Mark Oppenheimer’s critique of hygiene-obsessed parents who are scared of immunization, processed food, non-organic anything and the alleged over-sugarization of children kicked off a long, engaging set of comments on Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish about the “Puritanism of Progressive Parents”. It all makes for stimulating reading, but the basic framing is I believe unfair both to Puritans and Progressives.

Here’s Oppenheimer:

The Puritan parents I encounter are nearly all liberals, and they represent the persistence of two unfortunate tendencies liberals have inherited from the Puritans, queered along the way by Progressive-era reformers. The first is the fun-smothering tendency of Progressive-era moral uplift, the tendency that brought us Prohibition and the first laws proscribing opiates and narcotics.

The Puritans compete with the Victorians for being the chief whipping boys of lazy historical analyses like these, which source current moralistic views to long-dead people who in fact believed something quite different. The Puritans generally opposed Prohibition of alcohol, specifically because it would be an unfair denial of pleasure. Indeed, no less a Puritan figure than Increase Mather called alcohol a “good creature of God” (For those who want to know more about how different Christian sects view alcohol, let me put a plug in here for the scholarly work of my friend Rev. Dr. Chris Cook).

The other reason that the parents Oppenheimer quite appropriately derides should not be called Puritans is captured in the old saw that “The Puritans went to America for the freedom to practice their faith and to force other people to practice it too”. A Puritan would be delighted to meet a fellow member of the faithful, but that is not what I see in these parents. If they are vegetarian and meet another vegetarian, they are unhappy and commit to becoming a vegan. If they then meet another vegan, they become unhappy and commit to becoming an ovo-lactic vegan. They don’t want other people to share faith in a community of peers, they want to outrank their lessers within a hierarchy.

This is also why they are not truly liberal or progressive. They are not trying to save the world, they are trying to get an edge in life for themselves and for little Hayden and Sawyer too. Oppenheimer hits this point well, when he upends his own initial characterization of these parents as progressives:

Most of the middle-class “liberal” parents I know have allowed lifestyle decisions about what they wear, eat, and drive to entirely replace a more ambitious program for bettering society; they have no particular beliefs about how to end poverty or strengthen the labor movement, and they don’t understand Obamacare, or really want to. It’s enough that they make their midwife-birthed children substitute guava nectar for sugar.

Rather than surrender the terms liberal or progressive so easily to the domain of lifestyle and shallow issues of personal identity, I suggest we let those terms retain their political meaning by not describing panicky, entitled, hierarchy-obsessed, materialistic strivers as “liberals”. Likewise, let’s not throw theology and history to the side and call them “Puritans” either. If we need a shorthand term for them, I suggest that someone with literary skill invent an entirely new one, as long it isn’t very polite.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and served as Senior Policy Advisor in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in the Obama Administration. @KeithNHumphreys