Saturday, June 28, 2008

Andy Nowicki correctly notes that Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints claim a direct link to the divine. Faithful members cannot act on prejudice or what “feels right” alone: they are called to inform their consciences according to the moral principles set forth in the Book of Mormon. In this respect, the FLDS are not unlike mainline Christians, Muslims and Jews; the People of the Book, as Mohammed called them, likewise have a Rule Book to which they must submit under pain of sin. With the Old and New Testaments (for Christians), the Old Testament and Talmud (for Jews), and the Old and New Testaments and Koran (for Muslims) all serving as competing Rule Books, one can expect some level of moral and theological disorder in a pluralistic society, even assuming people in that society act on principle rather than prejudice.

Moreover, what feels right enters the picture at some time or other for all who act as moral agents. People play fast and loose with their principles. They rationalize. They yield to temptation. Afterwards, upon examination of their conscience, they may come to the painful realization they were indeed playing fast and loose with the rules. They may acknowledge, to themselves if nobody else, that they violated the rules for no good reason. Among the People of the Book, those who find themselves in this position may admit fault to God and their confessor and seek forgiveness.

But there can be more to it than that. Principled people may reach an impasse and find that what feels right is all they have left. A Person Decidedly Not of the Book, Jean-Paul Sartre, creates an interesting hypothetical to illustrate the point. He describes a young man in Nazi-occupied France who commits to the Resistance. Poised to leave his hometown to join forces with his compatriots, he learns his widowed mother has fallen gravely ill. One need not accept Sartre’s existence-precedes-essence premise to appreciate the young man’s dilemma. Allegiance to his cause will mean abandoning his sick mother; devotion to his mother will necessitate forsaking his cause. Whether the young man espouses Christianity, Fundamentalist Mormonism or Sartre’s (purportedly) humanistic atheism, his principles are in conflict. No Rule Book can help him.

None of this is to impugn Mr. Nowicki’s desire to see mainstream culture’s “opposition to those ‘Yearners for Zion’ based on something more substantial than prejudice.” Religious skeptics may see nothing more substantial than prejudice to Rule Book morality, preferring to derive their moral code from reason (or from their prejudice parading as reason) alone, but Mr. Nowicki is quite correct in asserting, “First principles must be taken on faith or not at all.” Better faith-based principle than what Pope Benedict XVI has called a “dictatorship of relativism.” Restoring the Lordship of Christ (or, to put it in less divisive terms, the Moral Code of the West) to its rightful place in the culture will do much to reverse the decivilizing influences—divorce, abortion, broken families, high time preference, single parenthood, etc.—that beset our relativistic society.

Nevertheless, vices like “partying, fornication and cohabitation” do not decivilize with the virulence that characterizes crimes against life and property. Mr. Nowicki concedes as much when he observes that those indulging in those behaviors “may be entirely polite, good-natured and all-around likable.” It stands to reason. Unlike vices, crimes against life and property clearly violate the Golden Rule. No decent human being takes issue with the Golden Rule. Restrictions on consensual adult behavior, on the other hand, are invariably a hard sell, as any priest or parent can tell you, and especially so for the young, who are not inclined to rein in their fleshly desires in that freewheeling phase of life.

This is not to denigrate virtues like prudence, sobriety and self-restraint, but rather to underscore the uniquely pernicious nature of thuggery. It’s not just that “all-around likable” is not how we describe thieves, assassins, extortionists, child molesters, counterfeiters, stick-up artists, conmen, kidnappers, torturers, snake oil salesmen, rapists, arsonists, vandals or murderers. It’s that too many otherwise intelligent and virtuous and, yes, principled people regard thugs as “all-around inevitable” or “all-around better than any alternative,” or even “all-around indispensable to the public health and welfare,” so long as the thugs practice their thuggery while in the employ of the State.

Better than a millennium and a half ago, no less a Person of the Book than St. Augustine of Hippo saw fit to bring this remarkable conundrum to the fore:

Without justice, what are kingdoms but great robber bands? What are robber bands but small kingdoms? The band is itself made up of men, is ruled by the command of a leader, and is held together by a social pact. Plunder is divided in accordance with an agreed upon law. If this evil increases by the inclusion of dissolute men to the extent that it takes over territory, establishes headquarters, occupies cities, and subdues peoples, it publicly assumes the title of kingdom!

A fitting and true response was once given to Alexander the Great by an apprehended pirate. When asked by the king what he thought he was doing by infesting the sea, he replied with noble insolence, "What do you think you are doing by infesting the whole world? Because I do it with one puny boat, I am called a pirate; because you do it with a great fleet, you are called an emperor."

The Last Ditch bills itself as a forum for us “Old Believers in the West” who “confront the end of civilization—and do our level best to name its destroyers.” No doubt its destroyers include those who scoff at faith-based first principles governing marriage and family life. But the hallmark of Western morality is its universality. What, then, do we call those who accept faith- and reason-based first principles upholding the inviolability of human life and property but who exempt the Emperors from them? Only by holding Emperors and Pirates to the same moral standard can we hope to bring the Emperors to heel and halt the West’s relentless slide into anomie and dissolution.