Moral Purity and Persecution in History

Author: Barrington Moore Jr.
Princeton University Press, 2000

Moore has served on the Harvard University faculty for more than fifty years. One of his other books is: Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World.

Moore defends moral purity, stating that it became dangerous "only as it became the basis for persecution..."

Regarding the Old Testament, Moore questions whether "the miscellaneous collection of divine ordinances in Leviticus and Deuteronomy really have anything to do with moral purity or impurity." The ancient Hebrews thought in terms of ritual and religious impurity and techniques of purification, but this, he claims, "is not the same thing as morality." He adds that unless he missed something, the word "moral" or an equivalent expression does not occur any where in the Old Testament. He claims that divine ordinances were issued against prevailing Hebrew custom - with the exception of theft, murder and adultery, which, he writes, "are to be found in a large majority of human societies." It is reasonably clear, writes Moore that divine orders to the Hebrews were innovations. "Over and over again God appears as angry at the Hebrews for violations of the Covenant and specific divine injunctions. Moore describes moral responsibility as norms prevalent within a society. Moore makes a distinction between ethical behavior and moral behavior. For the ancient Hebrews, "ethical behavior meant complete obedience to divine ordinances."

Moore describes penalties among the Hebrews as involving economic and gender considerations. A bondmaid, of value to her master, and betrothed to a husband, might not be put to death for adultery.  "[S]he was scourged: 'because she was not free.'" The man [the master, perhaps] was required to bring a ram to the door of the tabernacle as a trespass offering for God. The priest made atonement for him and the sin was forgiven. In other words, writes Moore, "If the man had enough property to spare a ram, for him there was nothing to the whole business."  

Moore turns to France in the 1500s and the persecutions during the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. French Catholics, writes Moore, were  accused of idolatry "by a mass of self-righteous purists who were not foreigners."  Protestants and Catholics "were spoiling for total religious victory." Both reacted by "developing a vindictive, persecuting, and destructive sense of their own 'pure' morality." 

Moore then goes to the French Revolution. The Girondists were the moderate revolutionaries, and moderates, writes Moore, are "unlikely to find purity an attractive trait." Robespierre was not a moderate. He explained every shortcoming of the Revolution by a conspiracy against it," and he had one solution: "the relentless use of the guillotine." Robespierre had a "reputation as 'incorruptible,'" and was "spotless to the point of being prissy." His enemy Danton, on the other hand, was more relaxed. His principles were "to enjoy an air pure and free." Danton wanted to get "Frenchmen to stop their murderous mutual fighting."

Looking back at early Hinduism, Moore describes Hindu priests, the Brahmins, as "'the most pure of men,' while the untouchables are the least pure." But the Hindu religion lacked dogma and has been known as historically tolerant. Therefore, religious warfare did not take place within Hinduism as it did within Christianity.  But, writes Moore, a "large body of 'ordinary' Hindus have learned in recent times to overcome the tradition of tolerance and have taken up a neofascist form of nationalism, manifested in violent attacks on Muslim monuments and a general hatred of Islam, and, later, Christianity."

Moore describes Buddhism as not having created a "theory and practice of militant moral purification comparable to those widespread in Western civilization." Buddhism began, he claims, "as an egalitarian reaction against the Hindu caste system." Buddhism changed, developing and maintaining a "search for purity and salvation" that was not a special privilege or task of an elect, as it was under Calvinism. The object of Buddhism, Moore writes, "was to escape from this worldly life, to achieve Nirvana, rather than to reorder life in this world by something similar to a moral revolution." Buddhists and Christians had both looked to the life that was to come, but Buddhists hoped for and expected something different in the meantime, contributing to a greater tolerance.

Moore describes Confucius as "a great advocate of patriarchal morality" and, claims Moore, the Confucianism that followed developed "a sturdy theory and proactive of persecution based on a theory of moral purity."

Moore concludes that morality based persecutions have been more prevalent among adherents of the old Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths than they have among others. 

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