Call to Clean Up Pop Culture Carries Puritanical Baggage

Don't look for Cotton Mather's 303-year old Puritanical screed, "Wonders of The Invisible World," to be reissued and rocket to the top of the bestseller list. Nor is the specter of Carrie Nation likely to stalk today's college campuses in a quest to halt binge drinking.

But there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that America is moving into a new puritanical era that echoes some of the themes sounded when Mather portrayed New England as a battle ground of sin and puritanism. And there is a resemblance to the days at the turn of this century when Mrs. Nation, who believed herself to be a divinely anointed temperance reformer, became famous for vandalizing saloons with a hatchet.

Going off the deep end?

This week or next, the heads of major television networks are expected to give the details on a new rating system to alert parents to the degree of profanity and violence.

Wal-Mart, Blockbuster Video, and K-mart are already moving down a similar path, declining to stock videos, compact discs, and magazines that they judge to be sexually explicit or too violent. There is an uproar of protest over the hard-liquor industry's decision to resume advertising on television. And school uniforms may be an idea whose time has come.

Few of us would disdain an atmosphere that is less publicly lascivious, less inclined to use cinematic and television violence - especially gun violence - as entertainment, less tolerant of drunkenness and/or drug use by the young who would be more vigorously instructed in civility and self-discipline.

But there can be historical peril involved in onslaughts of puritanism, which can be defined as a fervent drive for spiritual and social improvement. Attempts to curtail the objectionable by creating laws, codes, or formal regulations can have unwanted consequences.

Yet the effort to purify American culture has been a recurring theme throughout history.

Carrie Nation was part of a temperance movement that culminated in the 18th Amendment - commonly known as the Volstead Act - which, in January 1920, introduced prohibition. Over the next 13 years - until the Volstead Act's repeal in 1933 - the modern gangster came into being. Mobs led by such luminaries as Al Capone made fortunes in the illegal importation of liquor and turned whole cities into battlegrounds for gangland turf wars.

Prof. Alan Lichtman of American University in Washington says the primary puritanical impulse "is usually some concern that society is losing its moorings."

What spurred the puritanism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he says, "was the new wave of immigration, the people from southern and eastern Europe who didn't know English, who were Catholic or Jewish. So, along with prohibition, you also got immigration restrictions."

"The move is toward trying to get institutions - whether it's government or television - to exercise taste," says writer Judith Martin, better known as the newspaper columnist "Miss Manners."

She adds that nobody wants to be called a puritan or prudish. "They're terrified of it. So, instead, they want the institutions to crack down for them instead of saying, 'Sorry kids, I'm not going to let you watch this - and then turning off the set.' "

Focus of the heat

The Rev. John Langan, the Rose Kennedy professor of Christian Ethics at Georgetown University, says that the focus of the new protest is on films and pop music.

"I think where the argument goes now," he says," is that organized groups of people are saying to the producers and distributors of a lot of this stuff, 'We object.' "

Fr. Langan believes that the chorus of protest will persuade producers of films and distributors of recorded music to exercise restraint in their own self-interest.

"They aren't worried about their First Amendment rights," he adds. "What alarms them is that they won't make as much money doing it."

The great question underlying American puritanism is whether individual citizens acting responsibly can cure our social disorders - or whether extralegal movements are required.

To date, Americans haven't decided that one.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.