Puritanism in the historical sense is as dead as the Salem witches. The religious group that settled in New England outlawed theater, rejected any form of sex except marital intercourse, banned celebration of Christmas and spent hours in church listening to horrifying depictions of Hell.
But the term has come to be a synonym for any disapproval or discouragement of carnal pleasure. Sexual puritanism has receded even among devout Christians, who generally see nothing wrong with husbands and wives gratifying each other however they please.
In society as a whole, things have changed even more drastically. Virginity is no longer held up as an ideal for young people; TV has an abundance of flesh and raunch; and the majority of Americans no longer see homosexual acts as "always wrong."
Most people don't think it's their place to tell others what sort of sexual behavior is acceptable. With few exceptions, it has become a private matter of individual preference. Laws against sodomy are extinct. Divorce is easy to get. Your sex life is off-limits to government regulation. Busybodies have little impact on policy.
But puritans haven't vanished. They've merely changed the subject. The expansion of freedom in matters of sex has coincided with a shrinkage in matters of health. New Yorkers would laugh at laws policing sex, but they elected a mayor who has no problem trying to control other physical indulgences.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg brought forth a ban on large sugar-laden beverages, which this week was struck down by a state court. But the idea won't go away that easily: The city will appeal the ruling, and other cities are considering similar laws.
Nor is this approach out of character for Bloomberg, whose attitude is: "Let my conscience be your guide." He prohibited restaurants from using transfats, banned smoking in bars and restaurants as well as most outdoor spaces, compelled fast-food chains to post calorie counts on their menus, proposed limits on sodium and even stopped hospitals from giving bottles of infant formula to new mothers. When it comes to what you put in your body, nothing is off-limits to the city.
The sugary drink measure has been controversial, but if experience is any guide, it will someday be as common and accepted as smoke-free taverns. Individuals could be allowed to make their own choices without coercing others, but that doesn't satisfy the public health zealots.