Who Has the Moral Authority?

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Between the TV news, although I generally avoid it, the newspapers, although I rarely do more than glance at them, the radio, which I use mainly to listen to music in the car, and the internet, I get so much information that I cannot remember where and when I heard what. So I cannot tell you exactly where I heard or read the claim that the reports of American GIs torturing Iraqi prisoners were tending to diminish the U.S.’s "moral authority" in the world. But does it matter? It seems to be a fact that many expect the U.S. to exercise such authority, implying that the punishment of perceived wrongdoing, in any part of the world, is, in some — certainly not Constitutional — way the business of the American government.

And it’s not only the federal establishment. Here in Missouri, the legislature has passed, and placed on the governor’s desk, a bill that would prohibit certain sexually oriented billboards along Missouri highways. Well, it would prohibit them within one mile of the highway, if I read the news report correctly. (Why any company would erect a billboard more than a mile from the highway is beyond me, but perhaps the intent is to make the legislation seem less draconian). And any strip-club, for example, located within a mile of the highway could only have two signs: one stating that the joint is off-limits to minors, and the other stating the name and hours of the place. Lest anyone think the First Amendment is dead, however, the law, to my knowledge, places no limit on the size of the sign, its color, or the font used for the text. (There may be, however, other laws that accomplish those things).

Not that it should be necessary, let me state that I have never been to a strip-club, or an adult bookstore, or adult video store; and would not shed a tear if such establishments went out of business. Indeed, I would be happy to see that occur. My objection is to the concept of the state as the moral conscience of the community.

I believe, to be sure, in a moral authority, and a moral conscience. In the past, these were attributes of the Church, and were reflected in the ethos of the people. Children, raised in a God-fearing environment, and taught the basics of morality, grow up into adults who, in general, would never consider visiting XXX establishments, and, consequently, such establishments would not exist, much less advertise.

On the other hand, when a society exists in which absolute moral values are considered to be non-existent, then pornography might well become a major industry, although the actual size of the porn business is evidently unknown. Some claim it is a bigger operation than organized sports. Any attempt by government to hinder or impair such an industry will fail, just as the war on drugs has failed, and for the same reason. When certain actions are forbidden, not as intrinsically wrong, and not by any group with the authority to make such a claim, but by the strangers in the state house, or Washington D.C., people will not take such prohibitions seriously, any more than they take speeding laws seriously, or myriad other "laws." It’s a bit much to expect "moral authority" from the likes of Ted Kennedy, or his counterpart in the statehouse.

Plainly: if you do not believe that there is such a thing as an inherently wrong action, why should you refrain from doing something because some stranger tells you not to? Only for fear of getting caught, and paying a fine. But if you think you can get away with it (a reasonable assumption) you’ll go ahead.

For it to be accepted, even with skepticism, that government is a "moral authority" signifies a failure of the churches to exert their proper role in society. Religion seems to have become about feeling good, and being happy with oneself. Sin is depressing and negative, which, I guess, is why it’s seldom mentioned in the very places where it should be stressed. Government is happy to fill the vacuum, because it never passes up an opportunity to increase its size and influence, by telling you what you should, or shouldn’t, do. If a conjugation of church and state is regarded as undesirable, how much more undesirable is that of public morality and state! When people are offended, as well they might be, by ads for pornography along the highway, and look to government to remove them, it seems evident that society is adrift without a compass or rudder. It’s asking the town drunk for advice on sobriety.

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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