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H L Mencken once famously defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.”

I thought of the Mencken quote because of our propensity to peg our happiness to the political situation. Our cultural Puritanism has two competing and conflicting schools of thought, both attached to conflicting and competing schools of moral progress.

Look at values around artificial contraception as just one example. One idea of moral progress can include a belief in artificial birth control and limitation of family size. Attached to this tenet, is the belief that women have the freedom to decide individually when, if at all, to become mothers. Another school of moral progress can reject artificial birth control with no limit on family size. Emphasis is on “family”, not family size. That no moral progress is attainable if the most basic social structure, the family, is derided or devalued. Concomitant with this value is the value that families consist of two parents, male and female, mother and father.

One Puritan school fears that there are people out there making babies with no thought to the strained resources of our fragile and limited planet. The other school fears that people are out there happily fornicating and copulating, with no thought to any principle besides hedonistic pleasure-seeking.

Our Puritanism has us wed to the goal of progressing toward, if not outright establishing, a political Utopia, with “Liberty and Justice for all”, but with competing ideas of what Liberty and Justice may be. We stumble along our road of Progress, never really happy unless we control the toll gates.

This is what a free society looks like. It carries a tension between competing ideas, both committed to a notion of The Common Good.