"So, now prosperity begins to mellow
And drop into the Rotten mouth of death."
Richard the Third, Act IV: Scene IV
The Pilgrim paradigm was developed by American educators in the 19th century. Children were taught that Protestant Christianity, the free market economic system, Anglo-Saxon culture, and democratic self-governance were tied in a bundle that marked a high-tide in the history of civilization. America triumphantly expanded westward even as the homeland, Great Britain, conquered the world's largest empire ever.
Puritan Christianity included a number of sects that, in Britain, were more Calvanist than the Church of England (Episcopal Church). Politics, too, was changing rapidly in Britain around the time the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620. Economic growth fueled by the exploitation of the developing empire and by technological advances was creating a class of business families that sought more political power. This led to the English Civil War (1642-1651), the beheading of Charles I in 1649, and in general to the decline of the power of the old English aristocracy.
The Pilgrims and the larger influx of Puritan Christians who established other towns in what is now the Boston metropolitan area were fairly typical of puritanical social movements in general. They did not believe in religious freedom, and proved it by exiling and executing people who deviated from their sect, including Quakers. They at least pretended to a rigid code of monogamy. Women had no legal rights (except, interestingly, the right not to be beaten by their husbands). Local democracy was possible because they all agreed on almost everything. In contrast back in England, disagreements led to the Cromwell dictatorship, then later the restoration of Charles II.
In England, puritan or not, for the next few centuries the punishment for stealing was execution by hanging. A lucky person might escape the gallows to be exported to labor in Georgia or, later, Australia.
Puritanism is typically a reaction to an excess of corruption. One might say it is an overreaction. Certain puritan ideals, like monogamy and virginity before marriage, may last in cultures for decades, centuries, or millennia. In politics people get tired of injustice and paying bribes to corrupt officials. In economics people react to being ripped off by merchants, or being underpaid or otherwise unfairly treated. Protestant Puritanism was a direct reaction to the corrupt Roman Catholic Church of the late Middle Ages.
We should not be surprised when puritan social organizations arise. Even in the United States today there is no shortage of puritanical energy. The Tea Party can be seen as a puritanical reaction to poor governance, just as fundamentalist Christianity (and Judaism and Islam) in the U.S. are partly reactions to our libertine culture, with its alcohol and drug problems, fatherless children, and unrelenting greed.
The Afghan Taliban ("students" of the Koran) are clearly puritanical. Western propaganda has emphasized their brutality and crimes against women. Why do they still have so much support in Afghanistan? Because the Afghans are not comparing the Taliban to a Saturday at the mall in an American suburb. They compared them, first, to the warlords who ruled various parts of Afghanistan after the Russians exited. Now they compare them to essentially the same group of warlords who try to give the American puppet government the appearance of popular support and democracy.
Aside from the almost universal hatred of Americans that now permeates Afghanistan, with American troops entering a former Taliban area the Afghan "government" also enters. Pretty soon things are back to the old system: theft and corruption. The locals may resent the Taliban for banning music, women may want an education, but no one wants a government that steals. Cutting off the hand of a thief (or corrupt official) sounds barbaric to us, but to most people if that is what it takes to provide security, they will put up with it. At least thieves don't get the death sentence, as they did under the British Empire.
The story of Shabaab ("boys" or Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen) is similar. Corrupt warlords ruled Somalia. The Islamic Courts Union (ICU) was set up almost spontaneously by the people of Somalia to provide a just government that would end corruption and theft. But the U.S. corporate security state, in a paranoid phase, decided the "Union" was anti-American because it was Islamic. The U.S. paid proxies to destroy the ICU. The militants of the ICU, mostly very young men, survived as Shabaab and eventually became the de facto government of Somalia by defeating the American proxies. They adopted a puritanical version of Islam that wanted Sharia law rigidly enforced, which had not been true of the ICU. Along with a decline in theft and corruption, however, sexual repression and brutal treatment of opponents was thrown in. Just like the American Puritans.
It isn't puritanism, or even Islamic puritanism, that brings forth the wrath of Barack Obama & crew. The Saudi's are the most systematically puritanical Islamic society. But they are pro-American, so they get kisses from Hilary while the Shabaab gets drone attacks. Nor is feminism required for alliance with the United States. Abortions and even birth control are crimes in many countries, and limited education, employment and property rights for women and not uncommon either. But from Chile to Ireland, as long as the anti-feminism is not anti-American, it's okay.
I believe a little puritanism from time to time is not a bad thing, especially if it pushes the scales to the moderate center. It is better than corruption, rampant crime, and the disintegration of education, culture, and ethics. However, the best puritanism is voluntary puritanism. In any culture people have some individual choices to make, like how much to drink and how hard to work. Puritan choices can be good individual choices. In a democratic society corrupt officials can be voted out of office and corrupt police and judges can be fired or jailed. It is when there are no easier choices for reform that people will turn to violent, dictatorial forms of puritanism to try to set their world straight.
There is plenty of corruption, violence, and anti-social behavior in America. We should clean up our own house rather than bombing the houses of our international neighbors. Instead of rebuilding the Afghan army or the Somali army we should rebuild Detroit and Flint and tens of thousands of smaller American communities that have been harmed by the recession and globalization.
Back to the Pilgrims, they had some admirable traits, but they don't provide an example we should emulate. They did not even start us on the road to America. The Virginia colony was well established long before Plymouth was founded. But the South lost our Civil War, so whatever merit Virginian culture might have had, it was eliminated from our educational mythology in the late 1800s.
Al-Shabaab at Wikipedia
Taliban at Wikipedia
Pilgrims at Wikipedia