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A Puritan Politics: Life, Unity, and the Pursuit of God

Had the Declaration been penned a century prior, the defining phrase more likely would have read, “life, unity, and the pursuit of God.”

Portrait Of John Winthrop The Second
Portrait of John Winthrop the Younger the second, showing the typical garb of the Puritan in the Massachusetts Colony', circa 1640-50. (Photo by The Print Collector via Getty Images)

The following is adapted from remarks delivered at the third National Conservatism Conference in Miami, Florida, on September 12, 2022.

Protestants are usually tardy to the party. After all, 1517 is a little late in the game, we must admit. Then again, the preconditions necessary to a Protestant emergence did not manifest until the early sixteenth-century, and something like the Reformation was bound to happen given the widespread sense that moral correction of the church was past due—Constance (1414) was still fresh on the mind—and the introduction of technologies that democratized communication. The Reformation was not so much unintended as it was, at some level, inevitable. We might say, then, that Protestants are not late, nor are they early: they arrive precisely when they mean to.


And so it has been with the so-called post-liberal conversation. In any case, we are here now, fashionably late and ready to interrogate our own “dead consensus.” Our Catholic brethren needn’t have all the fun, and whatever some scholars insist, Protestantism is not synonymous with liberalism simpliciter. That said, for too long Protestants have been satisfied with baptized liberal socio-political assumptions, especially on questions of church and state and public religion. We must join them in the cyclical practice of republics: the reconsideration of fundamentals, of first things. But first we must know where to find them.

Until recently—and we dissenters are still few—Protestants have adopted post-war conceptions of the relationship between church and state, mindless parroting Supreme Court dicta in the place of historic, confessional convictions. To our chagrin, typical Protestants have embraced, wittingly or unwittingly, a posture of public atheism, a standard right-liberal mood. That is, living as if there is no God. Not coincidentally, we have also ignored the robust resources of the western natural law tradition in our jurisprudence.  

The public death of God, as it were, has been, in part, at the hand of the worship of unalloyed choice—usually coded as “religious liberty” in the twentieth-century sense of the idea—even in the public recognition of transcendent things and man’s final end. As D.C. Schindler has surmised, “the unfettered capacity to choose with respect to what is ostensibly ultimate decontextualizes every other choice in principle.”

And yet, evangelical Protestants are shocked when public memory is sanitized of our God and our Christian past. Why would our opponents take seriously that about which we appear indifferent? Indeed, it has usually been Protestants themselves who have provided cover for a secularization of public life, usually in the name of sacralized liberal truisms. Often, Protestants have been leading participants in the festival of reason, as purveyors of the gospel of intolerance of intolerance, a commitment paradoxically justified on the basis of preserving cultural capital and space for evangelism. That is, what James Wood has dubbed winsome politics, which turns out to be a remarkably demanding but equally debilitating approach to politics. Protestants also simultaneously feign surprise at our increasingly unjust, at times arbitrary, regime—whether on questions of racial tensions, public health, or abortion—as if justice can be afforded to man before it is given to God by a people.

Now, at this late hour, some Protestants are getting woke to these contradictions and seeking again a better country, reevaluating previously unquestioned norms (e.g., neutrality) and untouchable sacred cows (e.g., autonomy). In other words, the rediscovery of a political Protestantism.


This exercise requires a discovery of contrastive examples that illuminates the causes and effects of the status quo and expand the range of political possibilities. In other words, the realization of the contingencies of American socio-political order: it need not be, and has not always been, as it now is. Some in-house critics, so to speak—usually Baptists—accuse the participants in this reassessment of fanciful cosplaying, a pejorative that reveals more about the underdeveloped political imaginations of the critics than anything about the relative viability of post-liberal proposals. Said critics seem to want to tend the garden endlessly to the neglect of the wilderness.

Protestants need not look to nineteenth-century Papal encyclicals for instruction, though they would, indeed, benefit from doing so; past texts and movements indigenous to Protestant confessional traditions and Protestant soil are readily available. I must also now remined my Catholic friends that Viktor Orban is a self-professed Calvinist, so if there is a question as to viability vis a vis a Protestant post-liberal order, at least at the national scale, I would direct them to the modern Hungary they so clearly love. And I must remind all parties of what Albert Mohler wisely advised in his Nat Con address, viz., that some measure of theological discomfort is necessitated by the moment, if any effective political coalitions are to be formed, that is. (Mild, cross-denominational banter should be expected and, perhaps, embraced as constructive.)  

Returning to the Protestants in particular, historical contrasts, the correctives unto a recovery of a substantive vision of social order considered below, are not in any sense foreign to America or Protestantism. (Indeed, much of what skeptics of Catholic integralism froth at is nothing more than pre-modern political assumptions ubiquitous in Christendom right up through the eighteenth-century.) The history of our own traditions and own country supplies us with sufficient ammo to enter the fray—better late than never. Here again, however, we must clear away liberal revisionism if we are to make our history instructive and actionable. We do not yet really understand ourselves because our past has been, in part, actively obscured.

In 1783, John Adams instructed the Abbe de Mably that if the French philosopher, or any interested observer, wanted to understand the meaning of the new republic, he must first study the colonial background, viz., the seventeenth-century. Few contemporary Americans understand this period as it really was—fixation on extremes skews most scholarship. The predominant, liberal narrative shrouds our forebears in a fog of pejoratives (and projection): theocracy, bigotry, fanaticism, oppression. Like residents of the so-called “Dark Ages,” early New Englanders in particular serve merely as the monsters over which liberality has triumphed, an ahistorical, manufactured occasion for the festival of reason. Simultaneously, whiggish triumphalism on the evangelical right frequently casts them as harbingers of “classical” liberalism, democracy, and limited government.  

I want to briefly sketch colonial New England as it actually existed behind contemporary prejudices, specifically as relevant to the issues already raised, viz., church, state, and public religion—albeit the true picture of the errand into the wilderness will prove no less frightening to our liberal interlocutors, but far more instructive to us. We must pierce the liberal veil to reacquaint ourselves with what Patrick Deneen has rightly discerned to be a pre-liberal past.

Our second president was right, of course, the seventeenth-century New England—in Perry Miller’s mind, the first politically self-conscious colony—teaches us much about what followed in the subsequent century. Gordon Wood has rightly pointed out that until Lincoln, invocation of the capital-F “Founders” referred to, say, John Winthrop, not George Washington. In a period where the centrality of state and township government was still appreciated within our federalist structure, the first planters of these locales enjoyed pride of place in the historical imaginations of Americans. Their legacies were, therefore, formative and normative—and they offer a corrective for us still so long as their memory is merely skewed and not quite snuffed out. The beginning of said corrective, especially for their Protestant progeny, is found in formerly prevailing but not foreign socio-political assumptions. For the Puritans of the Bay Colony did not settle for quietist purposes, or even strictly sacramental-ecclesial ones, but rather sought to establish a socio-political order in their own image. As Edmund Morgan put it long ago, “[T]he Puritans came to New England not merely to save their souls but to establish a ‘visible’ kingdom of God, a society where outward conduct would be according to God’s laws, a society where smooth, honest, civil life would prevail in family, church, and state.”

First, in Puritan New England, politics was predicated on unity and homogeneity, not division and difference. Diversity as such was not considered a virtue nor a strength. Peace at all costs, achieved only through unity, was the object of political pursuit in New England even up through the eighteenth-century, as Michael Zuckerman has so expertly chronicled. The ideal was the compound moral person, to borrow Samuel Pufendorf’s language.

That is, a coherent whole wherein discrete parts were knit together as one man, as John Winthrop put it in his Modell of Christian Charity (1630). Winthrop repeated this theme throughout his tenure as governor. Central to this unity was shared religion, a prerequisite for true community, as the conventional wisdom held, and as even John Jay still recognized over a century later in Federalist No. 2. The common good of the whole could not be coherently asserted or pursued absent a shared object of worship, for man is more than flesh and blood.

Second, this organic, basically medieval socio-political outlook yielded institutional implications. For the structures of authority in society were meant to mirror classical anthropology. And so, we find in New England the Protestant revival of the Gelasian formula of church and state—the two powers or two swords (duo sunt)—and, as with many other central doctrines, a rejection of late medieval innovations that the magisterial Reformers designated a confusion of the two powers. (Catholics may quibble with this narrative, but it was the operative narrative against which the nascent Protestants reacted.) In Robert Walton’s unfairly neglected study of the Swiss Reformer Huldrych Zwingli he describes the magisterial position well:

The men of the sixteenth century still believe din the corpus christianum—the idea that society was a single Christian body. The corpus christianum was divided into two realms, the spiritual and the secular, which were ruled by the priesthood and the magistrate. Together they governed the citizens of the Christian world.

The same position—conventional pre-modern thought—was perpetuated by the Puritans. It is easily found in seminal texts of the time from Massachusetts luminaries like John Cotton, John Norton, Nathaniel Ward, and John Davenport, among others. Even in the mid-to-late-seventeenth century, the Puritans stood behind Enlightenment innovations in political thought that did violence to this belief that the two powers were two species of the same genus within a Christian community.

Indeed, the Cambridge Platform (1648) still referred to church and state as “two twinnes” which had grown up together harmoniously in the new world exercising reciprocal affection while respecting the juridical boundaries and legislative competencies of one another. And yet, each power or institution was charged with, in their own way, leading men to their final end, the glory of God. Church and state were to be coordinate, as Davenport and many others phrased it. This was not a fusion of church and state but a proper ordering of the two powers, a mirroring of God’s creation in man by the powers ordained to govern man according to his nature (i.e., body and soul).

The key post-liberal insight here is that this is always and everywhere the case. All regimes receive their moral content, their religion, from without, that is, from a church. Look around and observe whether we still have blasphemy laws, for instance, and what faith is being protected thereby as the civic cult, the moral adhesive. The law is always a teacher and authority is always coercive.  

Lastly, Protestantism on both continents sought to rehabilitate the religious role of the magistrate where they thought it had been inordinately diminished. Countless election sermons from New England pursued this point. God’s vicegerents receive power (unmediated) from God and are charged with man’s good. Since man is not a beast but possesses a rational soul, his good is not confined to material considerations. Hence, maintenance of religion was the magistrate’s chief task. Franciscus Junius, to whom the Puritans often looked, went so far as to say that the magistrate “in his political order assists his society in aspiring to the gate of eternal salvation.”

Since the magistrate himself lacks the direct competency to, inter alia, promulgate doctrine or administer the sacraments, this duty manifests as support for the spiritual power, her doctrine and well-being, in addition to providing an example of piety to the people, as Samuel Willard recommended in 1694. Magistrates were expected to recognize the public preeminence of Christ and that man’s happiness is found in the highest, truly universal common good, God himself. A polity without public religion, Richard Baxter instructed, is like a corpse, a body without a soul, in other words, inhuman.

Interpreted rightly, Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” contains a defensible, basically classical meaning. But had the Declaration been penned a century prior, the defining phrase more likely would have read, “life, unity, and the pursuit of God.” For these were the defining features, the central emphases, of Puritan politics in seventeenth century America around which their social order was formed, the vestiges of which were praised by Tocqueville even as the old “standing order” of the New England way was beginning to disintegrate.

We would do well to think on them, the Puritans and their political disposition, unless we resigned to wander aimlessly in the moral and political wilderness of liberalism forever. Stated positively, if we want a Protestantism that countenances the whole counsel of God as determinative of all matters of doctrine and life, including, perhaps especially, political life, then we might recall the last time American Protestants did that.