The Puritan National Conscience
Joseph S. Salemi
a brief introduction by Mike Burch
I believe in giving accomplished writers like Joe Salemi a forum where they can
speak freely, without censorship. However, when my name comes up―whether
it is used in vain, or otherwise―I
believe in extending myself the same privilege. So I encourage readers to read
"The Puritan National Conscience." Then if they're interested they can read my response,
"Joe Salemi, Mike's Salami and the Christian Mother-Monster" by clicking
the link at the bottom of this page. I hope readers will take the time to read Joe's essay
thoughtfully, then take the time to consider my response, for the sake of
children everywhere. ―Mike Burch
The Puritan National Conscience
Joseph S. Salemi
Let me start by saying that I consider Michael Burch to be
a true friend. We don’t frequently
see eye to eye on things, but he has always acted honestly and honorably towards
me. He is courageous in standing up
to bullying, and he lets no one dictate the contents of his website.
(If you think that isn’t rare these days, think harder.)
Although I reject Mike’s liberal politics I know that he is a strong
libertarian—and that is the one saving grace of liberalism in this age of
I say all this as a preliminary to commenting on his new
essay “Christian Mothers and the Cult of Hell” here at
The HyperTexts. After reading Mike Burch on the problems that he has had with sex, and his justifiable
anger against those who taught him that sexual feelings were evil, I feel
compelled to weigh in with some reactions.
Mike lays the blame for his miseducation on Christianity itself, with its
condemnation of even the slightest sexual thought as sinful (Matthew 5: 27-28).
To me his interpretation of that Scriptural text is debatable, but I see
no need to argue the issue here.
Let’s leave it for another time.
Mike and I disagree on many things in politics, religion,
and aesthetics. Our views are miles
apart on the question of hell (a subject which seems to have the same effect on
Mike as the subject of chivalry did on Don Quixote), and I don’t propose to deal
with that hot potato in this essay.
Instead, what I would like to do is point out how I really agree with Burch on much of what he says about the
denigration of sex here in the United States.
It’s just that, in my opinion, he doesn’t recognize exactly what lies
behind this denigration. It’s not
Christianity. It’s Low-Church
American Protestantism and its destructive attitudes.
When you grow up in a mental dormitory like Tennessee, Arkansas, or some
other section of the Bible Belt, you really can’t avoid these attitudes.
Sex is always going to be fraught with controversy of some
sort. It is a bodily function, but
unlike other bodily functions such as digestion or circulation or breathing, it
is connected with a complex of cultural taboos and expectations that, for better
or worse, make it different. That’s
just the way things are. So in every
society sexual matters are going to be treated somewhat gingerly, and the onset
of puberty is always going to be difficult and problematic for young persons.
This doesn’t mean that sex is not important.
It is very important, and it has to be faced by everyone.
Married or celibate, chaste or promiscuous, straight or gay, male or
female—all must confront the awful power of Aphrodite and her son.
Now as to Mike’s essay, let me be perfectly frank.
You can’t blame your mom for the hormonal fact of puberty.
But you can blame her if she
makes your experience of puberty any more upsetting or unpleasant than it needs
to be. That is the real force of
Mike’s complaint against his parents—namely, that they told him things about sin
and eternal punishment that, for an impressionable adolescent, were
unnecessarily frightening and cruel.
And quite logically, Mike connects these ideas with his parents’ religious
That’s fine as far as it goes, and I’ll offer no argument
there. When a young boy is troubled
by his first seminal emissions, or a young girl is shaken by her first menstrual
flows, it hardly helps to give them theological lectures on hell.
But Mike doesn’t see the larger issue.
Why were his parents so lacking
in sympathy and understanding?
Why did they go into a moral shit-fit
over his natural bodily development?
It‘s because they were Low-Church American Protestants.
And persons of that sectarian persuasion have one helluva whanging
problem with Aphrodite and Eros.
The Scarlet Letter; read Crane’s
Maggie; read Dreiser’s An
American Tragedy; read Eliot’s
Prufrock; read Miller’s Death of a
Salesman. This has been a weak
spot in the American character ever since the first Puritan fanatics dropped
anchor at Plymouth Rock. To put it
succinctly, we have a Puritan National Conscience, and it won’t go away.
Let’s be clear about the whole matter.
Only idiots believe that sex is just an occasion for harmless fun and
games. Everyone else knows that it
is a potentially perilous reality, linked to very serious possible consequences
for both the mind and the body. As
Camille Paglia has said, Eros is a great and dangerous god.
And like all gods, he must be treated with profound respect and caution.
It is a major mistake to think of sex in a frivolous, flighty way.
But once this obvious fact is admitted, what should follow
is the frank acceptance of sex as a legitimate aspect of human existence, and as
an available option that is neither evil nor invariably destructive.
No sane culture demonizes sex per
However, no one ever said that the United States is a sane
culture. Rather than accepting
sexuality as a given of existence, with its double-edged promise of bliss or
bane for human beings, Low-Church Protestant America treats it as something
profoundly devilish. And once this
terrible sundering of sex occurs, where its divine aspects are denied, we get
the typical American dichotomy: on the one hand a prudish, prissy, schoolmarmish
flight from the sexual, and on the other hand the smarmy adolescent sniggering
of the locker-room and the smoking-car.
In short, we get the vanilla feminists and the frat-house jocks.
They are just two sides of the same American coin.
This ideological distrust of sex (conjoined with an
adolescent sub rosa voyeurism) is
peculiar to the United States. Other
nations may be strict about sexual mores as a way to maintain the chastity of
women and to avoid disputes over legitimacy and inheritance.
They may savagely punish adultery as a property violation, or fornication
as an offense against family honor.
They may perform hideous clitorectomies and infibulations based on their
barbarous traditions. But only in
the United States do we suffer from this bizarre Puritan hangover that sees
any sexual act as intrinsically degrading and deserving of
condemnation. It’s an attitude
that we have inherited from those Dissenter crackpots who settled New England.
Cotton Mather is the great-great-grandfather of Andrea Dworkin and
Don’t let our huge porn industry and our smutty advertising
fool you. They are only rebellious
reactions against the overall ethos of the country.
The fact that no one from any part of the political spectrum dares to
defend porn and smut is much more telling testimony to American attitudes that
the fact that porn and smut exist.
When I talk to Europeans on this question I give them the following to
consider: the United States is a nation of over a quarter of a billion persons,
and yet there is only one legal house
of prostitution, located in a remote Nevada desert.
That is prima facie evidence of
American insanity on the subject of sex.
Another example is the Internet porn scene.
This is now massive and profitable and out-of-control, and it is clear
that Americans are its primary market.
And yet there is a noisy witch-hunt going on in the United States against
something that almost everybody (to judge from its extent and multiplicity)
seems to want. The usual
suspects—parents, teachers, social workers, ministers, feminists, and other
busybodies—are screaming for regulation and control and censorship of an
industry that will soon rival the illegal drug trade in profitability.
In fact, the situation perfectly parallels our unspeakably
stupid Drug Wars. Millions of
Americans want drugs—marijuana, cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, crystal meth, or
whatever—and they are the engine that drives the unending supply of drugs into
this country. But the Puritan
National Conscience won’t permit a sensible accommodation of this problem, and
instead we have ruinously expensive, time-wasting, and legally questionable
police actions that do nothing but fill our prisons and make lawyers and
It’s instructive to compare American attitudes with those
in Roman Catholic countries. Houses
of prostitution are perfectly legal operations there, and pornography is
available to those who want it, without harassment from anyone else.
Naturally, the religious teachers and ministers in those lands condemn
sexual misbehavior and counsel people to avoid it, but no one in a Roman
Catholic country would dream of creating legal entities and pressure groups to
“shut down” brothels or “prosecute” porn websites.
Only in America does that sort of craziness infect people’s minds.
Our Puritan National Conscience compels us to “take action” or to “stand
up and be counted” or to “fight back” or some other puerile posturing that
soothes our Low-Church philistinism.
How many times have you read about some dimwitted Southern Baptist picketing the
local 7-Eleven because it carries Playboy
Or some asinine soccer mom in Indiana screaming about a Gap ad that shows
too much midriff on a prepubescent girl?
As a Frenchman once said to me, “You don’t have a country over there.
You have one big church meeting.”
That’s the problem, Mike.
It’s not Christianity. It’s
philistine yahoos from the Corn and Alfalfa Belt, and the feminist bitches who
are in league with them.
Look at what happened to Bill Clinton.
He got fellated in the Oval Office by some star-struck intern.
Big deal. And yet it became a
major constitutional crisis. I’ll
freely admit that we on the political right made use of this incident for our
own purposes, to wreck his presidency.
That was pure opportunism on our part.
We saw our chance and we went for it.
But we never would have been successful if it hadn’t been for the Puritan
National Conscience. Do you honestly
think that an incident like the Lewinsky Affair would have had the slightest
political importance in a place like France or Spain?
People would have laughed it off, like the Italians did with Berlusconi’s
much freakier sexual antics last year.
Or consider poor Tiger Woods.
Why should it be the concern of anyone except his wife that he screws
other women? And yet our news
networks solemnly reported every sordid detail of the man’s extracurricular
love-life to a censorious and judgmental nation.
As the absurd spectacle went on for week after week, I said to myself
“Why does anyone care about this?”
But millions of Americans apparently did care, and were more than willing to
express their outrage and indignation over one man’s marital infidelity.
The contemptible lemmings in several mega-corporations ran for cover,
terrified that the specter of Tiger’s erectile tissue might adversely affect
their quarterly profit reports, and Woods lost a number of lucrative contracts.
And Woods was forced to go through the ludicrous pseudo-ritual of public
“repentance” and “rehabilitation” that dimwitted Americans now expect from
anyone who commits a sexual faux pas.
Can you imagine if we were a different type of country,
Mike? Can you imagine Tiger Woods
getting up before the TV cameras and saying “I’m going to continue to fuck any
cute cunt who lets me do her, and if you folks have a problem with that, then
just watch Arnold Palmer tapes for your golf.”
Do you see what I’m saying, Mike?
This obsession with sex, and especially the sex lives of other persons,
is part and parcel of the American psyche.
It’s not rooted in Christianity (Christ Himself said “Judge not, lest ye
be judged,” and He forgave the woman taken in adultery.)
But it is definitely rooted in the sick thing known as Low-Church
All sane cultures, whether Christian or non-Christian,
recognize that no matter what sexual codes we proclaim as mandatory, they are
bound to be routinely violated by frail human beings.
The spirit may be willing, but the flesh is frequently weak.
Adolescents will masturbate; spouses will cheat on each other; virgins
will be deflowered; clients will patronize whores; and everyone will check out
the porn sites. The whole crux of
the matter is the attitude that we choose to take towards this very common—and
all too human—failure of will.
Most cultures simply take sexual foibles in stride, and
don’t make too big a fuss about the matter.
And in those nations sex isn’t a major hangup, the way it is with us.
But America—that goddamned “Shining City On A Hill”—doesn’t work that
way. Our Puritan National Conscience
forces us to turn sexuality into a combat zone where tightassed feminists allied
with howling evangelicals face off against creeps like Larry Flynt and Al
So don’t blame Christianity, Mike, and don’t even blame
your poor mom. Blame the
dysfunctional Puritan ethic that has been afflicting us since 1620.
Joseph S. Salemi
circa March, 2010
To read Mike Burch's response,
Joe Salemi, Mike's Salami and the Christian Mother-Monster,
please click the hyperlinked title.