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?

It takes an audacious scholar both to narrate and try to make sense of this long, tangled history of moralists and their causes. In Hellfire Nation, James Morone makes a brave, provocative attempt. He begins with the Puritans’ dilemma–how to square the sanctity of hard work with the deviltry of selfish consumption. Then he meanders leisurely through epochal conflicts over slavery, sexual purity and alcohol, and takes briefer glances at the Social Gospel, the Red Scare and the contemporary Christian right.

Morone is a political scientist by trade, but he writes with the zest of a popular historian, alert to the telling detail and the apt quotation. He points out, for example, one reason why, in the early 1870s, the YMCA’s Anthony Comstock thought it was urgent to launch a campaign to outlaw contraceptives. The price of a condom had sunk from close to half a dollar in the late 1850s to just 6 cents apiece. Morone adds, “Comstock enthusiastically raided purveyors; he wrote for advice about birth control, then nabbed physicians who mailed him a response. After just two years the Comstock ticker stood at 60,300 rubber articles seized and destroyed.”

There’s an obvious pitfall awaiting any liberal secularist who tells such stories. A glib condescension can slip into one’s prose, leaving the impression that the God-infested zealots shouldn’t be taken too seriously. On occasion, Morone gives in to the temptation himself. “People began thumping Bibles again,” he cracks about an antebellum revival. But, for the most part, he succeeds in capturing the fears and visions of Christian activists who shared, in Richard Hofstadter’s wonderful phrase, the “idea that everyone was in some very serious sense responsible for everything.”

As with many a contemporary scholar of American studies, Morone’s own moral tale turns primarily on matters of race and gender. The repression of black people, recent immigrants and sexual dissidents lies at the center of his well-crafted narrative. He describes the war between abolitionists and slaveholders to define whether black people were heroic victims or perpetual children. He retells, in throbbing detail, how white prohibitionists used images of swarthy, foreign-born saloonkeepers and gin-guzzling black field hands to install their key demand in the Constitution. And he makes clear that the fear of predatory men and fallen women drove pious activists a century ago to mount a “modern witch-hunt” against brothels, abortionists and any politicians deemed to be lax on vice. As a result, the red-light districts closed down and many prostitutes took to the streets, where their health and livelihood were far less secure than in the bad old days of brazen madams and urban bosses.

Unintended consequences plagued each crusade, and Morone is certainly correct to note that “tribal anxiety” has been endemic in a nation that has always been multicultural, in demography if not conviction. But he’s too quick to reduce what he calls “moral panics” to their political meaning. What has motivated crusaders from Jonathan Edwards to Pat Robertson is a desire for personal and collective salvation, not simply social control. Morone says little about how their religious beliefs shaped their worldly activism. Doesn’t it matter that Edwards, as a rigorous Calvinist, believed God had already selected which individuals He would save, while Robertson, as a Pentecostal, believes anyone can receive the blessing of the Holy Spirit?

The author also neglects abundant evidence that public piety has repeatedly crossed the color line. Frederick Douglass was a vigorous advocate of temperance, as were most middle-class black churchgoers. And The Autobiography of Malcolm X is, among other things, an eloquent testament of the power of virtuous living to liberate the minds of oppressed people.

A larger problem is that Morone’s view of history is strangely ahistorical. He thinks more about recurring cycles of moralizing politics than about how conflicts about sin have changed the nation over time. “It’s the same thing every time,” he writes, “Previously excluded people surge forward. Class, race, and gender roles go up for grabs.” That’s a reflection on the 1960s but could have appeared almost anywhere in the book. For Morone, a panic about sliding morals yields a spate of new regulations that require a new corps of bureaucrats to administer them. The enforcers inevitably overreach themselves and provoke a mass backlash against their authority.

The struggle for prohibition is Morone’s classic example: “Exhort people to abstain. Condemn the stubborn drinkers who won’t listen–usually the latest underclass. Prohibit. Watch the violence escalate, and then see prohibition collapse, leaving behind a political legacy. Pause and repeat.” Foes of the liquor traffic, he observes, boosted federal power years in advance of the New Deal and “may have helped fertilize the political culture” for FDR and his allies. Indeed, the Dry Army waged one of the longest and most controversial grassroots campaigns in American history.

Yet no one seriously thinks about reviving it now. Nor could a latter-day Comstock gain a mass audience or a Congressional majority to enforce his dread of sexual license. Of course, too many drug users still end up in prison, and some abortion providers risk assault or worse. But, through the last half of the twentieth century, American culture gradually but surely grew more tolerant of individual behavior that diverged from the sanctified bourgeois norm.

By now, the wheels appear to have fallen off Morone’s cycle. Gay men, lesbians, unmarried couples and interracial lovers of all persuasions enjoy a freedom unimaginable fifty years ago. Without sexy talk and seductive images, most television networks would have little to show that makes a profit. Christian conservatives loudly condemn these changes–while most no longer uphold the segregationist views of their ancestors. But they have been powerless to reverse them, and outside their own circle they often look silly for trying.

Unfortunately, adherents of a progressive brand of moralism have even less clout than Jerry Falwell and his brethren. Morone writes that “an undiluted version of the Social Gospel” animated a range of activists in the 1960s, as liberals and radicals of all faiths worked to abolish war and to transform hierarchies of race and gender. But the rhetoric of collective responsibility sounds hollow to many people today, unless it is tethered to a war of self-defense against terrorists. And the born-again Christian who sits in the Oval Office appears to own the franchise on that one. How many Americans are even aware that both the National Council of Churches and Conference of Catholic Bishops took strong stands against a unilateral invasion of Iraq?

For the left, the burden of the past that Morone illuminates is that Social Gospelers have always been on the defensive in a religious culture where individualism reigns. Evangelical Protestants fervently preach that the relationship that counts is a personal one–between the believer and the Almighty–and many a Catholic and adherents of other faiths embrace that credo too, despite their more communitarian traditions. Those who insist on collective sin and collective redemption rarely find themselves in the majority–as both pro-labor priests in the 1930s and civil rights ministers in the 1960s discovered. It’s no accident that the stronger welfare states in Europe developed after World War II in nations that either had a Catholic heritage–like France and Austria–or had mostly abandoned an evangelical one–like Norway and the Netherlands. In such places, secular solidarity grew from or took the place of a pious community.

Perhaps another crisis like the Great Depression will bring back the idea that it is urgent once again for Americans to organize for social justice. In the meantime, the increasing diversity of religions here should gradually weaken the primacy of Christians who think like George W. Bush and John Ashcroft. But Hellfire Nation offers convincing evidence that no political advance has ever taken place in the United States without a moral awakening flushed with notions about what the Lord would have us do. It’s enough to make a secular leftist gag–and then grudgingly acknowledge the power of prayer.