Power and Moral Purity

Power and Moral Purity June 19, 2020

The anti-racist protests are animated by moral zeal.  As such they are a repudiation of moral relativism.  That’s a healthy cultural development, actually.

The leftists who are in ascendancy in the Democratic party are motivated by a strong sense of the moral rectitude of their cause.  The policies they propose have moral goals.  In fact, their moral convictions about human equality and the worth of each person derive directly from the Christian and Jewish religions.  And yet, for the most part, they reject those religions.

This contradiction puts them in a difficult position and helps account for the Left’s emphasis on power, their rejection of persuasion, their ends-justifies-the means tactics, and their insistence on moral purity.

My friend and former colleague Mark Mitchell makes this case in his book Power and Purity.  (See my review of that book.)

He summarizes his findings in an article in Law & Liberty entitled The Keys to the Progressive Kingdom:  Here is an excerpt:

The ideals at the heart of the radical Left—equality, rights, democracy, justice, tolerance—are derived from a Christian view of the human person. Dispense with orthodox Christianity, as most leftists have, and what remains are moral concepts deprived of any moral root. They are free-floating ideals carrying a moral echo but lacking a moral, and ultimately divine, source.

Once the connection with the Christian past was repudiated, power could advance without a check. Moral ideals once defined the limits of acceptable action. However, when moral categories were severed from a divine source, any and every means became permissible for securing the desired ends. Here we see the so-called will-to-power employed to advance ideals that are nothing other than the residue of a rejected Christian past.

In this strange scheme, power is wed to purity; Machiavelli to Christianity; Nietzschean will-to-power to Puritan moralism. This union, of course, shouldn’t work. It is fundamentally incoherent. To assert with absolute confidence that equality is a moral good that must be defended at all costs while denying any justification for equality other than, “because I say so” is a position resting only on power. To claim that human rights must be defended while rejecting an account of human nature that could plausibly justify those rights is an assertion of power in service of moral ideals that have been cut off from their source. The same is true when democracy, justice, or tolerance are asserted as morally good and defended with the intensity of the true believer armed with nothing but brute force.

The result is a sort of psychic turmoil that manifests itself socially and politically as self-righteous rage. This rage takes the appearance of a moral crusade whereby opponents must be silenced or destroyed. Power is employed against any who dissent, for a dissenting voice could tear away the façade of moral righteousness and expose the underlying incoherence. When put in these terms, the rage would seem to provide cover for a profound insecurity. This helps us grasp why reasoned debate seems so rare among radicals today. The tactic of the protest has replaced the art of persuasion that is at the heart of any legitimate democracy. Power and purity are all that remain. . . .

Equality is reduced to identity; rights are demanded for some and denied to others; justice becomes a weapon; tolerance becomes intolerant; freedom descends into tyranny. . . .

Ironically, in these times of cultural disintegration and political turmoil, the most radical option might be a return to the very things we abandoned, to the source of moral truth and human dignity, and to the only hope for racial reconciliation.

[Keep reading. . .]

I would add that another consequence of insisting on moral purity without a religious grounding is that there is no longer a mechanism for atonement or redemption for moral lapses.  Hence, no forgiveness.  Ever.  Only a secularized version of eternal punishment.


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