Starting over

Malise Ruthven

  • Cities on a Hill by Frances FitzGerald
    Picador, 414 pp, £4.50, March 1987, ISBN 0 330 29845 3

The title of Frances FitzGerald’s new book comes from the sermon John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, delivered on board the Arabella shortly before landing in the New World in 1630. Fully conscious of the exemplary character of their enterprise, he urged his companions to walk humbly in the ways of God by remaining true to the Puritan tenets of a faith they could no longer practise in England. ‘We shall find that the God of Israel is among us,’ he promised, ‘when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when he shall make us a praise and a glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantations: the Lord make it like that of New England. For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.’

The Puritan separatists were the first to try to realise a dream that recurs like a refrain in American history: what FitzGerald calls ‘starting over’ or rebuilding the world from scratch. Winthrop’s utopian archetype, with or without the Biblical trappings, informed a great number of religio-social experiments, from the Shakers, Mormons and Oneida Perfectionists of the 18th and 19th centuries to the communes and cults which still flourish, especially in the West. FitzGerald sees the same impulse at work in four of the communities she studied for this book: the Castro Street quarter in San Francisco – centre of its gay community and a beacon for homosexuals everywhere; Liberty Baptist Church, the fundamentalist empire created by Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority and America’s best-known ‘televangelist’; Sun City, a retirement community in the Florida sunbelt; and the ill-fated commune in Oregon created by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, guru of free sex and Rolls-Royces.

The fact that three of these communities or ‘lifestyle enclaves’, to use the sociological term, have been dedicated to essentially hedonistic ends – sexual indulgence, ‘personal growth’ and full-time leisure – does not invalidate FitzGerald’s perception of the common Puritan tradition. ‘Rootlessness and the search for self-definition’, she argues, are ‘permanent and characteristic features of American life’, the result of ‘occupational and geographic mobility and the loose weave of the society’. Jerry Falwell, the Rajneeshee, the gay activists of San Francisco and the inhabitants of Sun City all laid claim to the Puritan ‘tradition of radical dissent, separation and heroic struggle to build a new world on hostile ground’. None of them, of course, are Puritans in the theological sense, since all reject, implicitly or explicitly, the Calvinist doctrine of salvation by grace alone. But in America Calvin was buried long ago – in the great revivals of the early 19th century when preachers like Charles Grandison Finney taught that it was possible for people to redeem themselves by their own efforts. The followers of Mother Anne Lee, Joseph Smith and John Humphrey Noyes were all, in different ways, antinomian perfectionists who considered themselves free to challenge or abandon existing norms (particularly sexual ones) and to create new ones based on their own idiosyncratic readings of Scripture. Even separatist Baptist Churches like Falwell’s until quite recently maintained themselves as islands of dissent, based on literalistic theology and crypto-racism. The aim of FitzGerald’s book is not just to describe these enclaves as discrete entities, but to chart the course of their interactions with the ‘real’ world outside.

It is a strength of her study that the obvious contrasts between her subjects serve to point up the much less visible similarities. On the face of it, nothing could be further apart than the cultures of the Castro, the world’s first ‘gay republic’, and the turgid fundamentalism of Falwell’s base in Lynchburg, Virginia, lodestar of the New ‘Christian’ Right. The lifestyle of Castro is flamboyantly extrovert, like San Francisco’s domestic architecture, and retains a surprisingly optimistic outlook even after thousands of its denizens have died of Aids and as many as 70 per cent, it is now thought, may have contracted the disease. In its heyday in the early Seventies Castro was the cutting edge of the gay revolution, the place where thousands of young men (and some women) flocked from all over the country to enjoy a totally new kind of freedom. Gay liberation, FitzGerald observes, was part of the Civil Rights struggle,

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