In my 2015 book, Scarlet Letters, I spoke of the emergence of a Neo-Puritan movement in America. But not until Biden “climate envoy” John Kerry began pontificating at Davos did any prominent member of the Neo-Puritan elect speak specifically to the cult’s existence.
“When you start to think about it, it’s pretty extraordinary that we — select group of human beings because of whatever touched us at some point in our lives — are able to sit in a room and come together and actually talk about saving the planet,” said Kerry.
Before getting to the sillier part of his homily, allow me to explain what Neo-Puritanism is and why it has surfaced. The concept is implicit in the very word “progressive.” In the last decade or two, that word has replaced “liberal” as self-definition among the Left. On the Right, we shorthand the Left’s shifting semantics into the more useful “woke,” a word that on the Left originally meant someone who had awakened and seen the light.
At the risk of tautology, progressives, by definition, progress. Unlike old-school liberals who could content themselves with a status quo, progressives move forward. They refuse to rest, refuse to reflect. That much said, few among them have any clue as to what their ultimate destination might be. For instance, who ten years ago thought that “trans rights” would be a hill on which the woke would be willing, if not to die, at least to pout.
Like their seventeenth-century New England namesakes, the woke exist in a perpetual state of anxiety. For the original Puritans, the anxiety derived from a Calvinist theology that spared only the “elect” from eternal damnation. The problem was that no amount of good works could assure one’s “elect” status. Only faith could do that, but even the faithful could not be certain that their faith would suffice.
Again like their spiritual forebears, Neo-Puritans cope with this anxiety by aggressively asserting their rightful place among the elect. Author Shelby Steele coined the phrase “zone of decency” to describe the sacred preserve in which progressives imagine themselves clustering.
This Neo-Puritan anxiety inspires the woke to signal their virtue not just on their car bumpers but in their very front yards. The signs are everywhere: “Black Lives Matter,” “Stop Asian Hate,” and the wonderfully inclusive, all-purpose dogma display that begins with, “In this house, we believe,” and concludes with the laughable, “Kindness is everything.”
Not content to proclaim their own virtue, the more sanctimonious among the woke feel the need to contest the worthiness of others. I imagine that young women like teen terror Greta Thunberg were commonplace in seventeenth-century Salem. “This is all wrong,” Thunberg scolded her backsliding elders at a United Nations climate summit. “I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!”