The Morality Police

We are living in–and hopefully, through–an age  of  global upheaval. Most readers of this blog are probably aware of the uprisings in Iran, prompted by the death of a young woman at the hands of that country’s “Morality Police.” As the Washington Post reported,

Protests in Iran continue more than a week after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died after being taken into custody by the “morality police” for the offense of allegedly violating the country’s strict dress code. The Post reports: “The anti-government protests she inspired are still raging across Iran. Demonstrators, many of them women, are burning hijabs and fighting back against police; they are tearing down posters and setting fire to billboards of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader.” More than 30 people have been killed. The Post has verified video showing the police firing into crowds of protesters.

Several media outlets have reported on the nature of her dress code violation: a loose headscarf.

A 22-year-old died because her headscarf–which she was wearing in compliance with Iran’s religious laws–was deemed “too loose.”

These reports reminded me of a book I read several years ago, and after racking my brain, I finally remembered the title: Hellfire Nation.  I commend it to the attention of those who don’t think America has its own version of Morality Police. The publisher’s description is less hair-raising than I found the book itself, which was replete with descriptions of this country’s repeated moral panics.

This insightful new conceptualization of American political history demonstrates that—despite the clear separation of church and state—religion lies at the heart of American politics. From the Puritan founding to the present day, the American story is a moral epic, James Morone says, and while moral fervor has inspired the dream of social justice it has also ignited our fiercest social conflicts.

From the colonial era to the present day, Americans embraced a Providential mission, tangled with devils, and aspired to save the world. Moral fervor ignited our fiercest social conflicts—but it also moved dreamers to remake the nation in the name of social justice. Moral crusades inspired abolition, woman suffrage, and civil rights, even as they led Americans to hang witches, enslave Africans, and ban liquor. Today these moral arguments continue, influencing the debate over everything from abortion to foreign policy.

Written with passion and deep insight, Hellfire Nation tells the story of a brawling, raucous, religious people. Morone shows how fears of sin and dreams of virtue defined the shape of the nation.

As one reviewer noted,  the book’s “explanatory work is performed by the ubiquitous trio of race, class, and gender.” The author demonstrated the various ways that “anxious Americans invoke the concept of sin to stigmatize and control dangerous others.”  This stigmatization has allowed our home-grown bigots t to characterize America’s underclass  not only as “other” but as “wicked”—and the book traced the implications of that characterization for policy formation. (My own scholarship confirmed that assertion; I found George W. Bush’s Charitable Choice initiative firmly grounded in a worldview that blamed poverty on a perceived lack of “middle-class values.”)

Hellfire Nation described a recurring political cycle, running from zealotry, to bigotry, to panic, and finally to state-enforced legal prohibitions. It also explains what so many of us see as hypocrisy: the self-described “small government” conservatives who are nevertheless all too eager to use the state to impose their own views of morality on others–a scenario we can most recently see playing out in the eagerness of those same conservatives to criminalize abortion.

It is, of course, more complicated than that.

The book documented two kinds of morality politics. The first kind is based upon a concept of sin as an individual moral failure that focuses on efforts to punish the sinner. The second kind locates sin in systemic failures and as a result, makes an effort to restructure the system.(It’s an intriguing way of mapping the differences between conservatives and progressives.)

Those who adhere to the first understanding of sin are preoccupied with  what they see as affronts to God; the second group is more concerned with earthly justice.That said, in the real world, the two versions are not so neatly allocated. As the book tells us, abolitionists combined a progressive vision of racial justice with a very intense focus on personal industry and sexual purity.

America’s legal system separates church from state, but as any reading of our history will confirm, that has never stopped our homegrown Morality Police from trying–often successfully–to impose the mandates of their religious dogmas on their neighbors.

They want a version of Iran based upon adoption of their particular form of Christianity. It is not inaccurate to point out that we will be voting on that vision in November.


  1. I always find the question, “whose morality?” to be among the most important, followed by, “who decides?”

  2. Very important post, especially as SCOTUS begins a new session.
    This new session is almost sure to rankle:

  3. Remember the movie “Deep Throat” which was taken to many courts to decide if it was pornography? At that time Indianapolis had City and County Prosecutors, the City Prosecutor happened to be a long time friend. He had to watch the movie SEVEN times to make his decision; he was unmarried and still living with his mother. He took a lot of ribbing at parties after that made the news. Jane questioning “whose morality?” brought him to mind this morning. Who decides what is questionable morally once publications, movies, TV programming is made public. There used to be a Commission which decided which movies were to be released to the public as morally acceptable. It took a great deal of arguing with them to allow Clark Gable to tell Vivian Leigh, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” in “Gone With The Wind”.

    Mahsa Amini lived in a dictatorship and paid the highest price for an accidental minor infraction of extreme religious demands of women. Our democracy is slipping from our fingers due to the religious dictatorship in power from their minority position over our basic civil and human rights. It is up to us to “decide” to end the Trump, whose level of immorality is known, White Nationalist MAGA pseudo religious takeover of our government and this nation or sit home and let them end democracy, Rule of Law and our Constitution.



  4. This: “…to stigmatize and control dangerous others.”

    I could paraphrase…organized religion has always been about control. However, to whose benefit is this control over the citizenry?

    Why is forcing religion constantly the first action taken by conquerors? Look at our founding. Who were the savages needing Christianity?

    Do you think it’s any different today?

    Why does the media focus all its efforts on the right-wingers?

    The right-wingers focus all their attention on those classified as Leftists (the dangerous others). We see this in Brazil’s election with the USA backing the fascist Bolsonaro. We also backed the fascists in Ukraine to fight the evil communists.

    Keep your eyes open because this theme will come into focus as the days progress. It’s ultimately a battle between socialism and fascism for the next society following the collapse of capitalism.

    And, we all know which side the oligarchy is cheering for in this battle. It’s played out for eons.

  5. Joanne’s reminder of the movie: Deep Throat, recalls the impact of local censor boards when they filed lawsuits in court against the producer, actors and local theater owners. The lines at the theaters did not materialize until censor boards created free publicity. The film cost $45,000 to produce and generated $35 million at the box office. Very little was spent on promoting the film. Early convictions were eventually overturned long after the box office confirmed censor boards worst fears.

    What is the lesson learned? Let public indifference kill the box office without stirring the pot of overwhelming curiosity. No one can control public curiousity.

  6. Feeling cynical/curmudgeonly today…we don’t need morality police here anymore because there is no “generally accepted” morality – almost “anything goes”. In one city nearby, they have massive issues in an area where “young professionals” live with drunken vulgar behavior and, yet, they have in another similar area, proudly designated a “social drinking neighborhood” to allow people to walk around with drinks from bars nearby.

    There has been tons written about the epidemic of speeding, redlight/stop sign ignoring and reckless driving that is being ignored. I could go on…but I have work to do….

  7. Ask any member of the Southern Baptist CULT “who’s morality” and they will respond with “mine of course”.

  8. When we think about the argument that, since the founders were Christians, the good, old US of A. must be a Christian nation we have to wonder why they put the freedom of religion thing in the First Amendment. My theory is that those who were one kind of Christian didn’t trust any of those who were a different kind of Christian, hence the freedom we celebrate is freedom from other Christians.

  9. Authoritarianism means that people live in a structure of power with a hierarchy of influence over them. Look at every corporate and military organization chart to see what it looks like on paper. Extreme authoritarianism just widens the means of inflicting power. Putin is probably the world champion authoritarian today with substantial evidence in his wake of killing those who oppose his authority. The religious structure of strict Muslim countries is close behind him.

    When times look threatening people seem to naturally evolve to a more authoritarian structure to protect us from the threat. FDR/Eisenhower/Churchill/Stalin and Hitler/Mussolini wielded enormous power during WWII which was because the threat was existential for so many.

    Many people in the world today are evaluating the threats facing our civilization and defaulting to accepting the premise of threat. Many more authoritarian politicians are getting elected because many more people conclude the threats are increasing, which they are.

    The disconnects are two. One is ambitious politicians with much more influential and effective soap boxes, the pervasive, persuasive media entertainment business, from which to amplify the threats in order to get elected. Two is the nature of the threats which are organic in nature as growing changes in the variability and distribution of weather and sea level, and the natural pressure of overpopulation.

    The question is what are the threats really threatening and to what degree can or should or are they most effectively managed by government hierarchy? We are seeing a great deal of news with evidence of a disconnect among populations and between electorates and those offering power as a solution. Of course, it differs among liberal democracies with the power of the people versus the power of power in countries in which authoritarianism presently reigns.

    To what degree do we need more authoritarian and less liberal democracy to protect us from today’s threats, once we separate the real ones from the political advertising?

  10. This is on the U.S. and Britain. Solely on them. If they had not and unjustly overthrown Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh,the religious zealots would not have come to power. NOT-HAVE-COME-TO-POWER.

    And the same establishment that destroyed Mossadegh now wants us to go to war on behalf of Ukraine. The very same establishment that was wrong about Iraq, and absconded from Vietnam and afghanistan?

    That’s some self righteous chutzpah.

  11. It is true that we don’t have a total separation of church and state. The incoming President swears his oath to the Constitution on a Bible.

    The Bible has been used to justify racism, mysogyny(Read Judges 19), slavery, homophobia etc. I don’t consider the Bible a good source of moral authority especially “the Old Testament”.
    Now “Christians” are banning books from libraries and threatening the librarians.

    And Christians who commit these acts of bigotry wonder why Gen Z and millenials are now unaffilated. They are called the “Nones”. Their numbers are increasing each year.

    There is a bumper sticker that reads “God please save me from your followers” Or as it says in the Lord’s prayer– ” Lead us not into temptation,but deliver us from evil”.

  12. We have steadily moved from some common agreement on moral aspirations: “thou shalt not”. Now we are at “I shall do what ever I want” – there is no “thou” or “us”.

  13. JoAnn – When I live in Maryland, some years ago, they were the last state with a film censor board – I always wondered what it would be like to be appointed to that board and watch porn all day 8)>

    Peggy – while the founding fathers were “Christians”, because nothing else was acceptable, theologically they were more like Deists, with a more general view of “Divine Providence” as children of the Enlightenment – as you said, this hardly makes this a “Christian Nation”

    Robin – Although I agree with the gist of your argument, a lot depends upon who is interpreting biblical texts. For example, was Onan’s sin “masterbation”, or refusing to produce an heir for his dead brother, as he was bound to do?
    I also read a very nice diatribe against the phrase “spare the rod”. As any shepherd knows, the rod “guides” the sheep, it is not used to beat them, but some insist that this phrase (a slight deviation from the biblical one) justifies corporal punishment.

    Back to morality police – there is another division of morality other than the “personal” vs. the “societal”.

    Ask this question – Which is to be preferred: Ten innocent people executed to ensure one killer gets their just punishment, or ten guilty people go free to ensure that one innocent person is not executed?

    The same question could use incarceration instead, but execution is more dramatic.

  14. The “founders” of North America were pagans who originated in Asia. The colonies were founded by Europeans trying to escape religious persecution and suppression. But once the European governments saw the amount of money that could be made from exploiting the resources and by suppressing the original Americans, suddenly the church was in charge.

    The point is that EVERY time religion gets involved with societies, those societies struggle to accommodate all their citizens fairly. It’s ALWAYS been us v. them with religion. It’s tribalism written with a brush dipped in hypocrisy. That’s why religious persecution is just another excuse for humans to abuse one another, either physically or mentally.

    It’s all so stupid. Here is Colorado there is a town outside Denver where the blue-noses are in charge of “setting standards”. They are trying to ban the movie “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” because an actual human breast (with nipple) is seen ever so briefly. The bluenose committee has deemed that exposure to be “lewd and indecent”. So, to these religious cretins, the very sight of the first thing they pop into their mouths after they’re born is lewd and indecent. Amazing. I guess their religion is so powerful that they find that denying their very speciation is immoral.

    You can’t make this shit up.

  15. The Powers That Be are using political party affiliations in the same manner as religious affiliations have been used in the past. Have they ever had an original thought? Or will they (PTB) continue to use and borrow methods? The goal is always to keep the plebes balkanized so their attention is never focused on what “their betters” are actually doing.

    Professional sports fandom has conditioned the public to continue the ruse.

    Team Blue

    Team Red









    PMRC-Parents Music Resource Center

  16. I remember going to some Libertarian meetings where people would declare “you can’t legislate morality.” Not only can you, it’s virtually the only thing we legislate. Cambridge Dictionary defines “morality” as “a set of personal or social standards for good or bad behavior and character.” Laws are about setting those personal or social standards. We have laws prohibiting fraud, for example, because we as a society have concluded that people defrauding their fellow citizens is a bad thing.

    Like it or not, much of our morality – what is deemed right and wrong – comes from religious beliefs. That background does not invalidate the law through some creative interpretation of the Establishment Clause.

    The issue is not whether you can legislate a moral question – of course you can – but whether you should. In many cases, morality should not be legislated. For example, adultery is considered immoral by most of society, but we don’t legislate it because of the impracticality of enforcing the law against those that stray from loyalty to their spouse.

  17. In Deuteronomy the 30th chapter put certain things in perspective! Moses spoke to the Israelites before crossing the Jordan River, he said “I put before you life and death, the blessing and the curse, and you must ‘CHOOSE’ life so that you may live you and your descendants.”

    Again, the key word here is choose! In other words as being free moral agents, every human is free to choose their path or conduct! No one is forced, and nowhere in Scripture does it say a person is forced to follow any particular law right or wrong.

    It also discusses that freedom in Joshua 24:14 – 15.

    In Romans the 14th chapter the apostle Paul admonishes congregants saying, “but why do you judge your brother? Or why do you also look down on your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of god.”

    We often hear about judeo-christian values and judeo-christian morality, but, nowhere is it considered in Scripture, to force any particular morals on anyone.

    Unfortunately, Islam and Christianity have spread throughout the world by sword not by conduct or kindness!

    It really goes against anything Christ preached, and, it definitely goes against much of what Muhammad preached.

    One of my favorite quotes in the Quran is, “if you are hungry and tired, find a man of faith, a good Christian or Jew and you will be refreshed.”

    And actually, besides the quran, Islam has the “Zabur” which is the book of psalms, or “Tevrat or Tawrah” which is actually the Torah or, the pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, then, you have the Islamic book “Injil or Incil” which is the gospel books from the Christian Greek scriptures, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John!

    So, in all of these three major religions, you can find corresponding scriptures from all three, basically saying, that humanity, all of mankind, are free moral agents! Unfortunately, it is men, not God who has perverted religious worship. Enforcing Dogma by the sword instead of appealing to hearts and minds.

    And when people disparage religious morality, then those who are the lawless ones as spoken about, “The Man of Lawlessness” 2nd Thessalonians 2: 2,3 which discusses the great apostasy and the manipulation of scripture, have accomplished their goal. This is also described in Acts 20:29, 30 & 1 Timothy 4: 1 – 3!!!!!

    Those who misinterpret or misuse scripture to influence and misguide their followers to accomplish political and secular power, are the ones who will be judged on their conduct.

    They do not have the right to force any particular belief, if someone hears and wants to believe that’s one thing, but if one chooses not to as mentioned in the beginning of this comment, if you read that, it’s a personal choice as all of us will stand before God and be judged.

    It’s too bad that because individuals have been hurt by religious leaders and religion in general, choose to become hateful against God and scripture!

    That in itself is extremely lazy and part of a mobish mentality. But hey, no particular group of humans has a monopoly on hypocrisy or ignorance.

  18. Paul K – nice commentary. Think it underlines my personal concerns. There is so much, especially among the “nones” and young people of “my morality is me, my brand”. Combine this with the dramatic drop in trust for virtually all institutions of all kinds and mix in fear of the unknown existential threats (diseases, climate change) and you get a ripe place for authoritarianism…and apathy to voting.

  19. I always heard “you can’t legislate morality” to mean that people will do what they want in their personal lives. From history, Prohibition is an example. The producing and distribution of liquor went underground causing a huge number of Americans to break the law. Were the churches able to have wine from the Abbey’s at their Masses during prohibition due to separation of Church and State? Those type of laws are unenforceable, and just cause more crime. Today abortion fits into that category, it will go back alley and cause all types of problems. Don’t these Christians believe we have a forgiving God? Maybe just living your personal life as you see fit learning from mistakes and letting others do the same is a more just, democratic and evolutionary type existence?

  20. “Maybe just living your personal life as you see fit learning from mistakes and letting others do the same is a more just, democratic and evolutionary type existence?” Let’s see “as you see fit” – not going to wear seat belts, going to drink/drug/text while driving, going to cry out fire in a crowded theater – the ME culture growth continues….so scary, so sad.

  21. Lester I’m referring to personal choices in a person’s private life. From a woman’s point of view, I’m talking about choices I make in my home. When interacting with others of course their wellbeing is of concern too, and I would yell fire in a crowded theater if it was on fire.

    Lester I’m referring to personal choices in private life. When with others of course their safety and wellbeing also have to be considered and that’s where the laws apply. Lester I would cry out “fire” in a crowded theater if it was really on fire.

  22. Angela – thanks for clarifying. Unfortunately, cultural libertarianism is the “none” religion for many.

  23. Since God is merely pareidolia, morality is social.
    I’d ignore the ideologues, but they have the guns.

  24. Ormond; your brief comments are always stimulating and informational. I did have to look up the meaning of “pareidolia” which tied in to Vernon’s comments about that nipple in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. I have watched medical programs with actual surgeries and the prevention of “pareidolia” during breast cancer surgeries provided blurring of the nipple to prevent any possibility of nebulous visual stimulation for the viewers.

  25. I have, at times, suggested that if the folks who want to have a “Christian ” nation, here,
    want to see the result, they ought to look to Iran. And, who knows which sect of Christianity will
    prevail, if we do go that way? And which sect will be upset about that, and on and on?
    That we have always had a “Morality Police” comes as no real surprise, but seeing it described
    so simply, is.

  26. Robin,

    Who’s morality? You brought up judges the 19th chapter, and what exactly is the issue? Bad men try to do something bad, those bad men raped a woman to death.

    If you go beyond the 19th chapter, you can see the result of this one instance where this woman was raped to death, the concubine, tens of thousands of men died brin

    Metting out Justice for that crime. So how is that a lack of moral understanding?

    The Israelite tribe of Benjamin which these men who murdered the concubine belonged to, lost their entire fighting force after they were attacked by the other tribes especially the tribe of Judah.

    Do you honestly think any country today would sacrifice tens of thousands which equated to about a third of Israel’s and especially Judah’s fighting force, to avenge one death?

    I really don’t know what exactly you were reading, but, I think you are mistaken concerning judges the 19th chapter.

    What you see with great consistency today, this incident that happened in ancient israel, happens daily in this so-called modern and enlightened world. In the United States today, a municipality or a township or a county or a state, would they fight for the honor of one individual? Has it ever happened? Would they be willing to lose their police forces or national guard troops or whatever the case may be? Absolutely not!

    The book of Judges the 19th chapter discusses a crime, and, the law dictated the outcome, death for the perpetrators and those who rallied around them. And it turned into a slaughter. But the crime was avenged.

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