October 27, 2021

Witch Hunts: 21st Century Style

by Mark Franke

British writer G. K. Chesterton in his 1922 book “What I Saw in America” described this country as “a nation with the soul of a church.” No doubt he was right 99 years ago when he wrote this and his observation continued to be true as our church-like ethos carried us into the 1960’s.

Not to put too fine a point on it but Americans were united around a core set of beliefs of what we were and what we hoped to become. There was plenty of disagreement over the details, to be sure, yet we saw ourselves as a people blessed with a priceless heritage and resolved to pass that heritage on.

The concept is similar to George Will’s description of America as a “creedal” nation in his book “The Conservative Sensibility.” By this he means that we are not united through a common ethnic or tribal background like our old-world ancestors but by a shared set of values. These values were clear for most of our nation’s history.

But clear no more. Joshua Mitchell in his book “American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time” updates Chesterton’s observation by suggesting that we are becoming a nation with the soul of a witch trial. A quick scan of newspaper headlines or cable news chyrons makes this obvious. We are bombarded with news reports about “canceled” speakers, authors, public figures and even granite monuments. No New England style dunking in the pond in this brave new world; our neo-Puritans prefer a 21st century version of shunning by banning apostates from social media. Indiana Congressman Jim Banks learned all about that last week.

Perhaps the next step is to restore a scarlet letter badge like that placed on Hester Prynne by her intolerant neighbors in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter.” Then again, maybe we are already there.

Why is this ethos, which has served us so well, under attack now and not just by the disaffected but by the political, educational, business and media elites? Why would they who have benefited most from American exceptionalism turn on it with such hostility? Surely there must be a cognitive disconnect somewhere in the progressive mind.

Mark Mitchell attempts to explain this in his recent book “Power and Purity: The Unholy Marriage That Spawned America’s Social Justice Warriors.” The unholy marriage of which he speaks is between old-fashioned Puritanism and a post-modern Nietzschean lust for power. But there is a dilemma here: Our neo-Nietzscheans are rabidly anti-religion even as they faithfully reenact the most egregious excesses of the devout colonial Puritans. Do they understand the paradox their actions represent? Would they care if they did?

The Massachusetts Puritans exhibited this same paradox in their new colony which was established to allow freedom of worship without the constraints of the established Church of England. The catch was that freedom of worship only applied to orthodox Puritans; all others were subjected to various forms of private and public disapprobation, on occasion to the extent of banishment. Just ask Roger Williams or Anne Hutchinson about that.

Maybe it is time for scarlet letters to be dictated for those of us unwashed holding the woke movement back. Instead of Prynne’s scarlet A, we can be branded with a C. I suggest this in the interest of efficiency. The same letter can be used to represent multiple, black-listed characteristics — Conservative, Christian, Capitalist, Caucasian, Constitutionalist, Creationist. I am all of these, so C is certainly my letter.

And add one more C — Creedal. I agree with George Will that we are (were?) a creedal people. A creed is a simple statement of shared belief. At my church we recite either the Apostles’ or Nicene creed each Sunday to remind us of what we believe and why we believe it. Perhaps the Preamble to the Constitution could serve as our civil creed, especially the clause about “secur[ing] the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

Note that there is nothing in the Preamble to support Nietzsche’s philosophy that happiness derives from achieving power over one’s fellows nor is there support for 17th century Puritan-like witch hunts to eliminate dissent against an established ideology. Rather it proclaims the high ideals the Founding Fathers envisioned for the new nation.

Can our nation recover its church-like soul or are we condemned to a descent into an endless night of puritanical purging of all that stands in the way of wokism? There is enough of the optimist left in my psyche to answer with a hopeful yes. The extremes of Puritan governance eventually burned out in Massachusetts but it took a while. Do we have the time — and the resolve — to stop this totalitarianism?

Yes, but only if we hold fast to the creed that established and nourished America as a land of liberty. And if we stop the witch hunts.

Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.


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