Daniel N. Gullotta
Conservatives, particularly those linked with the Moral Majority, have typically been viewed as the fun police. Every week, right-wing radio hosts and TV talking heads objected to the abundance of sex, violence, drugs, and decadence in the lives of Americans. Dungeons & Dragons wasn’t just a kid’s game but rather a gateway to Satanism. Rock music wasn’t just fun to dance to but promoted free love and endorsed drug use. Violent movies weren’t just entertaining stories but were responsible for violent crimes. Whether it was on TV, at the movies, being played on the radio, or being sold in the stores, there always seemed to be something prudish conservative critics could point out that millions of normal Americans enjoyed, highlighting the moral decline of the United States. But for some, the days of Glenn Beck condemning the lyrics of My Chemical Romance and Cooper Lawrence decrying the sex scenes in the videogame Mass Effect on Fox News seem like a distant memory.
Today, it is rightwing personalities like The Daily Wire’s Michael J. Knowles, comedian and Fox News host Kat Timpf, Mary Katharine Ham and Vic Matus on the Getting Hammered Podcast, and Twitter sensation “Comfortably Smug,” who seem to be having all the fun. Shows featuring online shock jocks like Louder with Crowder and PragerU revel in entertaining their audiences by trolling liberals and mocking the bizarre beliefs held by extreme progressives. Between the copious amounts of Bang Energy drinks, the irreverent speeches, and the presence of adult film stars, companies like Turning Point USA have conferences that can almost resemble a rock concert. Further, compared to the straightlaced image of former Republican presidents, Donald Trump’s opulent lifestyle, crude demeanor, and ridiculous memeablity seem to have been attractions, not drawbacks, for many voters. All of this has led some commentators to declare conservatism the new “punk rock,” a sentiment that has been echoed and embraced across much of the MAGA right.
In turn, the left—once the bastion of people eager to “stick it to the man” and preachers of anti-conformity—has become the home of “the new Puritans,” according to Commentary’s Noah Rothman in his new book. While moral panics have been constant fixtures of the post-New Left university campus, as Rothman highlights, they have now begun to manifest in parts of the food industry, the entertainment business, and the publishing world, just to name a few. As Rothman’s subtitle denotes, a “war on fun” is being raged by energized activists and nothing the average American enjoys can escape it. From the entertainment we watch, to the comedy we laugh at, to the clothing we wear, to even the food we consume, a new kind of fun policing has emerged over recent years to take issue with all of it. So many of the things Americans take for granted as sources of enjoyment, entertainment, and escapism are now deemed “problematic,” precisely because they remain avenues for fun. As evident from so many online outrages, those willing to dissent and criticize these everchanging progressive orthodoxies might soon find themselves at the wrong end of the Twitter mob and quickly jobless. But for Rothman, this isn’t just a kind of puritanical progressivism, but rather, a new manifestation of Puritanism itself.
Though The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum and plenty of others have likewise compared this anxiety wrought by social media’s call-out and cancel culture to a new kind of puritanism, Rothman’s assessment is distinctive in that he argues that “woke progressivism” isn’t just analogous with Puritanism, but rather has direct historical ties to it. Indebted to George McKenna’s The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism (2008), Rothman argues that far beyond the colonial period, the United States owes much of its cultural norms and traditions, on the left and the right, to the legacy of the Puritans, and the country has been continually shaped by their spiritual descendants. From evangelicals eager to Christianize 19th-century America to crusading efforts of the temperance movement to prohibit alcohol in the early 20th century, the United States has repeatedly seen the rise and fall of various Puritanisms.
Rothman’s analysis in many ways complements John McWhorter’s assessment that “wokeism” (loosely defined) has become a new religion for those on the left eager to force conversions, crush infidels, and punish heretics. But while McWhorter and Rothman agree that this intense zealotry has a religious component, Rothman does not go so far as to say “wokeism” is a new religion per se, due to the lack of a deity/deities (or “superhuman powers” as the University of Notre Dame’s Christian Smith would describe them). Even so, for Rothman, its ideological adherents manifest an enthusiasm that can only be compared to gious zealotry. While the new Puritans may not share the intense Protestant ethos of their 17th-century counterparts, what they do share according to Rothman is a commitment to “waging war on decadence, frivolity and pleasure for its own sake” as well as a “seriousness” that “looks more to the uncommitted observer like fanaticism.”
Examples of this new Puritanism offered by Rothman are as frightening as they are funny, and troublingly frequent. The New Puritans recounts sagas of outrage and spectacles of progressives, from the fate that befell former host of The Bachelor Chris Harrison, the N.F.L. playing two national anthems (“the Star-Spangled Banner” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing”) to display its commitment to anti-racism, the championing of anti-comic Hannah Gadsby, as well as the rise and fall of the restaurant Holy Land. Though many of Rothman’s case studies are extreme, one does not have to go far to find similar instances of people being branded with a scarlet letter for bucking any given trend in activism.
Throughout the book, Rothman offers readers comparative case studies between the 17th-century Puritanism and today’s so-called new Puritans. Both dislike how sports distracted audiences from the more important subjects, namely the Gospel for the old and the work of antiracism for the new. Both held strong moralistic approaches to the consumption of food and alcohol, critical of those who would enjoy food for its own sake rather than devote their diets to higher ends. Also, both hold apocalyptic world views about the imminence of the end of days, with the new Puritans constantly warning about the fast-approaching dangers of climate danger rather than the Second Coming of Christ. In Rothman’s view, one would be hard pressed to see much of a difference between the dower op-eds stemming from BuzzFeed, The Guardian, and The New Yorker and the theological indictments of Cotton Mather, Benjamin Coleman, and Jeremiah Burroughs.
But in attempting to directly link today’s progressives with historic Puritanism, Rothman’s arguments suffer from many of the same problems McKenna’s do. Rothman repeatedly labels almost every reformist movement from the 19th century onwards as “puritan” inspired or “puritanical” in affect, despite their dramatically different theologies and contexts. Many of Rothman’s comparative attempts between 17th-century Puritans and modern progressives, while interesting and at times humorous, do not go beyond surface level similarities due to a rich and complex historical context that one cannot grasp in a book like this.
In doing so, the term “Puritan” is continually stretched well beyond its historical meaning and context which makes it difficult to keep the throughlines of Rothman’s argument straight. What is apparent throughout The New Puritans is Rothman’s familiarity with the excellent scholarship of Michael Winship, and Rothman does an exemplary job at dispelling many of the myths surrounding Puritans. But despite these attempts, one cannot help but see H. L. Mencken’s uncharitable view that Puritanism, at its core, is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy” underlying much of Rothman’s presentation.
Early on, Rothman confesses that he is preaching to the choir, acknowledging that his book will be most readily consumed by those already mindful of these intense cultural war actors. Because of this, it is doubtful that his warnings will reach those who probably should heed them the most. Though this complaint could be leveled at any number of conservative thinkers and commentators, Rothman’s goal is to apply an intellectual framework to an observable phenomenon, offering conservatives a means for analysis. Likewise, as with so many books designed for a culturally engaged conservative audience, terms like “the left,” “progressives,” and “liberals” quickly become unwieldy.
Because almost all these controversies (or non-controversies) begin on social media, particularly Facebook or Twitter, one quickly gets the impression that this phenomenon is reserved, for the most part, for the “very online.” We all might “live on campus now” as Andrew Sullivan puts it, but certainly not to the same degree or intensity as those hyper-engaged on certain corners of the internet. While The New Puritans is rich with anecdotes, it is short of hard data to comprehend how widespread and how encouraged this kind of “anti-fun progressivism” is. Even so, if Rothman is correct, most ordinary citizens will not be touched by the intensity of the so-called new puritans, but rather the subtle but creeping efforts of like-minded reformists. Furthermore, given the steady diet of online outrage being dished from the right, for example the decrying of LGBT representation in animated Disney movies like Lightyear or the lyrics such as Cardi B’s W.A.P., there is still plenty of conservative puritanism to go around.
Regardless of the gaps in Rothman’s thesis, his antidote, like other critics of online shaming is well taken: Log off (or even delete your accounts) and have fun in the real world with real friends and family. But for those braver, Rothman charges readers to mock the new Puritans into irrelevancy, the tried and true (though equally perilous) tactic used against the Puritans of yesteryears. Much like the scope, influence, and power of this new kind of puritanism, how many people will be willing to risk scarlet letters is an open question.