Churches, as they grow, become institutions akin more to business and industry than to salvation or to the glorification of God. The Puritan ‘movement’ was a response to this trend – it was an endeavour to recreate a ‘pure’ faith where the relationship between man and God was mediated only by God’s words not by the interpretation of a self-interested clergy.
When the term “New Puritan” was coined it did not reflect this pure intention but the consequences of the Puritan faith. For, just as was the case with the Church it condemned, Puritanism became an institution, it found itself leaders and it sought control of secular authorities to promote its message of purity. And, of course, to condemn the sins of others.
The origins of New Puritanism lie in the USA – in the advocacy of healthy lifestyles by people such as Jim Fixx and in the long campaign to ‘expose’ the tobacco companies’ covering up of the harm tobacco does to people who smoke. However, at the heart of the faith is the worship of self and this provided the chink in the armour of freedom that New Puritans can exploit. Here’s Irma Kurtz speaking of this in her 1987 essay in the Journal of Medical Ethics:
Are health educators the new puritans? Yes, of course they are. They would cleanse and purify the new religion. The new religion is a paltry faith. It is worship of self. Religions get the puritans they deserve, and the new puritan is not much more than a rather fussy housekeeper who doesn't want cigarette ash on the carpet. Some of the new puritans, that is the medicos, are also the new priests. They are expected to intervene between mankind and the supernatural (such an untidy concept, the supernatural). They are expected to provide a course of treatment, a daily regimen, a kind of ritual that will offer two results previously required directly from God. The first is happiness, and the second is longevity.
And Ms Kurtz spotted the trend towards personal innocence and victimhood:
They relieve the individual of responsibility for himself which means they must blame the social order. This is a classic puritanical tactic. The poor fools who smoke, for example, are victims of a selfish society that refuses to outlaw tobacco. The poor girls who have teenaged pregnancies are, paradoxically, victims of a society that allows them contraceptives. Overweight is not the product of gluttony but of a failure of the glands, or of mother's love. Suicide is not the result of existential despair, but of divorce. The new puritan would deprive people of the privilege of taking responsibility for themselves. They would no longer allow people the right to make mistakes. They would deprive people of the chance to survive mistakes. The new puritan would restrict freedom because to his way of thinking, the free man will take liberties. The puritans say the whole of our society is depraved because individuals in it are fat, drunk, or unfaithful.
And this campaign – this faith in the perfectibility of mankind through healthy living – became a business of healthy living. New Puritanism became an industry – we have commented on the role that the pharmaceutical industry has played in developing the approved drugs that will replace the bad drugs of sinful lifestyles. However, we should also remember that these businesses – with their huge research and development budgets (supplemented by huge charitable funds such as Johnson and Wellcome that remain under the effective control of the pharmaceuticals industry) – are the primary funders, after the state, of the New Puritan campaigns against “unhealthy lifestyles”.
However, it is the capture of the UK’s National Health Service and especially its public health and primary care arms by the New Puritans that has provided the industry with its biggest boost – Action on Smoking & Health, Alcohol Concern, AERC and an ever expanding collection of other organisations concerned with eating, smoking and even going out in the sunshine. This industry employs tens of thousands of people – mostly on good wages – to run campaigns, conduct “research”, lobby decision makers and play a central role as “stakeholders” for the health sector.
Supplementing this collection are the health journalists – those on specialist magazines and those working for nation and local news organisations – who spend their time regurgitating the thousands of press releases, conference reports and other publications that, like an avalanche of righteousness, pour out from the New Puritans. These journalists are uncritical – they never challenge the premises of the New Puritans or even question the origin and provenance of the claims these people make. Claims with no scientific basis at all like eating five portions of fruit and vegetable a day or the “recommended safe level” for alcohol are treated as if they are articles of absolute truth rather than fictions dreamt up for the purpose of promoting the New Puritan message. Like the Church that the Puritans desired to cleanse, the New Puritans have become a self-sustaining institution concerned with the preservation of the jobs and the business as much as with the campaigns themselves:
Plymouth Stop Smoking Service has 15 staff in its team and Mr Moody recognises concern about the cuts planned by the Government.
And the industry is well organised – the government funds “drugs and alcohol” teams and partnerships that get together to share “best practice” – groups in every area focused primarily on responding to the problems with alcohol. These are usually under the aegis of a “safer communities partnership” – note the message that the New Puritan agenda is about making you safer:
Wellbeing Partnership. It is necessary that all the partnerships that make up the Bradford Local Strategic partnership (LSP) should play their part in implementing it. Tackling alcohol misuse has been identified as a key issue in the health theme of “The Big Plan”, Bradford’s Sustainable Communities Strategy, and tackling it is central to achieving several of the critical issues in the Safer and Stronger Communities theme.
And such an approach cannot be gainsaid – Bradford’s “Big Plan” maybe ostensibly fall under the responsibility of local politicians but, as a ‘partnership’ process, those councillors have limited control – it would be nearly impossible to get the ‘alcohol strategy’ changed let alone to remove the New Puritan aspects of the plan entirely. And this would be the case even were a majority of those councillors elected on a specific platform to remove the malign influence of New Puritans.
The New Puritan industry is enormous, it encompasses over half the roughly £5bn spent by the Department of Health on public health supplemented by money from local councils, from the police and from local primary care trusts. Plus of course the millions invested by the pharmaceuticals industry and its “charitable” agents in the campaign to portray us as victims and to promote the ‘good’ drugs produced by these kind and noble businesses. There are thousands of people who derive their livelihood from this industry – most in public institutions or their active agents (often referred to as “charities” in this context).
If we want change – to be the cavaliers, so to speak – we can be like Prince Rupert and charge into the New Model Army with flags flying, buttons burnished and sabres shaken. And, like the gallant Prince, we would lose. Or we can sit in a tree and watch as the contradictions of the New Puritan creed destroy it. Perhaps though, to help along the way a little disobedience might be in order!