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Mr. Morone's readable but shallow book had its genesis in an incident he observed at a local market when his fellow patrons castigated a coughing man about the evils of smoking. This set him to thinking, somehow for the first time, about the Puritan streak that runs deep in the American grain. Setting out to write about the enduring religiosity of our temper, presumably in none too friendly fashion, he ended up finding much he admired. What to do if you're a good man of the secular Left but discover that Christianity is often a force for good in America? Why you manufacture an artificial distinction between the parts of religion you like and those you don't. Here's how he does so:
Hellfire Nation presents the American story as a moral tale. Political life constantly gets entangled in two vital urges--redeeming "us" and reforming "them." [...]

The Puritans bequeathed America two different answers to that moral bottom line: Who do we blame for trouble, the sinner or the society? The Puritans believed in blaming both. Salvation and perdition fell on individual souls; however, the Puritan covenants held the entire community responsible. In time, the two halves of that equation--the individual and the community--split. One moral tradition touts personal responsibility. Sinners impoverish themselves and diminish their community. The good society offers firm discipline; it preaches virtue and prosecutes vice. [...] The alternative tradition, the social gospel, shifts the emphasis from the sinner to the system. Poverty, hunger, segregation, racism, sexism, and despair all push good people into corners--into crime, broken marriages, addiction. Social gospel solutions reverse the focus: rather than redeem the individual, reform the political economy.

The two traditions got cast into their modern forms by Victorian preachers in the late nineteenth century. Each emphasizes an entirely different social project. Each attracts intense partisans who tag the other side narrow-minded or naive. The two have alternated, over the past century, as the dominant moral paradigm. And though each side finds the other hard to take, both run deep in the American psyche.

It goes almost without saying that any time he disapproves of a religious impulse he accuses it of treating some group of people as the "other," as a "them" instead of as part of "us." And, of course, whenever our Puritanism presents itself in the form of social reform it is good, but when it demands individual responsibility it's bad. This conveniently allows him to treat abolition, the New Deal, the Civil Rights movement, etc., as separable from things like Prohibition and anti-drug and anti-pornography campaigns and the like. Unfortunately, it also renders much of what he says intellectually incoherent.

For example, if you're going to trace Prohibition or the Drug War to a fear of immigrants and blacks respectively, you also have to reckon with traditional religious objections such mind-altering substances and with the fact that these restrictions on use are/were universal, applying to "us" as well as to "them." then too, you need to explain the Mothers Against Drunk Driving phenomena, which was targeted at the white middle class, making it "us" vs. "us." And, just as M.A.D.D. was a women's movement, so too was Prohibition--the very sorts of disciplinary campaigns that Mr. Morone doesn't like are inextricably tied up with the rise of the Social Welfare state, which he very much approves of, and trace back in large part to women's suffrage and their demand for greater social security. It just isn't as easy to unbraid the Social Gospel strand of our Puritanism from the individual responsibility strand as Mr. Morone would like it to be.

Nor, much as he might wish, is it so easy to separate our two parties along the lines of the two strands. After all, while he sets up FDR as the quintessential champion of the Social gospel, the internment of the Japanese was one of the most deeply despicable instances of "us vs. them" bigotry in our history. Meanwhile, though he frets at one point about the possibility that Arab-Americans might become our next "them," and though the modern GOP represents everything he dislikes about religion, George W. Bush's efforts to distance Islam generally from 9-11 and his insistence that Muslims be treated decently after the Trade Center attacks stands in starkest contrast to FDR. Similarly, the entirety of compassionate conservatism is obviously rooted in the Social Gospel and seems to have no trouble co-existing with a demand for individual accountability. Consider the pitch line for No Child Left Behind, that Americans have been guilty of "the soft bigotry of low expectations." Here's a conservative Christian not just demanding social reform but demanding that each of us recognize that part of the past problem has lay with "us" and how little we expect of "them." Where does the social reform end here and the redemption of sinners begin?

Amusing as it is to watch as Mr. Morone wrestles with the eternal centrality of Judeo-Christianity in American life, the framework he utilizes to examine it is so rickety that it falls apart before our eyes and rather early in the book at that. The sad truth for Mr. Morone and his kind is that the reforming zeal he likes is part and parcel of the reforming zeal he doesn't and the good guys aren't always good and the bad guys aren't always bad. That last bit's a lesson that as old as The Fall and no one knew it better than the Puritans.


Grade: (C-)


James Morone Links:

    -JAMES A. MORONE (Brown University)
    -BOOK SITE: Hellfire Nation (Yale University Press)
-ARCHIVES: Articles by James A. Morone from The American Prospect
    -ESSAY: Tropes of Wrath: Virtue, Markets, and the Family (James Morone, Spring 2005, Dissent)
    -ESSAY: The Corrosive Politics of Virtue (James A. Morone, American Prospect)
    -ESSAY: In God's Name: Past presidents have shown there's a better way to invoke God in wartime. (James A. Morone, 5.1.03, American Prospect)
    -ESSAY: Cultural Phenomena: Dumbledore's Message (James A. Morone, 12.17.01, American Prospect)
    -ESSAY: What the Muggles Don’t Get: Why Harry Potter succeeds while the morality police fail. (James Morone, July/August 2001, Brown University Alumni Magazine)
    -ESSAY: A primer on presidential trystory (James A. Morone, January 1998, Brown University)
    -ESSAY: Mother Nature Steals the Republican's Revolution (James A. Morone, February 1996, Brown University)
    -ESSAY: Too Much Privacy? Or Not Enough? An Exchange on The Limits of Privacy (James A. Morone)
    -ESSAY: Response to Professor James A. Morone (Amitai Etzioni, George Washington University)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Hellfire Nation (Trish Anderton, 2003-06-18, The Exchange--NHPR)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: with James A. Morone (Kojo Nmadi Show, 5/06/03)
    -PROFILE: Taking on City Hall: To students, urban politics is a subject. To political science professor James Morone, it's an obsession. (Torri Still, May/June 1998, Brown University Alumni Magazine)
    -ARCHIVES: "james a. Morone" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES: "james a. Morone" (Mag Portal)
    -REVIEW: of Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History by James A. Morone (Chris Lehmann, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Hellfire Nation (David J. Garrow The New York Times)
    -REVIEW: of Hellfire Nation (Martin E. Marty, Brown University Alumni Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of Hellfire Nation (TOM D'EVELYN, The Providence Journal)
    -REVIEW: of Hellfire Nation (David L. Beck, San Jose Mercury News)
    -REVIEW: of Hellfire Nation (Jackson Lears, New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of Hellfire Nation (mcgeheelt, Wofford College)
    -REVIEW: of Hellfire Nation (Jean Bethke Elshtain, Weekly Standard)
    -REVIEW: of Hellfire Nation (John C. Chalberg, Crisis)
    -REVIEW: of Hellfire Nation (Molly Gould, Townhall)
    -REVIEW: of Hellfire Nation (American Historical Review)
    -REVIEW: of Hellfire Nation (Colin Kidd, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Hellfire Nation (Thomas Murphy, S.J., America)
    -REVIEW: of Hellfire Nation (David Harrington Watt, Christian Century)
    -REVIEW: of The Democratic Wish by James A. Morone (The T. Rex Book Review)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ESSAY: America the theocracy: A band of influential preachers is praying for the power to rule America. For those who disagree, they have a solution -- stoning. (JOHN F. SUGG, 11/02/04, Creative Loafing)
    -ESSAY: It takes a generation: the Puritan route to Enlightenment (Dave Belden, 12 - 8 - 2003, Open Democracy)