Prodigal Nation: Moral Decline and Divine Punishment from New England to 9/11

March 19, 2009

This book is the work of an American political scientist at Rutgers University and is clearly written and mercifully free of jargon. The closest it comes to jargon is its focus on the American "jeremiad". The term, which of course comes from the denunciations of Israel (more strictly, of the southern kingdom of Judah) by perhaps the most personally aggrieved and relentless of the biblical prophets, Jeremiah, refers to an anguished denunciation of any kind. Political jeremiads are hardly limited to the US, and this book would have been more adventurous if it had waxed comparative. But jeremiads have found a special home in America, for the founding view of it as a new Eden easily led to laments for its failure to fulfil its ideals.

More at the end than at the beginning, Andrew Murphy acknowledges the pioneering work by the Canadian-born literary historian Sacvan Bercovitch, who in The American Jeremiad (1978) showed more fully than ever before the centrality of jeremiads in American culture.

Murphy notes some subsequent challenges to Bercovitch's analysis, but his own concern is less with the nature of the genre than with instances of it. He describes three main cases: Puritan New England, the US Civil War and the Christian Right of the 1970s. He also discusses the culture wars of the 1980s.

In each case, Murphy makes the same point, which is not revelatory. Political jeremiads link the past to the present. The past is depicted as a golden age. The present is castigated as the opposite: a period of corruption, dishonesty, self-centredness and depravity. Following the pattern of the biblical prophets, the denouncers of each period take these ills to constitute defiance of God's teachings. The sins named in each case are similar. God is assumed to be fair and merciful, but even he has limits. The consequences are certain.

Disease, famine and attacks by the locals were the punishments besetting Puritan New England. The loss of life on Civil War battlefields and, for the South, the loss of the war itself were the punishments befalling those in the 1860s. According to the Christian Right, the punishments deservedly inflicted on Americans included inflation, defeat by Communism and Aids.

As exasperated as God becomes each time, repentance is possible. Current or imminent punishments may not be stoppable, but God yearns to restore the bond with His chosen people - in this case, Americans. The goal of jeremiads is positive: to re-establish as nearly as possible the Edenic relationship between God and America.

No one can challenge Murphy's analysis, but one reason that no one would try is that what he writes is obvious. He does refine a bit the notion of jeremiad. For example, he divides jeremiads into traditional and progressive types.

More importantly, he shows that they have not been the monopoly of the Right. Amitai Etzioni in The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities and the Communitarian Agenda (1993), Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985) and Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000) have enlisted the genre to lament the loss of community and to call for its restoration, although these political jeremiads are not always clearly religious.

The book would have benefited from more than sketchy mention of two related notions: "myth" and "story". Murphy appeals to these terms but does not unravel them. What does it mean to contend that jeremiads enlist "myths"? What does the term "myth" add to "story" or even to "sacred story"? I think it adds much, not least the authority that jeremiads carry. Murphy observes the recent popularity in religious studies of the concept of "narrative", but again neglects to unpack the concept. Narrative as opposed to what? Since jeremiads stress the divide between past and present, they can scarcely explain the present as the consequence of the distant past. The present is the result of the recent past.

Overall, this book most usefully illustrates a by now well-trodden genre, but it might have analysed it more deeply.

Prodigal Nation: Moral Decline and Divine Punishment from New England to 9/11

By Andrew R. Murphy. Oxford University Press 248pp, £15.99. ISBN 9780195321289. Published 13 November 2008

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