Legalism, Ecclesiastical and Political

You may disagree with H. L. Mencken, but he sure could spot a major weakness when the pursuit and prosecution of vice goes from the duties of pastors and elders to magistrates and reformers:

Moral endeavour, in brief, has become a recognized trade, or rather a profession, and there have appeared men who pretend to a special and enormous knowledge of it, and who show enough truth in their pretension to gain the unlimited support of Puritan capitalists. The vice crusade, to mention one example, has produced a large crop of such self-constituted experts, and some of them are in such demand that they are overwhelmed with engagements. The majority of these men have wholly lost the flavour of sacerdotalism. They are not pastors, but detectives, statisticians and mob orators, and not infrequently their secularity becomes distressingly evident. Their aim, as they say, is to do things. Assuming that “moral sentiment” is behind them, they override all criticism and opposition without argument, and proceed to the business of dispersing prostitutes, of browbeating and terrorizing weak officials, and of forcing legislation of their own invention through City Councils and State Legislatures. Their very cocksureness is their chief source of strength. (Book of Prefaces, “Puritanism As a Literary Force,” 245)

If that doesn’t sound like the kind of moral activism favored by some “conservative” Protestants these days, I don’t know what does. In fact, this is the kind of engagement with “culture” that seems to go with heavy doses of the law and attacks upon antinomianism. It makes me wonder if the moralists our there really want a return to the kinds of constraints that Mencken faced as an editor (where books like Theodore Dreiser’s The “Genius” could land you in court). Here’s Mencken on his considerations as an editor of the Smart Set circa 1915:

I am, in moments borrowed from more palatable business, the editor of an American magazine, and I thus know at first hand what the burden is. That magazine is anything but a popular one, in the current sense. It sells at a relatively high price; it contains no pictures or other baits for the childish; it is frankly addressed to a sophisticated minority. I may thus assume reasonably, I believe, that its readers are not sex-curious and itching adolescents, just as my colleague of the Atlantic Monthly may assume reasonably that his readers are not Italian immigrants. Nevertheless, as a practical editor, I find that the Comstocks, near and far, are oftener in my mind’s eye than my actual patrons. The thing I always have to decide about a manuscript offered for publication, before ever I give any thought to its artistic merit and suitability, is the question whether its publication will be permitted —not even whether it is intrinsically good or evil, moral or immoral, but whether some roving Methodist preacher, self-commissioned to keep watch on letters, will read indecency into it. Not a week passes that I do not decline some sound and honest piece of work for no other reason. I have a long list of such things by American authors, well-devised, well-imagined, well-executed, respectable as human documents and as works of art—but never to be printed in mine or any other American magazine. It includes four or five short stories of the very first rank, and the best one-act play yet done, to my knowledge, by an American. All of these pieces would go into type at once on the Continent; no sane man would think of objecting to them; they are no more obscene, to a normal adult, than his own bare legs. But they simply cannot be printed in the United States, with the law what it is and the courts what they are. (276-77)

This was not Rome in the 1860s when Protestant worship could get you in trouble with the Roman Inquisition or Constantinople in the 1880s when converting from Islam to Christianity had significant penalties. This was the greatest nation on God’s green earth, established to promote life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, by Jove!!