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Marilynne Robinson

Thanks to Carl Eric Scott for calling attention to the strengths and weaknesses of the moral, political, scientific, and theological views of Marilynne Robinson (perhaps our best living novelist) by highlighting Paul Seaton’s balanced and smart review of her latest book of essays.

Ms. Robinson’s thought really is neo-Puritanical. Mr. Seaton and Mr. Scott, knowing, as they do, the work of Carey McWilliams (the other great contemporary political neo-Puritan), appreciate almost better than anyone what that means. And even when Ms. Robinson’s political opinions are at their most annoyingly intrusive and judgmental, they can laugh and say, “There that Puritan goes again.” Mr. McWilliams and Ms. Robinson don’t always agree, but they both have the rare merit of staying in character.

Now we postmodern conservatives do fault Ms. Robinson (and Mr. McWilliams—who was nicer about it) for being a naive political liberal. But we are, in many ways, liberals too. It’s hard to say whether we are conservative liberals or liberal conservatives. Our friend Dan Mahoney has written about “the conservative foundations of liberal order,” but, for myself, I tend to think we go wrong when we stop thinking of “liberal order” as anything other than conservative foundations for the somewhat illiberal (because) relational institutions that make life worth living.

Today I’m thinking about our “foundations” as a prelude to thinking about our James Ceaser’s unrivaled accounts of American foundationalism and anti-foundationalism. There is going be a panel honoring the work of our James W. Ceaser at the American Political Science Association meeting a week from today. Mr. Ceaser, I sometimes think, slights the Puritanical/Calvinist dimension of even our Declaration of Independence and the way it has informed our political history. I could be wrong, but I’m going to begin by using Ms. Robinson to think I’m right. Mr. Ceaser and I certainly agree that “nonfoundationalism” is a pervasive and demoralizing project, one that replaces the aggressive anti-Americanism of, say, Heidegger with, as Mr. Scott has shown us, the imagination of a kind of post-Americanism. More next time on the exact time and place of the panel.

We learn from Tocqueville that the spirit of liberty and the spirit of religion are, properly understood, interdependent. Tocqueville said he learned that from the original Puritans, who were relentless innovators in politics and were, Tocqueville instructively adds, free from political prejudice. They were the source of our self-governing and egalitarian institutions. They were also the source of a kind of American idealism that sometimes causes government to provide (politically and charitably) for the unfortunate and to attend to public education that goes beyond “basic skills” and in the direction of liberal education for everyone. The Puritans, as Tocqueville presents them, were highly civilized family men and women who became political pilgrims in the service of a political idea, of bringing the ancient city into speech (transformed by the Bible) into being in a vacant (well, it wasn’t really vacant) part of the world. They were liberals—even progressives—insofar as their political opinions and practices were both unprecedented and more advanced (in the liberal and democratic directions) than those of anyone in Europe. Compared to conservatives today and most of the American Founders, they had a more elevated and ambitious view of what government could accomplish on the basis of the Biblical proposition that all men are created equal. (Most of this doesn’t make it into Mr. Ceaser’s “customary” account of Tocqueville on the Puritans.)

Puritanical CountercultureThe Puritans really cared for souls. But they made the mistake (according to Tocqueville) of being way too politically intrusive, of criminalizing every sin. They tried to translate the legislation found in the Old Testament’s Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, laws made, in fact, for rude and half-civilized people, into laws for highly civilized and enlightened modern Englishmen. Those laws were often bizarre and tyrannical—offenses against both common sense and conscience – even if they were only rarely enforced. But, Tocqueville reminds us, the laws were democratically enacted, and they were driven by admirable qualities of creaturely devotion that are the opposite of the characteristically America vice of individualistic indifference. What was wrong with the Puritans, in Tocqueville’s view, is that they weren’t Christian enough; their Calvinism gave them too political or specifically legislative view of the relevance the Old Testament for their time, whereas Jesus himself meant for the reform effect of his message of about the equality of all men under God to be much more indirect.

From the Puritans’ view—and Ms. Robinson’s and Mr. McWilliams’ neo-Puritanical view (not to mention Tocqueville’s own view), the leading American Founders tended to understand each of us as less than he or she really is. We’re understood as free beings who work. Our freedom is not understood as for civilization, work is not understood as for civilized liberty; Sunday is not cherished as the day when we hear and reflect about how each of us is a being with a high and singular being not limited by matter or time. So liberty is not understood as for democratic devotion but only for a kind of selfish private satisfaction. Now Ms. Robinson does say that Thomas Jefferson was a civilized man, but he couldn’t account for his personal—yet social—intellectual joys through his political principles.

By Marilynne Robinson, we are reminded of Puritanical moments in American political history slighted by, say, the Founderistic account of American political development. She praises the neo-Puritanical abolitionists (whose liberating views ended up in the McGuffey reader), William Jennings Bryan’s battle against scientistic Darwinism, the liberal Protestant dimension of the civil-rights movement (which can’t be reduced to Lincolnism), and so forth. Mr. McWilliams adds that even the devotion described in the Gettysburg Address is a Puritanical add-on to the liberty of the Declaration of Independence.

Ms. Robinson’s narrative is about the authentically Puritanical American Left, which wouldn’t, of course, be embraced by most of our liberals today. I wish more of today’s Christian leftists would at least join her battle against scientism, against those who deny the real existence of the wondrous love that’s at the foundation of the truth about human exceptionalism. The ”social justice” emphasis of our liberal churches these days gives little to no attention to the actual theology she’s recovered that once justified generous political progressivism.

Against the empty secularism at the foundation of today’s Oberlin College (mocked so instructively by HBO’s Girls), Ms. Robinson reminds us of genuinely neo-Puritanical and abolitionist antebellum Oberlin. There every student and faculty member engaged in manual labor, and everyone pursued a liberal education. Among the students were women and freed blacks. I’m sure, had NPR being around in those days, that its reporters would have been crawling all over the campus praising the social experimentation. But we conservatives can acknowledge that there was much to be praised in terms of justice and in living Saint Augustine’s (and, I’m sure, Calvin’s) admonition that both work and contemplation are for us all.

Having said all that, I agree completely with Paul Seaton’s criticisms of Marilynne Robinson. Her strength is not political prudence, and generosity understood as a kind of indiscriminate charity is not really a political virtue. Like a Puritan, she finds a questionable justification for intrusive, egalitarian big government today in the Old Testament. (She is good on what charity/generosity is as a Christian virtue.) American Puritanism has all kinds of, well, Puritanical (prohibitionist) downsides. She too readily identifies all Republicans with dog-eat-dog exploitation, and she, with NPR listeners and without much evidence, identifies genuinely civilized, cultured America today with political progressivism. She’s way too hard on the evangelicals, while being way too indulgent of the Congregationalists today. And she, perhaps because of her embrace of Walt Whitman, is way, way too easy on the real heart of political progressivism today, which is evolution toward greater and greater autonomy–or freedom from being bound by any personal, relational authority, including that of God or his wondrous personal love. Our liberals or progressives are, in the most important or admirably Christian sense, less Puritanical than ever.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. © 2014 by National Review, Inc. Reprinted by permission.

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2 replies to this post
  1. I’ll give the post a closer read, a second time around, but it does appear that Ms Robinson is sold on the notion of virtue through government, central government naturally, other levels don’t count it seems. In any case a morality that is parasitical to the State is no morality at all, so much as it is a posture.

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