The Puritanism That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Every society places some kind of restriction on personal conduct, and limitations are usually most visible in the areas of sexual behavior and the use or abuse of particular foods or intoxicants. Restrictions might be formal and legal, perhaps enforced by a specialized morality police or vice squad, or there may be informal social sanctions resulting in stigma or derision for the individual foolhardy enough to indulge his vice in a public context. Often, the informal sanctions serve as an essential preliminary for a codified legal prohibition, either years or decades afterward.

Some societies change slowly with regard to what is considered morally and legally tolerable, while others are subject to far swifter developments in the direction of either more or less permissiveness. America in particular is vulnerable to quite sudden and thoroughgoing reversals that almost amount to revolutions in public morality, and future historians will certainly regard Neo-Puritanism as a hallmark of the times in which we are presently living. However, they will also be struck by the paradox of this particular outbreak in public righteousness, which differs from its predecessors in its conspicuous lack of overtly moral or religious foundation—which is not to say that the underlying agendas may not reflect religious assumptions. It is not self-evident that society or the state has either a right or an obligation to interfere in an individual's...

Join now to access the full article and gain access to other exclusive features.

Get Started

Already a member? Sign in here