Response to Reviews of Damned Nation

Kathryn Gin Lum

Kathryn Gin Lum is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University.

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Kathryn Gin Lum, "Responses to Damned Nation," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016): wp.jsreligion.org/vol18/lum.

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I am grateful and honored that Shelby Balik, Seth Perry, and W. Scott Poole, scholars whose work I deeply admire, took the time to engage with Damned Nation and its central methodological/historiographical problem: what the hell to do with hell? Hell raises thorny questions about the sincerity of expressed motivations (especially when such motivations might seem to be the result of fear and coercion) and about the processes that drive theological change (and whether theology can drive social change).

But most scholars have simply ignored hell, as Poole notes. He suggests that this may be because hell is “too campy.” There’s certainly truth to that, although I don’t think it’s the only reason. Hell isn’t just campy (and scholars don’t necessarily dislike camp). Hell can also come across as stodgy. It calls forth images of dour, stern-faced ministers incanting interminable sermons as much as it does “the sulfur, the flames, and the pitchforks.” (I appreciate Perry’s remark about the “mind-numbing, officious moralizing of so many private communications from this period.”) Hell can also seem hopelessly retrograde in contrast to the buoyant optimism of postmillennialism and the hope of heaven, as Balik points out. To the extent that Americans have wanted to think of themselves as progressive optimists, hell can seem un-American. And last but not least, as some scholars have suggested, it strikes many today as just plain weird, if not psychologically warped.

But could belief in hell make sense in an American context? The section of the book that Poole highlights, on religious anxiety and mental health (the end of Chapter 3), suggests that the view of hell as psychologically dangerous can be traced back to at least the mid-nineteenth century in the US. I wanted to be sure that the American history of skepticism about hell, and theological innovations against it, had fair play in the book. But this isn’t just a declension story. My research also convinced me that hell had a logic in America that made a lot of sense to those who subscribed to it.

To claim this is to assume that hell’s believers could exercise a modicum of rational choice in accepting or rejecting the threat. Naïve, perhaps, given recent scholarship questioning whether we can trust the stories our subjects tell us, and whether human agency is a viable proposition. Still, after living with the voices of antebellum Americans for so many years, I came to conclude that the feeling of choice could coexist with the haunting sense that one’s choices were always preconditioned and possibly even predetermined—the paradoxical proposition that Edwardseans forwarded to great effect. (As Perry notes, I grapple with the theoretical implications of this most directly in a footnote, in an attempt at narrative flow.) The threat of hell certainly could be coercive. The ability to shape one’s life according to prevailing ideas about hell was conditioned on social status, and I agree with Poole that class is central to the story and could have been emphasized even more. The threat of hell could be wielded to try to create good (read: timely, temperate, thrifty) laborers. Print technology enabled its widespread dissemination and ensured that even those who adamantly rejected the threat could not avoid it. But all of these things, in my reading, did not negate the logic of hell for those who subscribed to it.

That logic, which I sometimes refer to as the “peer pressure” of hell, connected a believer’s own eternal fate with his or her desire and ability to save others from the fiery pit. It helps to explain why believers cared so much about the behaviors and beliefs of others. And it helps to explain how hell operated beyond the “closed circuit” of “evangelism,” as Perry puts it. Perry and Balik are absolutely right that the book’s turn to the slavery crisis and Civil War is unsurprising. I hope that the very obviousness of that turn highlights the importance of hell to some of the most familiar aspects of nineteenth-century US history, so that it doesn’t just read as a strange side story of the antebellum experience.

Perry is spot on in noting that, when hell moves beyond the realm of evangelism, its causal significance is difficult to isolate vis-à-vis other factors. As I was writing the book, I faced the question, again and again, of how much hell really mattered and how much it was just a veneer for other causes. But at the end of the day, I don’t really buy the dismissal of ideologies as insincere rhetorical covers, however weird and epiphenomenal they might seem. The stories people tell themselves and each other do work in the world, even if that work is primarily to justify other motivations and causal factors. They get people on the same side and help to shore up group identity in the face of competing interests.

I am delighted that Poole and Balik raise versions of the veneer question too, but with regards to postmillennial optimism and republican virtue—ideologies typically assumed to matter. In the book, I argue that hell survived in America because its supporters claimed that it was necessary to shore up republican virtue. But, queries Poole, was republican virtue “anything other than ideological chatter?” I actually love his “argumentative” supposition that hell may have survived not so much because it jibed with high talk of virtue but rather because it jibed with “the consistent need to damn a variety of enemies.” And I completely agree that hell survived not just because it supposedly encouraged people to live more virtuous lives, but also because it encouraged people to look down their noses at those who didn’t conform, whether because they flat-out refused or because they didn’t have the time or because they were born into the “wrong” cultures and countries. In the book, I focused more on Americans’ anxieties about themselves as a corrective to the common “redeemer nation” trope. I’m working on a sequel of sorts now (an American history of the “heathen”), so stay tuned for more on the ways that the assumption of “heathen” damnation shored up American imperialism and aggression.

Thanks again to Poole, Perry, and Balik for joining me in an “infernally delightful conversation” about hell. I look forward to seeing where the conversation goes from here!

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