We have tried to show in previous issues how an improper emphasis on security and conformity stifled this country for a generation and we have pointed to signs that suggest, to us, that initiative and the individual may soon again be receiving their proper due. But there has been another stifling influence in America—far more insidious—that has pervaded our culture since the nation's beginnings, yet most of us are only vaguely aware of its continuing effect on every facet of our laws and our lives.
Puritanism—as stultifying to the mind of man as communism, or any other totalitarian concept—has been a part of the American culture since the country's earliest settlers landed on Plymouth Rock, or thereabouts. For it matters little if a book is burned because it contains an unpopular political idea or an unpopular moral or religious one—the book has been burned just the same—and society is a little poorer for having lost perhaps just one small voice, one difference of opinion, one divergent thought or idea.
We must never forget that this democracy draws its matchless strength from the continuous free exchange of differing ideas and by keeping open the channels of communication for even the most unpopular points of view. Our founding fathers made the protection of every minority and every minority opinion of paramount importance in both our Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They recognized that down through history great men and great ideas have been unpopular in their own time. Man learns slowly and cultural changes that might otherwise take years require generations while those that might take generations sometimes take centuries. Socrates, teacher of Plato, and recognized today as one of the great philosophers of history, was accused in his own time of being without fixed principles and sentenced to die by drinking poison hemlock; Van Gogh, the brilliant and prolific impressionist, sold only four paintings during his lifetime, was driven mad by despair and killed himself; Galileo was twice tried by the Inquisition for daring to suggest that the earth revolves around the sun; Christ was nailed to the cross for teaching that man should love his fellow man.
Progress necessarily requires the exchange of outdated ideas for new and better ones. By keeping open all lines of communication in our culture, every new idea—no matter how seemingly perverse, improper or peculiar—has its opportunity to be considered, to be challenged, and ultimately to be accepted or rejected by society as a whole or by some small part of it. This is the important advantage that a free society has over a totalitarian, for in a free exchange of ideas, the best will ultimately win out. A dictatorship, with its pre-established dogma, is chained to the past; a free society may draw from past, present and the future.
If much of the foregoing—and of what follows—seem obvious, even elementary, it is necessary, we think, to clearly spell out those accepted beliefs that form the common ground from which our philosophy is derived. Too often the most readily acknowledged precepts become clichés to which mere lip service is paid while their real intent and significance are lost.
In America, we have built an entire nation—a social order, economy and government—on this concept of freedom. And whatever shortcomings it may seem to have are, we believe, less inherent in the ideal of a free society than they are the result of our failing to keep faith with that ideal. This is not to suggest that a nation as large and as complex as this one is capable of remaining free for all without some supervision and control. The economic system of free enterprise, for example, would not continue to function successfully without certain necessary checks and balances. But it is important for us to never lose sight of the primary aim and purpose of our government, which should be to achieve and perpetuate the maximum amount of freedom and opportunity possible for all of its citizens.
True freedom also includes freedom from ignorance, sickness, poverty and fear, without which the other freedoms would be meaningless. Our government is sometimes likened to a parent, but it must be careful not to become a too overly protective parent, whose guidance and control smother initiative and self-respect.
The individual remains the all important element in our society—the touchstone against which all else must be judged. The individual's very individuality—his right to look, think and act as differently from his fellows as he chooses (without, of course, interfering with the similar rights of others)—supplies the divergent, interacting components that produce progress.
No group is necessarily more important than each individual member of the group. Group thought is not necessarily superior to individual thought and neither is group taste. It is our feeling, moreover, that actions taken to allegedly benefit one group or another—the taxpayer, the working man, the consumer, society, the nation—too often benefit almost no one. So-called "group good" is sometimes a vaguery that shields an activity that could not be justified on any individual basis.
All totalitarian concepts place a particular group—a race, a religion, a class, a country—ahead of the individual. Thus the political extremes of right and left—socialism and communism on the one hand and fascism and Nazism on the other—have more in common, each with the other, than they do with democracy, whose system of checks and balances places it at the political center. Einstein's theory of curved space would seem to apply to the political universe as well as the physical one: The opposite extremes of political dogma eventually meet.
It is not enough to recognize that a nation is no more important than the sum of all of its people: a country is no more important than each of its citizens, taken singly, and apart from all the rest. For only through concern and respect for each member of society can the whole of society hope to achieve its ultimate potential.
Our founding fathers established protections for America's individual citizens in both the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights, assuring that this nation's rule by the majority would always be tempered with a concern for the rights and privileges of the most insignificant of our minorities.
American jurisprudence is especially concerned with the protection of the individual, differing from much of Europe's law in that a man must always be considered innocent until proven guilty; and further, that we would rather allow four guilty men go free than unjustly convict one who is innocent.
With such an acute awareness of the importance of protecting the rights and freedom of every individual in our society, it is interesting to see how and why many of these rights have been lost. Please do not consider us impious if we suggest it is American religion that is largely to blame.
Since many of the early settlers left Europe for the New World specifically because of religious persecution, it seems especially strange that they should adopt the very practices from which they had so recently fled. Nevertheless, this is precisely what they did.
Organized religion, as separated from any personal faith, has had a considerable civilizing influence upon mankind through all of history; it has fostered hope, charity and education. But bloody wars have also been fought because of it, and millions kept in abject poverty, tortured and executed in the vilest ways.
Presumably, a man's religion should make him a better person—more tolerant, sympathetic and understanding towards his fellows. Too often organized religion has had the opposite effect, placing its emphasis on orthodoxy instead of understanding and emphasizing ritual and dogma rather than spiritual founding principles of faith and love. And make no mistake—the tyranny of man over his fellow man is just as great an evil when it is wielded in the name of God as in the name of the state.
The early Puritans who settled in America did not see their religion as simply one aspect of life, but as the whole of it. As Puritan leader Jonathan Edwards wrote in describing the Christian's "practice of religion": "It may be said, not only to be his business at certain seasons, the business of Sabbath days, or certain extraordinary times, or the business of a month, or a year, or seven years, or his business under certain circumstances; but the business of his life." The attitude is shared by a great many religious people, of various faiths, today. And as far as it goes, it can hardly be criticized. But it must be recognized that in defining the "practice of religion" as a full-time, 24-hour-a-day proposition, religion pervades, directs and controls the totality of human life and thought. Religion may thus be used to justify the regulation of all of man's activity—and indeed, it has been.
The early Puritan in America is described by the Encyclopaedia Britannica as "a spiritual athlete, characterized by an intense zeal to reform, a zeal to order everything—personal life, family life, worship, church, business affairs, political affairs, even recreation—in the light of God's demand upon him." This religion required conformity and things went badly for those early Americans who proved unwilling to conform.
If authenticated cases of "witch burning" were relatively unknown in early America (compared to the thousands of religious executions in Europe by fire, drawing and quartering, boiling in oil, disembowelment and a great variety of other tortures too numerous to catalog here, throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries), our Puritan forefathers had other subtler ways of keeping the citizens in line—public floggings, the stocks, the scarlet letter, the ducking stool and an occasional hanging—all for relatively minor infringements of the religious dicta of the time.
The Britannica further describes the daily routine of the Puritan as having involved "the keeping of a spiritual diary in which the events of the day were closely scrutinized and an accounting made of moral successes and failures as well as note being taken of the signal evidences of divine grace or displeasure that had been disclosed during the course of the day." And if all this strikes the reader as more like Orwell's 1984 than the beginnings of democracy in America, we can only add a solemn amen.