- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History. James A. Morone. Yale University Press. $35, 575 pages, illus.

"For better or worse," affirms James Morone, "moral conflicts made America." Now they have made a book this one; long, breezy, lush in garish detail, and improbably entertaining. Is its author successful in sorting through our country's ongoing perplexities over the varieties of human behavior? Here a little caution is in order.
"Hellfire Nation." You sense from the dust jacket what is coming, namely, the brisk, bright narrative; the fluent generalization; the gentle, and sometimes not-so-gentle, jab at historical figures of a persuasion different from the author's own. Mr. Morone (he teaches political science at Brown University) delivers on all counts. This is pop history for an audience the professor may hope has grown tired of John and Abigail Adams' frosty virtue. Instead of sober-sided republican patriots, Mr. Morone gives us harlots and drunkards, bigots and blue-noses, preachers and libertines.
It's interesting, and possibly profitable, to be told that America's moral history oscillates between the impulse to control and the impulse to liberate; Puritanism vs. the Social Gospel; Bill Bennett arrayed against Bill Clinton. This is at least a framework and, in American terms, a historical one, dating from the 17th century for exhibiting and talking about shifts and counter-shifts in moral attitude. Frameworks provide some intellectual regularity. But regularity's first cousin is Procrusteanism the concept that the concept comes first.
Mr. Morone's concept squabbling traditions of moral witness, now bringing us Prohibition and the Volstead Act, now liberating women and blacks works nicely enough for story-telling purposes. We meet the Puritans, hanging witches and Quakers. Along come the abolitionists, pressing the Gospel into political service. The Victorians follow, with restrictions imposed for the sake of abstract Virtue but also (says Mr. Morone) for the sake of controlling "the other," e.g., the immigrant.
The Victorian order dissolves after 1929, and neo-Social Gospellers like Franklin Roosevelt turn to public uplift. Uplift becomes downturn, morally speaking, in the '60s. But this merely inspires and empowers the neo-Victorians of the Reagan era. Among other things, the prisons fill up with "the other," meaning in this case black males.
What now? A Social Gospel comeback, perchance? "Or perhaps the Victorians have only just begun." The least one can say, says Mr. Morone, is that "another hot American revival" is forever "in the wings." Thus the professor takes his leave. He is done. Not so his subject, or the possibilities for interpreting it.
Moral-anguish-as-entertainment is the enterprise at hand: one by which Mr. Morone does pretty well, pleasing the customer and not pressing his thumb too heavily on the scales. Mr. Morone betrays, again and again, by word choice, by emphasis, by raised eyebrow, his preference for the morality of the social liberals. Still, one couldn't call this book a screed.
Any account of morality, to rise above the level of entertainment, needs to explore what morality means. And what might that thing be?
Morality is a set of propositions about who we humans are, and what we owe each other, and why we owe it. The "why" is the crucial element in moral argumentation. Does our duty proceed from human observation and development, or from just plain prudence? Or is a higher warrant (i.e., God's) at the back of it?
Mr. Morone's characters, from Cotton Mather onward, invoke God with fervor and conviction. That seems to suffice for Mr. Morone. Modes and manners of belief are past finding out, he strongly implies. Better to talk about the believers themselves. Except that the chosen mode and manner of investigation, entertaining as it may be, teaches little in the end. Given the pop public's disinclination to deep investigation, Mr. Morone likely chose well.
One can have a lot of fun with this book: pooh-pooing ancient superstitions and cheering the champions of progress while wishing more historians had Mr. Morone's gift of communicating in sentences of, oh, six-to 12 words. There's a lot of good information in "Hellfire Nation" about American agonies like Prohibition and the Salem witch trials. Nevertheless, the main thing astute readers will learn here is how much more there is to be learned about morality.

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