The Suffocating Neo-Puritanism of 'Progressive' America

Alexandra Pelosi’s HBO documentary Fall to Grace tracks the evolution of New Jersey’s disgraced, self-dubbed “gay-American,” former governor, Jim McGreevey. In one passing scene, McGreevey enters a church ostensibly more welcoming than the judgmental Catholic Church of his childhood. The message board on the church front reads -- and this is a close paraphrase -- “Lord help us overcome the sins of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.”

Had the message board been bigger, the good pastor might have added nativism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia. In a postmodern world that prides itself on “non-judgmentalism,” these have emerged as the seven new deadly sins, and God help the man, woman, or child who commits one.

Unlike the Catholic Church McGreevey abandoned, his newfound Neo-Puritanism is unforgiving. It shows sinners little mercy and offers them no path to absolution. Indeed, like Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, the sinner is publicly branded with her sin.

Celebrity chef Paula Deen did not commit the sin of racism; she is a “racist.” She must forever wear the Scarlet R, just as Mozilla’s Brendan Eich must wear the Scarlet H for “homophobe,” and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali wears the Scarlet I for “Islamophobe.” From the Neo-Puritan perspective, nothing else counts; that letter is their identity.

The cult’s clerics add new sins regularly and new sinners daily. Of late, in addition to Eich and Hirsi Ali, Cliven Bundy, Phil Robertson, even Alec Baldwin have joined the ranks of the damned. Hawthorne described his seventeenth century ancestors as “being of the most intolerant brood that ever lived,” but these “little Puritans” had nothing on the big ones that would flourish four centuries later.

In both the old and new Puritanism, worshippers achieve a sense of moral worth simply by designating themselves among “the elect” -- no good works required. To validate that uncertain status, however, they feel compelled to heap abuse upon the sinner lest they too be thought guilty of the sin.

This, LA Clipper owner Donald Sterling has been learning the hard way. Sports-minded progressives who have found mercy in their hearts for dog killers, wife beaters, child deserters, lethal DUI drivers, steroid abusers, cocaine addicts, serial baby daddies, and abortion enablers have not spared a drop of it for a cuckolded old sugar daddy whose comments on race had been so teased out of him that they are impossible to quote. Hell, even a psycho throat-slasher like O.J. Simpson has retained a larger public cheering section than Sterling.

Like Ms. Prynne, Sterling has quickly found himself “without a friend on earth who dared to show himself.” Despite donations exclusively to liberal causes and candidates, the media were quick to redefine Sterling as a “registered Republican” and thus mark him as fair game. Even those who questioned the illegal taping of his private thoughts felt obliged to condemn those thoughts in the harshest possible terms -- “disgusting,” “appalling,” “abhorrent.”

“The man who poisoned the Los Angeles Clippers for nearly 30 years with his ignorance and hate,” wrote the LA Times Bill Plaschke, “has at last been dragged away into sweet oblivion.” Hawthorne’s Roger Chillingsworth could not have denounced Sterling more fervently.

Sterling must have had some sense of how the Neo-Puritans rolled. To keep them at bay, he had been buying their indulgences for years. Leon Jenkins, the Los Angeles branch NAACP president, observed that Sterling’s organization “brought in numerous minorities and inner city kids to games” and also “contributed to a lot of minority charities, including the NAACP.” Sterling’s largesse netted him an NAACP Lifetime Achievement award in 2009 and another one -- almost -- in 2014.

Sterling’s contributions, however, were too limited and too local to buy him much in the way of national political capital. As a result, he held no particular value for a Democratic-media complex that has been nurturing Neo-Puritanism since at least 1976 when the leak of Republican Ag Secretary Earl Butz’s overheard “loose shoes” joke cost him his job and his reputation.

The very success of Neo-Puritanism, however, may be its undoing. Each spectacular new public burning reveals just how empty and oppressive the movement is at its heart. For instance, in exposing Sterling the media have unwittingly shone light on Al Sharpton and the NAACP.

In fact, the NAACP banquet that was to honor Sterling for lifetime achievement was to honor Al Sharpton as “Man of the Year.”  This was the same Sharpton who dissed the work of “Socrates and them Greek homos”; the same Sharpton who instigated the lethal Crown Heights pogrom with the rallying cry, “If Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house”; and yes, the same Al Sharpton who said of Sterling, "No one should be allowed to own a team if they have in fact engaged in this kind of racial language."

As to NAACP head Jenkins, a former judge, it turns out that he had been disbarred both in Michigan and California. The Michigan State Bar Review found that Jenkins “systematically and routinely sold his office and his public trust . . . committed wholesale violations of the most elementary canons of judicial conduct, and brought grave dishonor upon this state’s judiciary.” This should not surprise. A cult without a moral center inevitably attracts charlatans.

Late blue collar philosopher Eric Hoffer once said, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” Had Hoffer lived longer, he might have added a clause about how righteously repressive those racketeers can become.

Alexandra Pelosi’s HBO documentary Fall to Grace tracks the evolution of New Jersey’s disgraced, self-dubbed “gay-American,” former governor, Jim McGreevey. In one passing scene, McGreevey enters a church ostensibly more welcoming than the judgmental Catholic Church of his childhood. The message board on the church front reads -- and this is a close paraphrase -- “Lord help us overcome the sins of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.”

Had the message board been bigger, the good pastor might have added nativism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia. In a postmodern world that prides itself on “non-judgmentalism,” these have emerged as the seven new deadly sins, and God help the man, woman, or child who commits one.

Unlike the Catholic Church McGreevey abandoned, his newfound Neo-Puritanism is unforgiving. It shows sinners little mercy and offers them no path to absolution. Indeed, like Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, the sinner is publicly branded with her sin.

Celebrity chef Paula Deen did not commit the sin of racism; she is a “racist.” She must forever wear the Scarlet R, just as Mozilla’s Brendan Eich must wear the Scarlet H for “homophobe,” and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali wears the Scarlet I for “Islamophobe.” From the Neo-Puritan perspective, nothing else counts; that letter is their identity.

The cult’s clerics add new sins regularly and new sinners daily. Of late, in addition to Eich and Hirsi Ali, Cliven Bundy, Phil Robertson, even Alec Baldwin have joined the ranks of the damned. Hawthorne described his seventeenth century ancestors as “being of the most intolerant brood that ever lived,” but these “little Puritans” had nothing on the big ones that would flourish four centuries later.

In both the old and new Puritanism, worshippers achieve a sense of moral worth simply by designating themselves among “the elect” -- no good works required. To validate that uncertain status, however, they feel compelled to heap abuse upon the sinner lest they too be thought guilty of the sin.

This, LA Clipper owner Donald Sterling has been learning the hard way. Sports-minded progressives who have found mercy in their hearts for dog killers, wife beaters, child deserters, lethal DUI drivers, steroid abusers, cocaine addicts, serial baby daddies, and abortion enablers have not spared a drop of it for a cuckolded old sugar daddy whose comments on race had been so teased out of him that they are impossible to quote. Hell, even a psycho throat-slasher like O.J. Simpson has retained a larger public cheering section than Sterling.

Like Ms. Prynne, Sterling has quickly found himself “without a friend on earth who dared to show himself.” Despite donations exclusively to liberal causes and candidates, the media were quick to redefine Sterling as a “registered Republican” and thus mark him as fair game. Even those who questioned the illegal taping of his private thoughts felt obliged to condemn those thoughts in the harshest possible terms -- “disgusting,” “appalling,” “abhorrent.”

“The man who poisoned the Los Angeles Clippers for nearly 30 years with his ignorance and hate,” wrote the LA Times Bill Plaschke, “has at last been dragged away into sweet oblivion.” Hawthorne’s Roger Chillingsworth could not have denounced Sterling more fervently.

Sterling must have had some sense of how the Neo-Puritans rolled. To keep them at bay, he had been buying their indulgences for years. Leon Jenkins, the Los Angeles branch NAACP president, observed that Sterling’s organization “brought in numerous minorities and inner city kids to games” and also “contributed to a lot of minority charities, including the NAACP.” Sterling’s largesse netted him an NAACP Lifetime Achievement award in 2009 and another one -- almost -- in 2014.

Sterling’s contributions, however, were too limited and too local to buy him much in the way of national political capital. As a result, he held no particular value for a Democratic-media complex that has been nurturing Neo-Puritanism since at least 1976 when the leak of Republican Ag Secretary Earl Butz’s overheard “loose shoes” joke cost him his job and his reputation.

The very success of Neo-Puritanism, however, may be its undoing. Each spectacular new public burning reveals just how empty and oppressive the movement is at its heart. For instance, in exposing Sterling the media have unwittingly shone light on Al Sharpton and the NAACP.

In fact, the NAACP banquet that was to honor Sterling for lifetime achievement was to honor Al Sharpton as “Man of the Year.”  This was the same Sharpton who dissed the work of “Socrates and them Greek homos”; the same Sharpton who instigated the lethal Crown Heights pogrom with the rallying cry, “If Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house”; and yes, the same Al Sharpton who said of Sterling, "No one should be allowed to own a team if they have in fact engaged in this kind of racial language."

As to NAACP head Jenkins, a former judge, it turns out that he had been disbarred both in Michigan and California. The Michigan State Bar Review found that Jenkins “systematically and routinely sold his office and his public trust . . . committed wholesale violations of the most elementary canons of judicial conduct, and brought grave dishonor upon this state’s judiciary.” This should not surprise. A cult without a moral center inevitably attracts charlatans.

Late blue collar philosopher Eric Hoffer once said, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” Had Hoffer lived longer, he might have added a clause about how righteously repressive those racketeers can become.

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