Murphy, Andrew R. Prodigal Nation: Moral Decline and Divine Punishment from New England to 9/11. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 232 pages. ISBN: 978-0-19-532128-9.
Most Americans do not know the word jeremiad, but it is a familiar term to scholars of early American religion. To them the term indicates a type of sermon preached in seventeenth-century New England. These sermons lamented that New England had broken the covenant with God made by its founders. If New England continued its decline, God’s judgment loomed, but if New England repented, then it would receive God’s blessing. But even if most Americans do not know the term jeremiad, they are probably familiar with the genre. In sermons or political speeches, they have heard the idea that America is a Christian nation that has disobeyed God and so faces divine judgment. The old genre of the jeremiad is still very much a part of American discourse.
In his recent book, Prodigal Nation, Andrew Murphy has done much to advance our understanding of the American jeremiad. In the first part of the book, he gives the history of three jeremiads: the Puritan Jeremiad in the seventeenth-century, the jeremiads before and during the Civil War, and the jeremiads of the Christian Right from the 1970s to the present. Murphy’s book is the first work (to my knowledge) to study the jeremiad over the entire scope of American history. Murphy has not written the whole history of the jeremiad—he leaves out revolutionary America, the early republic and the War of 1812, most of the jeremiads of the South, and the entire century between the Civil War and the 1960s—but by considering the jeremiad over the long term, Murphy has given us a better understanding of the genre than can be gained from examining it in only one period.
In the second part of the book, Murphy analyzes the American jeremiad with the tools of a political scientist. He cogently argues that there are two American jeremiads, which he terms the traditionalist jeremiad, and the progressive jeremiad. The traditionalist jeremiad, which is typically religious, calls for a return to the literal past through repentance and renewed obedience. This type of rhetoric, which could be stereotyped as a sermon preached from 2 Chronicle 7:14 in November or July, most obviously fits the genre of the jeremiad. But Murphy also identifies a progressive jeremiad. That jeremiad, which is typically secular, calls not for a literal return to the past but for a renewal of America’s past ideals. For example, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech called for a return to the ideals of racial equality implicit in the Declaration of Independence, the “text” for his sermon.
Identifying a particular jeremiad as traditional or progressive can be difficult, given the constant realignments of conservatism and liberalism in American political history. But by pointing out that two competing rhetorical traditions share the same genre, and thus some of the same basic assumptions, Murphy has provided a key insight into American politics and religion, both present and historical. Perhaps that insight can contribute to refuting the false assumptions of the jeremiad tradition, and to bridging the increasing gap between conservatives and liberals in political discourse.