Shallow Analysis of Sin; This History Is More Manners Than Morals

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 22, 2003 | Go to article overview

Shallow Analysis of Sin; This History Is More Manners Than Morals


Byline: William Murchison, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

"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. …

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