The Puritan National Conscience
by Joseph S. Salemi
with a brief introduction by Mike Burch
I believe in giving accomplished writers like Joe Salemi a forum where they can speak freely, without censorship. However, when my name comes up―whether it is used in vain, or otherwise―I believe in extending myself the same privilege. So I encourage readers to read "The Puritan National Conscience." Then if they're interested they can read my response, "Joe Salemi, Mike's Salami and the Christian Mother-Monster" by clicking the link at the bottom of this page. I hope readers will take the time to read Joe's essay thoughtfully, then take the time to consider my response, for the sake of children everywhere. ―Mike Burch
The Puritan National Conscience
by Joseph S. Salemi
Let me start by saying that I consider Michael Burch to be a true friend. We don’t frequently see eye to eye on things, but he has always acted honestly and honorably towards me. He is courageous in standing up to bullying, and he lets no one dictate the contents of his website. (If you think that isn’t rare these days, think harder.) Although I reject Mike’s liberal politics I know that he is a strong libertarian—and that is the one saving grace of liberalism in this age of Stalinoid groupthink.
I say all this as a preliminary to commenting on his new essay “Christian Mothers and the Cult of Hell” here at The HyperTexts. After reading Mike Burch on the problems that he has had with sex, and his justifiable anger against those who taught him that sexual feelings were evil, I feel compelled to weigh in with some reactions. Mike lays the blame for his miseducation on Christianity itself, with its condemnation of even the slightest sexual thought as sinful (Matthew 5: 27-28). To me his interpretation of that Scriptural text is debatable, but I see no need to argue the issue here. Let’s leave it for another time.
Mike and I disagree on many things in politics, religion, and aesthetics. Our views are miles apart on the question of hell (a subject which seems to have the same effect on Mike as the subject of chivalry did on Don Quixote), and I don’t propose to deal with that hot potato in this essay. Instead, what I would like to do is point out how I really agree with Burch on much of what he says about the denigration of sex here in the United States. It’s just that, in my opinion, he doesn’t recognize exactly what lies behind this denigration. It’s not Christianity. It’s Low-Church American Protestantism and its destructive attitudes. When you grow up in a mental dormitory like Tennessee, Arkansas, or some other section of the Bible Belt, you really can’t avoid these attitudes.
Sex is always going to be fraught with controversy of some sort. It is a bodily function, but unlike other bodily functions such as digestion or circulation or breathing, it is connected with a complex of cultural taboos and expectations that, for better or worse, make it different. That’s just the way things are. So in every society sexual matters are going to be treated somewhat gingerly, and the onset of puberty is always going to be difficult and problematic for young persons.
This doesn’t mean that sex is not important. It is very important, and it has to be faced by everyone. Married or celibate, chaste or promiscuous, straight or gay, male or female—all must confront the awful power of Aphrodite and her son.
Now as to Mike’s essay, let me be perfectly frank. You can’t blame your mom for the hormonal fact of puberty. But you can blame her if she makes your experience of puberty any more upsetting or unpleasant than it needs to be. That is the real force of Mike’s complaint against his parents—namely, that they told him things about sin and eternal punishment that, for an impressionable adolescent, were unnecessarily frightening and cruel. And quite logically, Mike connects these ideas with his parents’ religious beliefs.
That’s fine as far as it goes, and I’ll offer no argument there. When a young boy is troubled by his first seminal emissions, or a young girl is shaken by her first menstrual flows, it hardly helps to give them theological lectures on hell.
But Mike doesn’t see the larger issue. Why were his parents so lacking in sympathy and understanding? Why did they go into a moral shit-fit over his natural bodily development?
It‘s because they were Low-Church American Protestants. And persons of that sectarian persuasion have one helluva whanging problem with Aphrodite and Eros. Read Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter; read Crane’s Maggie; read Dreiser’s An American Tragedy; read Eliot’s Prufrock; read Miller’s Death of a Salesman. This has been a weak spot in the American character ever since the first Puritan fanatics dropped anchor at Plymouth Rock. To put it succinctly, we have a Puritan National Conscience, and it won’t go away.
Let’s be clear about the whole matter. Only idiots believe that sex is just an occasion for harmless fun and games. Everyone else knows that it is a potentially perilous reality, linked to very serious possible consequences for both the mind and the body. As Camille Paglia has said, Eros is a great and dangerous god. And like all gods, he must be treated with profound respect and caution. It is a major mistake to think of sex in a frivolous, flighty way.
But once this obvious fact is admitted, what should follow is the frank acceptance of sex as a legitimate aspect of human existence, and as an available option that is neither evil nor invariably destructive. No sane culture demonizes sex per se.
However, no one ever said that the United States is a sane culture. Rather than accepting sexuality as a given of existence, with its double-edged promise of bliss or bane for human beings, Low-Church Protestant America treats it as something profoundly devilish. And once this terrible sundering of sex occurs, where its divine aspects are denied, we get the typical American dichotomy: on the one hand a prudish, prissy, schoolmarmish flight from the sexual, and on the other hand the smarmy adolescent sniggering of the locker-room and the smoking-car. In short, we get the vanilla feminists and the frat-house jocks. They are just two sides of the same American coin.
This ideological distrust of sex (conjoined with an adolescent sub rosa voyeurism) is peculiar to the United States. Other nations may be strict about sexual mores as a way to maintain the chastity of women and to avoid disputes over legitimacy and inheritance. They may savagely punish adultery as a property violation, or fornication as an offense against family honor. They may perform hideous clitorectomies and infibulations based on their barbarous traditions. But only in the United States do we suffer from this bizarre Puritan hangover that sees any sexual act as intrinsically degrading and deserving of condemnation. It’s an attitude that we have inherited from those Dissenter crackpots who settled New England. Cotton Mather is the great-great-grandfather of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon.
Don’t let our huge porn industry and our smutty advertising fool you. They are only rebellious reactions against the overall ethos of the country. The fact that no one from any part of the political spectrum dares to defend porn and smut is much more telling testimony to American attitudes that the fact that porn and smut exist. When I talk to Europeans on this question I give them the following to consider: the United States is a nation of over a quarter of a billion persons, and yet there is only one legal house of prostitution, located in a remote Nevada desert. That is prima facie evidence of American insanity on the subject of sex.
Another example is the Internet porn scene. This is now massive and profitable and out-of-control, and it is clear that Americans are its primary market. And yet there is a noisy witch-hunt going on in the United States against something that almost everybody (to judge from its extent and multiplicity) seems to want. The usual suspects—parents, teachers, social workers, ministers, feminists, and other busybodies—are screaming for regulation and control and censorship of an industry that will soon rival the illegal drug trade in profitability.
In fact, the situation perfectly parallels our unspeakably stupid Drug Wars. Millions of Americans want drugs—marijuana, cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, crystal meth, or whatever—and they are the engine that drives the unending supply of drugs into this country. But the Puritan National Conscience won’t permit a sensible accommodation of this problem, and instead we have ruinously expensive, time-wasting, and legally questionable police actions that do nothing but fill our prisons and make lawyers and drug-dealers rich.
It’s instructive to compare American attitudes with those in Roman Catholic countries. Houses of prostitution are perfectly legal operations there, and pornography is available to those who want it, without harassment from anyone else. Naturally, the religious teachers and ministers in those lands condemn sexual misbehavior and counsel people to avoid it, but no one in a Roman Catholic country would dream of creating legal entities and pressure groups to “shut down” brothels or “prosecute” porn websites. Only in America does that sort of craziness infect people’s minds. Our Puritan National Conscience compels us to “take action” or to “stand up and be counted” or to “fight back” or some other puerile posturing that soothes our Low-Church philistinism. How many times have you read about some dimwitted Southern Baptist picketing the local 7-Eleven because it carries Playboy or Hustler? Or some asinine soccer mom in Indiana screaming about a Gap ad that shows too much midriff on a prepubescent girl? As a Frenchman once said to me, “You don’t have a country over there. You have one big church meeting.”
That’s the problem, Mike. It’s not Christianity. It’s philistine yahoos from the Corn and Alfalfa Belt, and the feminist bitches who are in league with them.
Look at what happened to Bill Clinton. He got fellated in the Oval Office by some star-struck intern. Big deal. And yet it became a major constitutional crisis. I’ll freely admit that we on the political right made use of this incident for our own purposes, to wreck his presidency. That was pure opportunism on our part. We saw our chance and we went for it. But we never would have been successful if it hadn’t been for the Puritan National Conscience. Do you honestly think that an incident like the Lewinsky Affair would have had the slightest political importance in a place like France or Spain? People would have laughed it off, like the Italians did with Berlusconi’s much freakier sexual antics last year.
Or consider poor Tiger Woods. Why should it be the concern of anyone except his wife that he screws other women? And yet our news networks solemnly reported every sordid detail of the man’s extracurricular love-life to a censorious and judgmental nation. As the absurd spectacle went on for week after week, I said to myself “Why does anyone care about this?” But millions of Americans apparently did care, and were more than willing to express their outrage and indignation over one man’s marital infidelity. The contemptible lemmings in several mega-corporations ran for cover, terrified that the specter of Tiger’s erectile tissue might adversely affect their quarterly profit reports, and Woods lost a number of lucrative contracts. And Woods was forced to go through the ludicrous pseudo-ritual of public “repentance” and “rehabilitation” that dimwitted Americans now expect from anyone who commits a sexual faux pas.
Can you imagine if we were a different type of country, Mike? Can you imagine Tiger Woods getting up before the TV cameras and saying “I’m going to continue to fuck any cute cunt who lets me do her, and if you folks have a problem with that, then just watch Arnold Palmer tapes for your golf.”
Do you see what I’m saying, Mike? This obsession with sex, and especially the sex lives of other persons, is part and parcel of the American psyche. It’s not rooted in Christianity (Christ Himself said “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” and He forgave the woman taken in adultery.) But it is definitely rooted in the sick thing known as Low-Church Protestantism.
All sane cultures, whether Christian or non-Christian, recognize that no matter what sexual codes we proclaim as mandatory, they are bound to be routinely violated by frail human beings. The spirit may be willing, but the flesh is frequently weak. Adolescents will masturbate; spouses will cheat on each other; virgins will be deflowered; clients will patronize whores; and everyone will check out the porn sites. The whole crux of the matter is the attitude that we choose to take towards this very common—and all too human—failure of will.
Most cultures simply take sexual foibles in stride, and don’t make too big a fuss about the matter. And in those nations sex isn’t a major hangup, the way it is with us. But America—that goddamned “Shining City On A Hill”—doesn’t work that way. Our Puritan National Conscience forces us to turn sexuality into a combat zone where tightassed feminists allied with howling evangelicals face off against creeps like Larry Flynt and Al Goldstein.
So don’t blame Christianity, Mike, and don’t even blame your poor mom. Blame the dysfunctional Puritan ethic that has been afflicting us since 1620.
Joseph S. Salemi
circa March, 2010
To read Mike Burch's response, Joe Salemi, Mike's Salami and the Christian Mother-Monster, please click the hyperlinked title.