Draw back the American veil, and you shall behold innate depravity. That idea connects two disparate works that concern themselves with sin in America: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown,” published in 1835, and the impeachment of Donald Trump.
In Hawthorne’s story, a young man leaves his wife, Faith, in the safety of Salem Village, Mass., and walks alone at dusk along a gloomy forest road. There he encounters Salem’s most respectable citizens convened to worship Satan among trees that have burst spontaneously into flame. His parents are among the worshipers, and so is Faith. It is revealed to Young Goodman Brown that all of society, from the official to the intimate, is lost to sin and corruption. Cotton Mather’s “errand into the Wilderness” has turned diabolical. Thus begins the American project.
Americans are a touchy people, given to extremes of self-consciousness. They imagine they must be either the greatest people in the world or the vilest. Since Vietnam, the left has made a sacrament of national self-accusation, which over decades has led on to the mobilizing of sexual and racial grievances—a transformational emphasis that has generated immense social change and immense political power.
Lance Morrow is the Henry Grunwald Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.