the new puritan’s progress

All of a sudden it appeared all over the internet, like a remarketing campaign for an idea that I had added to cart and failed to checkout. I came across a blog post and two magazine articles comparing progressive ideology to religion.

Each article assembled a simple idea of religion like a box with spaces for squares, circles, and crosses. Each piece disassembled progressive ideas and showed how they fit in the religion box with a hundred little taps of evidence and anecdotes.

Antonio García Martínez’ The Christ with a thousand faces describes how progressive ideology in the United States is a religion proving that “progressives and right-wing Christians aren’t ideological enemies, they’re co-religionists.” 

He argues that progressive movements mirror Christianity with a recast of characters. Christ is a choose-your-own-adventure victim and some nice people are the crucifiers. The victims are adored and sanctified. The perpetrators are exorcised and cancelled.

The Economist’s Echoes of the confessional state describes how the methods of progressive movements resemble that of a political order where only one religion is permitted and justifies the state. These include suppression of free speech, imposing orthodoxy, and expelling heretics. The comparison is an aside to a more secular interpretation of a situation described as the illiberal left.

Anne Applebaum’s The New Puritans in The Atlantic takes the 16th and 17th century protestant reformers – often represented as legalistic toads – as the starting point for a lengthy hammering of examples into the box. And I mean lengthy.

In the magazine articles we have: 1) a comparison to puritans with a vague sense they were bad news; and 2) a comparison to a political-religious order contrasted with a secular liberal order. These are pre-secular society examples intended to warn of regression to a time before tolerance, due process, and the rule of law.

Antonio García Martínez’ blog post ups the stakes and pitches a comparison way back to the Roman Empire.

Elites of a crumbling empire falling for an ecstatic cult fixated on a criminal publicly brutalized to death by the authorities, preaching a gospel obsessed with the salvation of the oppressed, whose fervent adepts desecrate the symbols of civic authority.

Are we in fourth-century Rome or the United States in 2020 AD? 

The Christ with a thousand faces by Antonio García Martínez

Notwithstanding the Roman Empire falling apart, this scenario sounds pretty awesome. Martínez explains that this sounds great because Western civilization (or society) is obsessed with the Christ narrative (or victimhood reverence). We can’t escape it. It is on the left and it is on the right and altogether it is the signifier of an order in decline.

It is a compelling argument to make that progressive movements are co-religionists with right-wing Christians and share a common mimetic desire to avenge victims even at the expense of suspending civil liberties, due process, and the whole damn system.

The problem is that the practice of making the comparison of progressive politics to religion is predicated on a sentiment that religion is bad and that by simply making the comparison you can spook well-meaning liberals to change. This encourages an unreflective behavior that takes its rest in being part of the “in” group, the “not me” group, the “I’m not like that” group, the group that assigns the cause of our issues on those that are not “in”. It is a bit lazy.

In a twist to the progressive-religion comparison, Cornel West, an American philosopher, recently told an interviewer that what progressives need is Christ while critical of American mainline Christianity’s failure to help the poor.

When I was in Charlottesville, looking at these sick white brothers in neo-Nazi parties and the Klan spitting and cussing and carrying on, I could see the hounds of hell raging on the battlefield of their souls. But I also know that there’s greed in me. There’s hatred in me. People say, “Oh, you’re so qualitatively different than those gangsters.” I say, “No, I’ve got gangster in me. I was a gangster before I met Jesus. Now I’m a redeemed sinner with gangster proclivities.” It is a very different way of looking at things than many of my secular comrades.

Cornel West on Why the Left Needs Jesus by Emma Green, The Atlantic

It is a clear statement against tribalism and a testimony that the way he is able to overcome the tribalist instinct is through a transformed vision of all people as redeemable, not because he has a special skill or has greater authority or a special property, but rather because he too has been redeemed from himself.

esc. goats

Neologists these days rarely get punished for the crime of inventing new and generally unnecessary words. The 16th century proto-puritan, William Tyndale, however, was strangled to death. He coined the word scapegoat in his unsanctioned English translation of the bible. He used the word to describe a goat released by a high priest into the desert as atonement for the sins of the Israelites. 

More recently, the word was adopted by sociologists to describe group dynamics in crisis. The scapegoat mechanism is the idea that an “in” group of people pursue violent action to satisfy themselves and not an angry god. The “in” group objectify a person or “out” group with the ills they suffer and either cast them out or kill them. 

Comparing and blaming a political movement on a discarded animal like religion could still be described as a religious action. Comparing social phenomena to Christianity and popular representation of it (dogmatic puritans, right wing Christians), paints a picture of a group or movement out of an abstraction, something decidedly not you. Now you can more confidently call progressives a dogmatic, religious cult. Is that fair, though?

You would think we had learned our lesson on that one. Not long ago several powerful countries justified a war and the suspension of due process for many residents of the planet by assigning the blame of ideologically-motivated murderers on all muslims. That wasn’t fair.

I wonder if the blame on Christianity for many of our present ailments is a sublimated action of atonement, a guilt offering for the sin of blaming 9/11 on Islam. It supports a feeling that we’re dealing with an issue that’s within our own borders, but still distinctly has nothing to do with us in the “in” group.

It certainly fair to internalize the problem of far right and far left direct action, but we ought to follow Cornel West’s example and own the problem we find and speak as insiders of the “out” group.

the critic/prophetic entertainment complex

The idea of objective criticism of social groups and political movements shares a history with a literary genre that predates secularism. Like hermeneutics and scapegoating, the prophetic genre possess an intellectual heritage that is all about reading the social issues at 30k feet, casting a judgement, and proscribing remedial action.

It is a familiar genre of criticism, one where someone outside of the social, political context paints a damning picture. In a secular wilderness, the magazine prophets write about the plebs and their patterns in the midwest and in the mean streets. The blogger, exiled or fired from some big company in America, weaves wonderful words about the wickedness in the (silicon) valley. It all has that umami flavor of the prophetic genre.

The wilderness critics are everywhere. According to the Washington Post, the fastest growing group of American Christians are those who follow self-described prophets with little to no association with any particular institution. Go to YouTube, Substack, Facebook, etc. and just subscribe. It is that easy.

I’m not describing social criticism as a religious action to be dismissive, but rather to esteem the hypothesis that political movements are religious and to compel a more serious, less cynical comparison and description of its genealogy and the role of its criticism. Yes, make the comparison between progressive social phenomena to Christianity, but question the assumptions, reconsider the history of the terms used, and look for the unorthodox within the religious and religious-like practices.

Within puritan history and the confessional state is a whole lot of interesting and provocative action, enlightened criticism, and images of personal transformation. What puritans understood and believed was that we individually can become better people and that the world can become a better place.

ted goes to vanity fair

A man leaves his wife and child to go on a journey of self discovery. Along the way he averts schemes for his undoing and battles giants on the field under a banner of faith. And although he is subjected to the humiliating court of public opinion, at the end of the day he just needs to unburden himself of some heavy personal baggage.

Is this John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim Progress or Apple TV’s Ted Lasso?

John Bunyan was a 17th century puritan preacher and writer. Like William Tyndale, Bunyan faced persecution for his work which – either because of persecution or the merit of the work – elevated quickly into English literary stardom. 100,000 copies of The Pilgrim’s Progress were printed within ten years of 1678 and by some accounts has remained in publication ever since. It has had a major influence on the narrative vision of the human interest story.

I read The Pilgrim’s Progress a long time ago and don’t recall much by way of details or feel I connected with the allegorical genre where every character and place has a morally suggestive name. When I think of the book, I visualize William and Catherine Blake’s art plate series that illustrates key moments of the story.

I encountered the Blakes’ work at the British Tate 20 years ago. The small, page-sized images and unfinished feel, the unsettling coloring, the characters with their monumental physique and expressions alternating between consideration and horror against a backdrop of celestial apparitions —

I bring up The Pilgrim’s Progress and the Blakes’ images of it in this context, because I think the very unfinished quality of illustration is a compelling metaphor for our continuous return to the theme of self redemption and its relation to world transformation. How far have we come from the puritan vision of life?

In the story, the pilgrim and his co-sojourner travel through the town of Vanity which features a year round open air market that fills the streets. The market is called Vanity Fair and along with all the shimmering toys and trinkets, titles and powerful positions are for sale. Bunyan may have meant to criticize the un-meritocratic gains of power and wealth in his day – as puritans were apt to do. The pilgrims try to stay unnoticed as they walk through the town, but fail.

Why aren’t you buying our merchandise? Buy! Buy! Buy!

We buy only the truth, they said, and put their fingers in their ears, and sought to turn away their eyes from beholding the vanity.

Dangerous Journey – The Story of Pilgrim’s Progress, 1985.

Kristy Milne in At Vanity Fair published in 2015, studies the enduring impact of The Pilgrim’s Progress and how it transformed from a vision of sin and persecution to become a symbol of consumer capitalism and hedonism. In a way, I wonder if the prophetic vision that the Blakes sought to add to The Pilgrim’s Progress was a warning against Vanity Fair becoming an “aspirational showcase for celebrity, wealth and power” described by Milne.

The 1980s illustrated revised children’s edition, Dangerous Journey, is far richer in describing the details of things in the story than the Blakes plates. It visually describes Vanity Fair as a bustling market overflowing with goods and even more people.

In the foreground of one image of Vanity Fair in the 1980s edition we see all kinds of masks and canes for sale. Identity is on display here as a consumer good. Is this where we got stuck? We’ve elaborated the product of identity to include variations of puritan causes, pitching identity as an opposition to this or that group under clickbait headlines about the outrageous thing they did now.

Shh. Shh. Let’s try make it through this place and all its noise without anyone noticing. Plug your ears and pray – lead us not by retargeted ads and deliver us from our puritan proclivities.

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