Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History by James Morone

Looking over my posts on this blog, I’ve noticed that I’ve done a ton of fiction & fantasy books. Don’t misunderstand, I like fiction & fantasy books. It’s just that spreading my wings is a good thing, so I’ve started reading more historical books and such recently, something I’ve gotten away from for no good reason.

Hellfire Nation is a book that at first was intimidating to me because of its size; this is a doorstopper, but given the weighty subject matter it’s not surprising. What’s nice is that Morone’s writing is very readable and easy to enjoy; he makes what might otherwise be a heavy or daunting book quite interesting. I’m also a fan of books that examine some unusual facet of society or culture that isn’t often examined, or isn’t examined in great detail (for example, a book I want to review soon is about the social habits of the rich vs. that of animals).

As the title states, the idea of sin has been a popular weapon to be used to demonize the “other side”, as seen during the Witch Trials, the censorship of Comstock, Prohibition, white slavery and other “moral outrages” right up to the modern era, and is a proud tradition fully embraced and applied to politics and social media today by both parties, though I’ll freely admit to being a loyal Democrat and feel that the extreme right today is much more blatant and brutal in their use of this technique. However, this is not a political blog (though I have and am considering creating one) and so I will leave it at that in this review.

In essence Morone discusses the origins of American exceptionalism from a moral standpoint; he quotes and uses as a main theme and underlying idea Puritan John Winthrop’s statement that America should be a “city on a hill”, and the recurring idea in American history of “us” vs. “them,” whether it’s immigrants, slaves, city and country people, or religious and political groups.

I’d recommend this book to anyone interested to the tangled path and sometimes dark  shadow religion has cast on the history and culture of the United States. This country was, of course, founded by people wishing the freedom to practice their beliefs in their own way. Of course, the depressing fact that some of them instantly turned around and proceeded to condemn and persecute both the natives that were already here and people who followed other paths such as the Quakers (who were in fact tortured by some early settlers to “encourage them to change) or chose to split off into other schools of thought.

Abortion,  the debate over “God” on our money and the Pledge of Allegiance are just some of the legacy of Sin in America and our reaction and fear of it as a label or brand to be used against the world or each other. The clear path Morone shows to the present day is intriguing and provides real food for thought; obvious when you truly see the religious roots of much of the conflict and debate present in U.S. political thought that has influenced both our foreign and domestic policy since the beginning of the nation.


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