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.