its "period" credentials, unless of course someone has hacked Time's archive. The author cannot possibly know anything about 1943. If you find a text from 1942 that describes the H-bomb, you know that the H-bomb was known in 1942. One such text is entirely sufficient.

What's great about the "American Malvern" article is that, while it describes a political program you will place instantly, it describes it in a very odd way. You are used to thinking of this perspective, which is obviously somewhere toward the left end of your NPR dial, as representative of a political movement. Instead, the anonymous Time reporter describes it as a religious ("super-protestant," to be exact) program. Isn't that just bizarre?

We have caught the worm in the act of turning. The political program and perspective that we think of as progressive is, or is at least descended from, the program of a religious sect. Unsurprisingly, this sect, best known as ecumenical mainline Protestantism, is historically the most powerful form of American Christianity - and happens to be the direct, linear descendant of Professor Staloff's Puritans. (You can also see it in abolitionism, the Social Gospel, the Prohibitionists, and straight on down to global warming. The mindset never changes.)

For a brief snapshot of where it is today, try this article. Note that Congregationalist and Puritan are basically synonyms, and American Unitarianism is a spinoff of Congregationalism. Of course, these belief systems have evolved since the time when these labels meant anything. Since the 1960s they have merged into one warm, mushy, NPR-flavored whole, which we here at UR sometimes refer to as Universalism. Michael Lerner is perhaps the ultimate Universalist.

Thus we see the whole, awful picture merge together. It is Cthulhu. We don't just live in something vaguely like a Puritan theocracy. We live in an actual, genuine, functioning if hardly healthy, 21st-century Puritan theocracy.
The whole article is worth a read if you are interested in U.S. politics, but what brought it to mind was the latest episode in Puritan red lettering.

NY law would identify buildings with smokers
New York apartment buildings that permit smoking would be identified under a new law proposed Wednesday by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Landlords of buildings with three or more units would have to inform prospective tenants and purchasers whether smoking was allowed in apartments and on balconies, as well as in common outdoor areas like rooftops.

Bloomberg said this would give potential renters the chance to choose a smoke-free environment, free from wafts of cigarette smoke from other apartments.

"Smoking kills and people have the right to know if they are going to be exposed to secondhand smoke," Bloomberg said.

"We pursued this proposal in response to complaints from New Yorkers. It won't ban smoking in residential buildings, only ensure that New Yorkers can choose a smoke-free place to live."
Just like no smoking sections in restaurants didn't lead to a ban on smoking, right?

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