There is Antinomianism and then there is Antinomianism

Protestants wouldn’t seem to have to worry too much about lacking moral fiber.

Here is how H. L. Mencken perceived moralism in the United States circa 1920:

The man of morals has a certain character, and the man of honour has a quite different character. No one not an idiot fails to differentiate between the two, or to order his intercourse with them upon an assumption of their disparity. What we know in the United States as a Presbyterian is pre-eminently the moral type. Perhaps more than any other man among us he regulates his life, and the lives of all who fall under his influence, upon a purely moral plan. In the main, he gets the principles underlying that plan from the Old Testament; if he is to be described succinctly, it is as one who carries over into modern life, with its superior complexity of sin, the simple and rigid ethical concepts of the ancient Jews. And in particular, he subscribes to their theory that it is virtuous to make things hot for the sinner, by which word he designates any person whose conduct violates the ordinances of God as he himself is aware of them and interprets them. Sin is to the Presbyterian the salient phenomenon of this wobbling and nefarious world, and the pursuit and chastisement of sinners the one avocation that is permanently worth while. . . . Every single human act, he holds, must be either right or wrong – and the overwhelming majority of them are wrong. He knows exactly what these wrong ones are; he recognizes them instantly and infallibly, by a sort of inspired intuitions; and he believes that they should all be punished automatically and with the utmost severity. No one ever heard of a Presbyterian overlooking a fault, or pleading for mercy for the erring. (The American Credo, 51, 52, 53)

Forty years later when a Protestant (Robert McAfee Brown) looked at Roman Catholicism and a Roman Catholic (Gustave Weigel) looked at Protestantism, Weigel’s impression was similar to Mencken’s:

The Reformer’s strong rhetoric against the value of works could be interpreted as a form of antinomianism. “Sin valiantly and believe more valiantly.” Yet all the Reformers were against sin in all its forms and shapes. Calvin’s Geneva was no place for sin or worldliness. Virtue was the strongly enforced law of the city. In the history of Protestantism we do not find antinomianism as a practice except perhaps in some exotic little groups not recognized as genuine by the mass of Protestants. In all Protestant communities it does make a difference whether you behave yourself or don’t. Works are important, very important indeed. Catholic cultures are rarely as strict as communities where a strong calvinism prevails. Strangely enough, Catholicism always is more concerned with the faith of its members than with their works. For the Catholic the loss of faith is the greatest loss. With faith alive, pardon is possible. Where faith is absent, there is no pardon. (An American Dialogue, 177)

Postscript: the observations of Roman Catholics and Protestants in the Brown-Weigel exchange are striking for showing how different the Christian landscape is today in the U.S. On the theme of moralism, Weigel also had this to say:

When the Catholic hears a Protestant sermon he notes a number of things. In most cases the sermon is on a moral theme, and could be heard without much, if any, change in a Catholic church. (135)

Or this:

There is of course a Protestant prudery just as there is a Catholic prudery, but I am not referring to either. It seems to the Catholic that the Protestant is not too worried about birth-control, obscenity in the theatre or in print, and exhibitionism in public. Here the Protestant stands for liberty while the Catholic considers it license. These different attitudes produce friction in the national community. The Protestant thinks the Catholic immoral because he drinks and plays Bingo — and it gives the Protestant satisfaction. The Catholic thinks the Protestant immoral because he will not fight birth-control and it makes the Catholic feel morally superior.

These attitudes to drinking, gambling, and sex are very conspicuous but somehow they are not too significant. The real difference between the two communities is their distinctive conceptions of virtue. The Protestant esteems the natural virtues while the Catholic makes more of the supernatural virtues. The Protestant thinks highly of truthfulness, sobriety, simplicity, reliability, and industriousness. The Catholic most esteems humility, mortification, penance, chastity, poverty, and abnegation. Both admire charity, but Catholic charity is warmer and more personal, while Protestant charity is more efficient and better organized. . . . The result of the different tempers of moral conception will be Protestant reserve, stiffness and gravity in contrast to the Catholic’s tendency toward spontaneity, Baroque display and even Rabelaisian earthiness. (143-144)

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