‘Tis the season of giving, charity and good will -- unless you happen to be a Republican, and then ‘tis the season of pusillanimity, churlishness and bad will.

Congressional Republicans seem hell-bent on denying the most disadvantaged among us healthcare, unemployment benefits and, perhaps worst of all, food stamps, from which the House of Representatives slashed $40 billion last month. Elizabeth Drew, writing in Rolling Stone, calls it “The Republicans’ War on the Poor.”

You can attribute these benefit cuts to plain meanness with a dose of political calculation thrown in, as Drew does. But there may be another explanation than congenital cruelty: Republicans believe they are adhering to a principle that they place above every other value, including compassion. That principle is the need to punish individuals whom they view as undeserving.

Though we Americans love to brag about our decency and concern for others, the punitive gene runs deep in our national DNA. It goes back to the Puritans, who, while professing charitableness and community, had a hard vision of life. They subscribed to the Protestant idea that, since you couldn’t know if you were one of the “elect,” predestined for salvation, you had to look for signs. A major one is a productive life.

The sociologist Max Weber fastened on this Protestant work ethic as the basis of Western civilization’s material success. As he saw it, capitalism was a by-product of the desire for grace. For the Protestants, hard work was not only a potential sign of personal salvation. It became a sign of national salvation.