The new Puritans

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The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne has been standard high school reading for decades. In the novel, Hester Prynne, the adulterer forced to wear the scarlet “A” as a sign of her community’s disapproval, and her daughter Pearl, the product of the adulterous affair, are ostracized by 17th-century Boston society as punishment for Hester’s violation of Puritan social mores.

The novel serves as a vehicle for high school students to discuss societal and religious values, whether sin can be forgiven, and whether a community’s sometimes formalistic definitions of who is “good” or “bad” accurately reflect reality (Prynne spends her life helping the sick and the poor, but nevertheless spends a lifetime isolated from the church and her community).

Contrasted with Prynne’s public shaming, the Reverend Dimmesdale, father of her child, whom she refuses to identify, leads a private life of shame and guilt, which eventually leads to his death. Even Prynne’s husband, thought to be lost at sea at the time of her liaison, suffers greatly, spending his life obsessed with revenge, and even assuming a new identity in hopes of finding the father of Prynne’s child.

Today, out-of-wedlock birth is hardly scandalous; adultery is not even disqualifying for the presidency of the United States, much less cause for expulsion from the community. If any adulterer is publicly shamed, the wounds inflicted are shallow (famous adulterers might become the butt of a late night comedian’s jokes) and temporary (the public forgets about it as soon as the next celebrity “scandal” comes along).

Maybe we have properly absorbed Hawthorne’s criticism and recognized that life is complicated: that unrelenting condemnation based on formal moral codes without regard to circumstance or context (Prynne’s husband was, after all, presumed lost at sea, making her “adultery” seem technical and harmless) can be a greater sin than the acts condemned. Yet while our definition of sin may have changed, our reaction to it echoes Hawthorne’s world.

Today, the sexual moral code of the Puritans is gone, but the human temptation to elevate one’s own status by loudly and publicly condemning others who violate the moral code of the day remains. In 2008, Brendan Eich, the founder and former CEO of Mozilla, donated $1000 to the effort to pass Proposition 8 in California, a ballot initiative seeking to enshrine the traditional definition of marriage (as between one woman and one man) in the California state constitution.

Society’s (particularly California’s) views on same-sex marriage have shifted considerably since 2008. But, at the time when Eich made his donation, support for opposition to gay marriage was, by definition, mainstream — Proposition 8 passed by a significant margin even in a state won handily by President Obama. (Recall that in 2008, Obama himself campaigned as a supporter of the traditional definition of marriage). Nevertheless, when Eich’s donation was made public last year as he was elevated to CEO of Mozilla, public outcry was sufficient to force his resignation from the company that he founded.

Here in Massachusetts, Catholic Charities, one of the largest and most effective charities serving the poor, and a long-time facilitator of adoptions, was pushed out of the adoption business by those who demanded that the charity abandon the view of marriage held by the Catholic Church for millennia. As was the case with Hester Prynne, the other good works of Catholic Charities (serving immigrants, the poor, providing health care to the indigent) were not enough to save it from being excluded from the community, once the community identified Catholic Charities as having committed the cardinal sin of dissent from the Left’s agenda.

Public figures are getting the message. Former Olympian and reality show personality Bruce Jenner now identifies as a woman, Caitlin, and has had multiple surgeries to “feminize” his body, adding breasts and having his Adam’s apple altered. He is reportedly considering mutilating his genitals surgically to attempt to conform his body to what his brain tells him he is — a woman. In private conversation, many question the ethics of surgically (and permanently) altering someone because his brain tells him something that is, biologically, not true. (After all, we don’t tell anorexics, who see fat where none exists, that their self-perception is what matters and give them tummy tucks upon request). But publicly, acclaim for Caitlin has been near universal — public figures know that they risk being cast out of polite society if they dissent.

We do live in a very different society than the Puritan Boston portrayed by Hawthorne, although maybe not in the way he had hoped. The lesson of the Scarlet Letter, after all, was not that the Puritan’s dim view of adultery was necessarily incorrect as a moral matter, but that Puritan Boston lacked compassion, forgiveness, an appreciation for context, and a sense of humility in enforcing its moral code. In Hawthorne’s novel, the Puritans’ desire to assert moral superiority unnecessarily separated four people from society, rather than offering compassion and seeking understanding about a morally complex situation. Today, members of the social elite reject the Puritans’ notion of sin and rigid view of sex, but they are just as convinced of the righteousness of their moral code, and they possess a similar desire to feel superior to others by ostracizing those who don’t conform. By defining all moral judgment about the conduct of others as itself “sinful,” today’s arbiters of political correctness are more like Hawthorne’s Puritans than perhaps they realize.

Robert N. Driscoll is a native of the Boston area who currently practices law in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this column are his own and not those of his firm. Nor are they the views of his wife, daughters, or greyhounds.