2017-07-12
From its beginnings as a home for English religious dissidents, the United States has made morality a matter of public policy. In his book "Hellfire Nation: the Politics of Sin in American History," James Morone traced the Puritans' influence through three centuries, and found that the Puritan impulse has made itself felt in surprising ways. He shared some of that history in a recent interview with Culture producer Paul O'Donnell

You trace the politics of sin in America back to the founding of the nation by the Puritans.
A great metaphor for the United States is this mythic moment when the Puritans arrive and face the great existential question of who they are, and they define themselves in good, Calvinist terms as the community of saints preordained for salvation.

That metaphor is coupled with two others. First, we're a city on a hill, the eyes of all people upon us. Second, we're an open door. Any stranger for most of the history of America can come ashore. The notion that we're essentially good people, combined with a providential mission to show the world what a good society is like, plus the constant influx of new people. Those three things make a wonderful hook for seeing America in a way we haven't understood.

Were the Puritans really what we think?
There are two sides to the Puritans. One side was the prime imperative, "Control Thyself"--don't give in to the lusts of the flesh. Yet there was also a communal idea that you were responsible for one another. It was the community God was going to judge, and it was every members' job to make sure the whole community was good and that it prospered.

These two strands--the worry about misbehavior, and the worry about other people generally--emerge out of the Puritan psyche and wrestle for control of American politics. The best moments for both liberals and conservatives have been faith-based moments.

How do we see the two strains today?
It's a continuum, but the religious right has grabbed onto one strain, and used it very powerfully. Their idea is that our common troubles flow from individual misbehavior. We're only as good as the individuals who make up the nation, and if the individuals don't behave, then social trouble follows. The great temperance movements, the drug war, the crime war really flow from that Puritan idea.

The other side says our individual troubles come from problems with the political, social and economic system. I call this the Social Gospel, plucking that term out of its historical occurrence in the early 20th century and using it to describe this whole alternative political morality. This idea came on at the turn of the century with Walter Rauschenbush and Jane Addams and reached its highpoint with Martin Luther King. Their great social reforms come from this Social Gospel strain.

So on one side a preacher comes along and says if we don't stop drinking, America is doomed. That's the individual, rightist Puritan tradition. On the other side, along comes the abolitionist, who says our great sin has nothing to do with slaveholders; it's in the system of slaveholding. Both are vibrant tradition.

Sin sounds like a concern of the religious right, but you point out that the left is just as prone to adopt the metaphor of sin.
The left was as moral in the Sixties as the right is today. They said capitalism led people to behave immorally. Certainly they thought segregation, as a set of laws, was immoral. Vietnam was immoral as a policy. If you wanted to smoke, drink, do pot--the sins that drove Victorians nuts--they didn't care about those. They looked at the larger system.

But as your section on the Welfare Reform Act shows, conservative politicians have begun to attack the system as well.
Both sides want to reform public policy. But the right's public policy is driven by a need to make individuals moral. The great preacher of this point of view is Ronald Reagan. He changed the rhetoric of American politics. Again and again, his diagnosis of the problem was individuals--you might even say individual sinners. Drug problem? Just say no. Crime problem? Lock 'em up. Welfare problem? Make people responsible. Even if your approach is to change the system, the goal is to make individuals behave.

Morality has become an important part of the Republican coalition. Since the early 70s, liberals have run from moral politics. Perhaps the '60s were too hot, or too crazy, or perhaps Roe v. Wade redefined liberal politics. But the left has dropped its old moral vision just as the conservatives have embraced it. That's crucual to understanding, not just the growing Republican majority, but its tone, with this powerful call to arms on radio and TV and from a thousand pulpits.

How did Roe v. Wade effect the liberal stance? Since Roe v. Wade, many liberals say politics and morals should be divorced. People's private lives are their own private lives. Historically, however, both left and right have found their poltical dynamite in moral movements. Look at civil rights, abolition--they had a moral fervor about them. Giving it up might make a lot of sense in intellectual sense, but it really puts the left at a disadvantage.

Would we be better off if we didn't inject sin into our politics?
I started the book exactly that way. I had a sense--one that has proven true--that the notion that we're declining is something Americans have been saying since about 1650. I was frightened by the religious right of the early 1990s.

I discovered two things. There is a lot of condemning individuals as sinful, which leads to real social harms. All our great witchhunts have come about because people condemn other people's behavior. Rights evaporate when there's an evil person in our midst. When Prohibition went into effect, a perfectly legal brewing industry that had been making lots of money and enjoying the right to property lost everything. Alcohol became equated with poison, and people who peddled alcohol became like contemporary drug dealers--sinners.

Terrible crimes have been committed in our history by calling people sinners. I worry about the Patriot Act in just that way. I was walking through an airport recently with an Indian colleague. We were late for a plane, and I said, "Let's dash." He looked at me and said, "Brown people don't dash in airports." That's the sound of the American witchhunt getting going.

On the other hand, it's hard to say that sin is a negative in American history. Abraham Lincoln is one of the greatest moralizing president in our history. The Second Inaugural Address, in which Lincoln said what African American preachers were saying about what happens to a nation that holds its people in bondage. It is one of the great sermons in American letters. You read that and you have to put aside your simple idea that arguing about morality is bad for Americans and make it much more complicated.

These days our leaders use the word "evil" a great deal. How should we understand that term in the political context?
The context isn't politics, but that original Puritan vision that good and bad people are the key to understanding the world. It's not just in foreign policy. In the Enron scandal, the Bush Administration line was that there are bad apples in the barrell that need to be plucked out. If Saddam can be killed, if the head of Enron can be indicted, the problem evaporate in a moment.

How do other countries sort this stuff out?
Europeans are baffled by all this. Europe had those horrible religious wars in early modern Europe, and they put an end to it, saying that religion is what you do in your private life. In the United States, we developed from revival to revival. Our religions, like the Europeans', tend to grow more secular with time. But there's always a new preacher waiting in the wings to say, "Hey, gather around my tree stump, gather round my radio station, come to my television show, I've got a new form of salvation." The separation of church and state in the United States created a vibrant religious market, open to anyone with a good sermon. As a result, there's always a new religion on the American horizon.

What are the best examples of the politics of sin today?
One of them is the crime war. We've got 2 million people in jail. We lock up people up at four to five times the rate of other Western countries. The number of people in prison or jail on parole or probation comes to 6.3 million. That's one out of 33 adults in our criminal justice system. But if you look at our crime data, we're roughly average. You're more likely to have your stereo stolen in London than New York. For any crime you care to name, except murder, we are about average, and yet we lock people up at an extraordinary rate. Hold murder aside, because that's not enough to fill our jails, though we kill a lot more people than any other nation.

This suggests a society with very little tolerance for deviant behavior. When we think people are bad, they go to jail. The Supreme Court just upheld California's three strikes law. Some poor shlemiel who stole some videotapes is going away for life.

The drug war is another example. We arrest extraordinary numbers of people for smoking marijuana. Once people shift the image of the user, as in medical marijuana, then almost any state will vote it's okay. It's not the substance, it's the image of the user as a sinner.

Being a smoker these days is a good way to encounter American moralism.
There's nothing for getting a public health issue roaring than to find demons at the bottom of the public health problem. You can demonizer the producer or the user. In the drug war we do both. In the tobacco war we've demonized the peddler.

Fat is the latest target. There's a moral issue people would have laughed at two and a half years ago. McDonalds is painted as a purveyor of fat, making children obese. In fact we do have an obesity problem and it has lots of causes. But is it a moral problem? I would have said not. It's a delicious American tale.

You say that limits on behavior have been more successful than total bans.
The really successful prohibitions are those that cut away at behavior--no smoking in bars, no smoking indoors, and before long, its' really hard to smoke. Alcohol is the same way. Most of America was dry before Prohibition. If Prohibition has never gone into effect, it would be interesting to see if you could buy a drink today anywhere in the South. Total prohibition went too far and mobilized the other side.

Similarly with abortion. There is a powerful army on either side, and the small victories are easier not just to win but to maintain, because they don't mobilize the other side.

One great lesson I've learned from reading American history is that the pendulum always seems to go back the other way. Just when it seems like one vision is going to transform the nation, lo and behold the momentum reverses. If you read from the 1960s about fundamentalism, it is written with such incredible scorn. This is something Clarence Darrow buried in the 1920s with the Scopes trial and only the most foolish atavistic wowser would go for that kind of small brain stuff. Twenty-five years later the fundamentalists could plausibly claim to be a moral majority--whether they were or not.

So whether you think your side is up or down, I'd say keep an eye on the future.

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