All Fired Up

By Martin E. Marty / May / June 2003
June 22nd, 2007
Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History by James A. Morone (Yale University Press, 575 pages, $35).

No dull moments blight this four-century, 500-page-plus run through American history. While historians will find most of the episodes in Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History familiar, the word politics in the title signals James Morone’s bent—he is a professor of political science at Brown. It also suggests his aim: to reach Americans who must make sense of power, law, ethos, custom, and taste as they reflect citizen interests and address public behavior.

Reviewers like to play naming games, and Hellfire Nation invites renaming. Somehow the title should include the phrase “us and them,” which turns up in chapter subheads and scores of a-sides, or “controlling the immoral other,” which is what Morone sees Americans so regularly setting out to do.

Morone depends on and belongs to a school of historians who see American moral history as puritanism writ large and long. This is no story of religious decline and secularization; Morone sees citizenries lurching from “revival to revival,” participating in periodic resuscitations of the Puritan impulse.

Characteristic of the Puritans in their prime was a sermonic form called the jeremiad, after Jeremiah, the prophet who bewailed moral decline and prophesied doom. Happily—and I would stress that word—Morone does not come on as a Jeremiah, a moper or whiner or scold. He is more of a bemused ironist who neither suppresses his own moral impulses nor lets them obtrude and alienate.

Instead he briskly remarks on the hypocrisies that afflict the moralist us groups. Typically he tells of Methodist Bishop James Cannon, who was “running for Top Dry” and who toured the South in 1928, scorching presidential candidate Al Smith, a Catholic, a wet, and a Democrat (three thems for the price of one). Cannon, Morone writes, “ended up hurting the dry cause by getting entangled in a series of nasty sex and money scandals.” Morone shows a light hand with these ironies, trusting the reader’s intelligence. His crusaders often begin as individualist moralists of the sort who favor small government but then pass laws, such as Prohibition, that demand ever-expanding government.

John Dewey wrote that people “do not shoot because targets exist, but they set up targets in order that throwing and shooting may be more effective and significant.” Morone finds his various us-es setting up as targets a host of thems: heretics, heathens, witches, slaveholders, abolitionists, Northerners, Southerners, women, white-slavers, wets, blacks, the poor, the wealthy, Communists both at home and abroad, the establishment, the hippies.

Fortunately for the quick reader but tantalizing to the scholar, Morone seldom slows down for more than a paragraph to discern patterns. When he does, however, he is consistent: something goes wrong—modernity looms, the outraged or uneasy perceive moral decline, new people arrive down the block—and the first reaction is panic. The panicked pass laws against those they perceive as immoral. Then—think Prohibition—chaos follows, whether because the new laws are unenforceable or because too few citizens agreed with the panicked in the first place. The cycles end in a variety of aftermaths: the public grows more tolerant of the thems, or it becomes cynical about the hypocrisies of the us-es, or it becomes reactive—think Repeal.

In a gathering of historians of religion, on whose turf Morone so blithely, and in the main felicitously, treads, I would raise several complaints or cautions. He overdoes the Puritan theme at the expense of the Enlightenment tradition as it is encapsulated in the moralisms of many national founders. He stretches the term, concept, and influence of the Social Gospel too far, and smuggles too many phenomena under its tent. A swipe at James Madison’s Federalist Paper No. 10 is somewhat distorting and distracting and would need expanding to appear defensible. His final chapters on the 1960s and what follows involve some necessarily premature judgments, and his plot line there meanders a bit.

Most of all, and here I am stressing the “religious” half of the “religious historians” company, I would criticize his treatment of two words in the title. Hellfire may help sell the book, and now and then Morone quotes someone who mentions it in passing. Still, there is very little reference to the eternal fires of hell that threaten those who sin against God. The moralists in this book are not so much concerned with the souls of sinners as with the damage they are doing in this world, to national life.

As for the word sin, most of Morone’s crusaders grounded their judgments in a sense of sin as violating God’s will. God shows up frequently in this book, but usually as a casual reference in quoted materials. This slighting reference to the sinned-against, namely God, may not be a misrepresentation of Morone’s thesis. The “moral clarity” of many American moralists seems less a humble acknowledgement of human sin (theirs and ours alike) and more an attempt to delineate once again just who belongs in the company of good Americans.

While Morone hints at the contemporary and even immediate relevance of these American tendencies, he offers only a few concluding lines of tease, such as: “Who might [they] be this time? Moslems? Arab Americans? Critics of the patriotic majority? Dissenters of every sort?” He does not dwell on the question long enough to alienate those (of us) who might resent such probes and pokes.

Martin E. Marty is Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago.
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