Does President Obama stand in the tradition of the Puritans?

There are a number of people in this country, most of them conservatives of various stripes, who think that the key ideals and commitments that make President Barack Obama tick are foreign both to this country and to the Christian religion. A very small number of these people – it must be said – are suspicious because of the president’s racial identity. Some of them also think Obama is really a foreigner – that he was not really born in the United States. But many of them think that regardless of the president’s race or place of birth, he is guided by European or even third world socialism, and that he has never entirely escaped the Islamic heritage of his father.

In a recent post at Via Meadia, Walter Russell Mead points out how misguided are these judgments of our president. Obama, he argues, is far more a product of liberal New England, with its Puritan past, than he is of anything foreign:

He was educated at the Hawaiian equivalent of a New England prep school, and spent his formative years in the Ivies. He has much more in common with Harvard-educated technocrats like McGeorge Bundy than with African freedom fighters and third world socialists of the 1970s.

President Obama’s vision of a strong central government leading the people along the paths of truth and righteousness has “New England” stamped all over it. Puritan Boston believed in a powerful government whose duty was to promote moral behavior and punish the immoral; by 1800 many of the Puritan descendants were turning Unitarian and modernist, but while they lost their love of Christian doctrine they never abandoned their faith in the Godly Commonwealth and the duty of the virtuous to make the rest of the world behave. The New England mind has been open to insights and ideas that come from the third world ever since Henry David Thoreau and his fellow Transcendentalists read the Hindu scriptures in translation, but Obama is no more of a Muslim or an African socialist than Ralph Waldo Emerson was a Hindu.

One of the reasons this comment resonated with me is that I had just been reading from the introduction to the great Puritan Richard Baxter’s A Holy Commonwealth. Baxter was a leading Puritan supporter of the Cromwell regime in mid-17th Century England, and he was one of those who believed that under Cromwell England could be turned into a genuine theocracy, a holy commonwealth. In the introduction to his book William Lamont writes,

Baxter, reared on English Protestant reverence for a magistrate-led Reformation, was not blind to its defects. Coleridge, steeped in Baxter’s thought, offered his own ‘National Church’ in 1829, which was based not on what the Reformation was but on what it should have been. That ‘should have been’ was the theme of Edward VI’s ‘Commonwealth’ preachers: social justice, new schools and universities, a Welfare State, hospitals, ministerial discipline over Church members; the programme in fact that Baxter outlined to similarly minded correspondents throughout the 1650s. (Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. xvi.)

This transformational heritage of Puritanism and even of the Reformation also appears in Martin Bucer’s De Regno Christi (The Kingdom of Christ), a book that was written and dedicated to Edward VI a century before Baxter wrote his book.

The point is not that the Puritans were wrong to seek to transform society according to standards of justice (I don’t think they were), nor is it that Baxter was misguided in thinking that the English  nation could be turned into a mirror image of the godly English church (though I think he was). The point is that the government-centered, religiously motivated approach to transforming society that President Obama recognizes has far more precedent in America’s Puritan and Protestant past than most conservatives would like to admit. Liberalism, after all, is also a product of the western world.

None of this means that it is good, or that Obama’s vision for America is the right one. But it does mean that we should be honest about our own history and about the president’s fidelity to core ideals and commitments of that legacy. It doesn’t do anyone any good to pretend that certain people or ideals have no right to be part of the discussion, or even part of the country. It doesn’t advance our cause when we haughtily assume that we alone bear on our shoulders the legacy of the past.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on July 28, 2012, in Barack Obama, Welfare State and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Does President Obama stand in the tradition of the Puritans?.

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