LOW standards of righteousness are a characteristic of the times in which we live. Speaking of this age, the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy: “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come, for men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud; . . having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.” 2 Timothy 3:1-5. The world is full of religious formalism and phariseeism, but there is little seen of the power of godliness.
Low standards of righteousness always pertain to religious formalism. And a low standard of righteousness is a false standard, just as formalism and phariseeism are false standards of religion. And because of these low standards of righteousness, which do not reach above the level of formalism, many people are deceiving themselves with the idea that the world is growing better.
In this country we hear much about “civic righteousness,” and we also see much that illustrates the meaning of the term. We also see an increasing effort being made, especially by the forces of the religious world, to set up this “righteousness” in the place of soul righteousness, and to lead people to put their trust in it. We see legislators being influenced to believe that by the manufacture of such “righteousness” they are making the people better, and saving the nation from divine wrath. All this is a danger delusion.
For example, we notice some comments of the New York Independent, of February 13, on some of the evils lately suppressed by law in this country, under the heading, “The Passing of Pugilism.” The statements of the Independent, besides carrying much influence in themselves, represent the ideas held by a prominent, if not a large, class of the American people.
“There is now,” says the Independent (italics ours), “no inch of soil in the United States where prize fighting can be legally carried on. Congress passed a bill last week, and the President promptly signed it, which makes it a crime in the District of Columbia, or in any Territory of the United States, or in any strip of country under Federal control, to hold a prize fight. This is a final victory for good morals and humanity over a species of entertainment that has come to rank with bull fights and other degrading sports.
“The time was when the prize fights were considered a very choice kind of amusement for the general public… But the public standard of morality is so much higher than it used to be that prize fighting has become as intolerable to the public conscience as dueling, the lottery, and other forms of vice. No clearer proof of this could be asked than the entirely successful efforts by the governor of Arkansas and the governor of Texas in preventing the threatened encounter last year.”
Now the simple truth is that the “public standard of morality” in the days of our ancestors when pugilism was not prohibited in this country, was not only as high as it is to-day, but much higher. Ask the white-haired survivors of those earlier times if there was then any such carnival of murder, riot, robbery, arson, lust, and general immorality as is heralded by the newspapers of our land to-day. They will answer, No. Ask them if the house of God was desecrated by church lotteries, fairs, theatricals, and ridiculous shows, as it is to-day, or if infidelity found utterance in the pulpit then as it does to-day? They will tell you, No.
As to recently-enacted laws against pugilism, it is almost too well known to need mentioning, that the actuating motive of such legislation was mere policy, and not a horror of the thing prohibited. Each State wishes to be considered as respectable in the public eye as any other State. One State does not wish another to say to her, What is not good enough for me is good enough for you. Even Mexico, while allowing and encouraging the bloody and brutal bull-fighting exhibitions, forbade the proposed pugilistic encounters as strictly as they were prohibited in the United States. The higher “public standard of morality” did not figure in the matter at all.
The Independent continues: “It is a good time to point out to those who think the world is going to the bad, . . that they misread the signs. There is a whole series of indications going to show that the moral tide is rising instead of falling. There was a time when some of the people of this country looked with more or less tolerance on the slave trade. Within a generation millions of our citizens have defended slavery… The slave trade in the world has been almost entirely broken up; all of the continents except one are practically free from slavery.”
It is true that there is now no place in our country where an individual of the negro race can be legally held in involuntary servitude; but alas, that form of slavery is not the only one by which it is possible for men to oppress their fellow-beings. There are multitudes of white slaves in our land to-day, made so by human rapacity, greed, lust, and conscienceless use of power. There are hundreds of thousands of unfortunates in the lower stratum of society as it exists in our great cities—not to mention the “submerged tenth”—condemned by human selfishness to a slavery as cruel and as hopeless and as real as any that this country ever knew. And while this state of things continues, and is growing worse, as it is to-day, it is useless to point to the abolition of negro slavery as evidence of a rising tide of public morality. Had it not been for the terrible convulsions of the body politic in the civil war, that feature of American life might not yet have been eliminated from our land.
“We have also,” continues the Independent, “banished the lottery. That was a form of iniquity which seemed to be deeply rooted in one of our States; but in one of the most brilliant contests ever waged against wrong by an aroused conscience, it was finally and forever defeated and banished from the soil of the United States.” The history of that contest is, however, very much like the history of the contest against pugilism. There is very good reason to believe that conscience had far less to do with the banishment of the evil than had the policy of conforming to the common standard of respectability.
We are further told that, “It is in the last decade that the Mormons have surrendered polygamy as an article of their faith and have promised henceforth to respect the conscience of the country. There will be an end to the abomination in form as well as in fact when men who have contracted such marriages have passed away, they having agreed meanwhile to be the husband of one wife only.”
This is again a most misleading fact in its bearing upon the question here considered. For of the three forms of polygamy known to society in this country, there can be little doubt that the one suppressed was less evil than the others. Open polygamy as formerly practice in Utah has been prohibited; but secret polygamy, in which only one of the parties concerned is granted the name of wife and the privileges of that relation, is practiced in every part of the Union, and by a far greater number of people than were ever participants in the polygamy of the Mormons. This fact cannot be questioned; nor are our legislators themselves, many of them, guiltless upon this point.
The third form of this evil has been termed “consecutive polygamy,” and this has the sanction of our courts of law. It is seen where parties who have entered into the marriage relation, separate upon some one of the many slight grounds recognized by our courts as legally sufficient, and reënter the same relation with other parties. The fearful prevalence of this “consecutive polygamy” is a widely-recognized fact, and one which has led to a strong agitation in our country for more stringent laws regulating marriage and divorce. And while it does prevail, as it does to-day, it is useless to point to the suppression of Mormon polygamy as a victory of public morality.
The Independent also refers to the victories recently gained in the fight against “gambling;” but here again we may be misled. For the worst form of gambling remains unsuppressed, in open and bold defiance of law and public sentiment. Gambling with dice and cards has been to some degree suppressed; but what has been done to suppress gambling in its higher and more “respectable” and more ruinous forms? We allow men to gamble with and “corner” the necessities of life, not only to their own ruin, but to the loss of millions of others, whom they plunge into poverty and suffering. And it is a serious question whether this may not lead erelong to a social revolution which will drench the land with blood.
It is a great mistake to imagine that immorality can be suppressed, or righteousness established, by human law. The seat of immorality, or of righteousness, is the heart; and that no human law can reach. We must, of course, have laws against those evils which  are destructive of human rights; and it lies within human power to enact and enforce laws which will protect the people in the enjoyment of their rights, to a great degree. But such laws do not make men moral, and are not designed for that purpose. They can create an outward appearance of morality, but the whited sepulchres to which the Saviour likened the Pharisees, had a good outward appearance. The Pharisees were very moral in outward appearance.
When men mistake the outward appearance of morality for the thing itself, they are in a position to become the victims of the worst deceptions, and to commit the gravest errors of legislation from which mankind has ever suffered.