During the harsh New York City winter of 1909-10, 20,000 garment workers marched and picketed to win recognition of their union. “You are striking against God and Nature, whose law it is that man shall earn his bread in the sweat of his brow,” a magistrate hectored one young seamstress. “You are on strike against God.” To which George Bernard Shaw responded from across the ocean, “Delightful. Medieval America always in intimate personal confidence of the Almighty.”
There is nothing simple about sin, particularly in a land where piety has always been a public enterprise. For that justly forgotten judge, every class-conscious sweatshop was a breeding ground for anarchy. Thankfully, few Americans could swallow the image of the Lord as an authoritarian employer; He had, after all, so many other evils to combat.
And so many eager helpers, stirring up righteous trouble from all points on the political map. Consider the bounty of activities Shaw could have mocked in the early years of the past century. Prohibitionist clerics organized to ban “the liquor traffic,” sentinels of womanly virtue (from both genders) tried to stamp out prostitution and abortion, and churchgoing segregationists adopted Jim Crow laws to protect the white South against the designs of “savage” blacks. On the left, Christian Socialists cursed capitalism as an evil system that enthroned money-changers and mocked the Sermon on the Mount. When the federal government jailed Eugene Debs for speaking out against World War I, one minister from Ohio hailed the radical leader as the “vicarious victim of Society’s sins…his life is a continual crucifixion.”
The very diversity of crusaders and the fecundity of their targets suggest that Shaw was a better wit than historian. In the United States, the battle against secular evils was and remains a thoroughly modern adventure. Lacking a unified state church, Americans have felt free to define sin almost any way they wish. At the same time, the evangelical Protestant majority has insisted that iniquity be considered a matter both of private and public behavior.
During the 1740s Jonathan Edwards, the great theologian and preacher, implored his fellow New Englanders to cease their wicked habits and cling tightly to “the God that holds you over the pits of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect…and is dreadfully provoked.” But he also fretted that their transgressions were imperiling the future of a Christian commonwealth founded to be a “city upon a hill,” yet perpetually at risk from hostile nations without and material corruption within. As George Marsden writes in his learned, lucid biography, Edwards “spent vast amounts of time concerned about both Roman Catholicism and the Indians and their respective and very different places in God’s plans.” He was also an ascetic who ate as little as possible and resolved “never to lose one moment of time” in “unprofitable” pursuits.
Such dual obsessions–for the fate of oneself and one’s society–have seldom been the monopoly of either right or left. Whatever their ideology, most serious activists harbor a taste for moralism in extremis. No faithful Nation reader was surprised that the same right-wing minister who inveighed against “secular humanism” also demanded that Bill Clinton be thrown out of office for committing adultery. But what about the abolitionists who called the Constitution a “covenant from Hell” because it smiled on slavery–and, preaching that “total abstinence from sin” was “necessarily attainable,” condemned the hard-drinking habits of Irish immigrants? Indeed, how many contemporary foes of the tobacco lobby can resist giving individual smokers the evil eye?