How Quakerism Conquered America
It’s popular in some quarters to identify wokeness with Puritanism. Do a google search for the terms “wokeness” and “puritan” and you’ll get back over 17,000 pages, with titles like “The woke left as new Puritans” and “Being woke isn’t new - it’s pure 1662.”
More broadly, there’s a school of thought that says America’s secular progressive culture is a modern, Christless form of Puritanism or Calvinism, which are seen as the mainstream of America’s religious culture.
This is hard to sustain as an accurate historical account. There’s no line of descent of Puritan thoughts we can trace back to New England in the way we can trace back Marxist thought to Marx. Massachusetts itself went Unitarian over 200 years ago. But if we simply use it as a mental model in which certain attributes of Puritanism are used to help us understand parts of today’s culture, then it can be practically useful because metaphor is one of the main ways we make sense of the world.
But if we modify this to say that secular elite progressive culture is not specifically Puritan, but rather a secularized form of liberal (mainline) Protestantism, we get closer to something that can be argued.
Political scientist Eric Kaufmann, in his book The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America, identifies liberal Protestant clergy as one of the three key groups that helped drive a transition in American identity towards multiculturalism. The neoreactionary writer Curtis Yarvin is fond of pointing to a 1942 Federal Council of Churches summit that recommended a “super-Protestant” plan for world peace after World War II that would include open borders immigration, completely free trade, decolonialization, and global governance. Political philosopher Paul Gottfried saw the therapeutic nature of the modern managerial state as resulting from a Protestant cultural heritage. He drew on political scientist James Kurth’s idea of a “Protestant deformation.” Georgetown political scientist Josh Mitchell has argued wokeness succeeded in America where Marxism did not because wokeness draws on Protestant themes and symbols like sin, guilt, and scapegoat. There are others I could cite as well.
The core idea is that as liberal Protestantism expanded beyond Protestant ecumenism to embrace Catholics, Jews, and even secular groups, the Protestant religious content (and ultimately the WASP demographic itself) became superfluous. The religious skin was shed (in the form of the withering mainline denominations), with the living faith proceeding as a purely secular project.
This view is also seen as a form of implicit Calvinism, because so many of the top Protestant denominations and institutions (e.g., Yale) came from that background and still held to it as a form of cultural identification. And also because this orientation flowed from the elite, hierarchical nature of the Protestant establishment.
Whether this is really how it happened is less important than its utility in helping us model and make sense of the world. As such a model, I myself have occasionally encouraged people to try on this lens.
It is also the case that America is definitely culturally Protestant, and Calvinism had a major impact on that culture. Mitchell is very correct here.
But all this focus on Puritanism, Calvinism, elite or mainline Protestantism misses another deeply rooted American Protestant tradition that is equally or more important to modeling today’s world.
That tradition is Quakerism.