Sunday, December 7, 2008

Andrew R. Murphy's "Prodigal Nation"

Andrew R. Murphy is Associate Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University, New Bruswick. He is the author of Conscience and Community: Revisiting Toleration and Religious Dissent in Early Modern England and America, the co-editor of Religion, Politics, and the American Identity: New Directions, New Controversies, and the editor of The Political Writings of William Penn.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Prodigal Nation: Moral Decline and Divine Punishment from New England to 9/11, and reported the following:
Opening Prodigal Nation to p. 99 lands the reader in the middle of a discussion of the Christian Right narrative of American moral decline. While Jerry Falwell laments the sexual revolution, Pat Robertson paints with a broader brush:

Until modern times, the foundations of law rested on the Judeo-Christian concept of right and wrong and the foundational concept of Original Sin.... Modern, secular sociology, however, shuns such biblical teachings in favor of an evolutionary hypothesis based on the ideas of Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and others. This view, often called “secular humanism,” takes the view that man has evolved from the slime and that with time and ever greater freedoms, mankind will ascend to the stars. These ideas, which are contrary to the Word of God, have led directly to the bitter conflict and social chaos of our day....

The legacy of the 1960s is still with us today. The free-love, anti-war, psychedelic 1960s proclaimed not only the right of dissent but the right to protest against and defame the most sacred institutions of the nation.... Free love, the rise of pagan cults, and the New Age movement have all thrived in this atmosphere of defiance. And what may prove to be the greatest holocaust in history—the abortion movement—is one of its most sinister expressions. [Robertson, quoted in Prodigal Nation, p. 99]

Page 99 comes near the end of Part I of the book, which presents three important episodes in American history in which the jeremiad (a form of political rhetoric that laments the present, looks to the past for guidance, and calls for reform) has played a key role: early New England, the Civil War, and the rise of the Christian Right. Even when lamenting the nation’s decline, however, and interpreting calamities as God’s punishment on a wayward people, the jeremiad reaffirms America’s role as a “city on a hill” with a special role to play in God’s plans for human history.

To be honest, though, I’d rather direct the reader ten pages forward, to p. 109. That page opens Chapter 5, which I think is Prodigal Nation’s most important chapter. In Chapter 5, I distinguish between two types of American jeremiad. The traditionalist jeremiad is the type seen on p. 99, in which the solutions to present-day problems lie in a return to “the way things used to be.” The traditionalist jeremiad offers a political agenda using the past as a blueprint for the future (for the Christian Right, outlawing abortion and same-sex marriage, supporting prayer in public schools, and so on). But there is another way of looking to the past for insights into contemporary problems, and Prodigal Nation also traces a progressive jeremiad throughout American history, epitomized by Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King. This progressive jeremiad looks to the past, not as a blueprint or model for the future, but as the source of principles of liberty and equality inherent in the American founding, which hold the key for moving the nation forward into a diverse and pluralistic future. Rooted in different ways of understanding the American past, these two types of jeremiads in turn offer sharply contrasting visions for the American future. The remainder of the book argues that the progressive jeremiad offers the most promising way forward into the twenty-first century American future.
Read more about Prodigal Nation at the Oxford University Press website, and learn more about Andrew R. Murphy's research and publications at his faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue