Posted by: James Atticus Bowden | January 15, 2009

A Presentism Morality Test

Virginians who suffer from presentism have unique moral vision.  They hold one standard of moral measurements for all political decisions, behavior choices, and individual intentions for all time.

Political decisions are evaluated in today’s context.  For example, a Virginian in 1861 should be thrilled that Lincoln may use the Federal legislature and executive to immediately end slavery – rather than being concerned that Nat Turner’s murders and John Brown’s threats of more race war might happen to their family.

The morality behind any decision is locked in today’s concrete of moral reasoning.  So to continue our example, the morality of ending slavery today overwhelms any moral relativism then, like slavery created such a degraded human condition, that abrupt emancipation would bring more suffering than a planned manumission.  For some zealots, this immutable morality is that of the Christians’ God, so any expression of opinion – 150 years ago –  other than immediate emancipation, full civil rights, integration and inter-marriage is just awful racism.  And it sets a permanent stain on the people who held such heretical opinions so long ago.

This is the permanent taint of the sin of slavery, segregation, and racism on anyone who doesn’t measure up to presentism’s current standards circa 2009.  Thus, anyone who fought for the Confederacy, honors their heroes, or symbols is a racist – and probably a secret slaver.  Choose the wrong behavior – like serve in the state forces according to the Rule of Law of the 1787 U.S. Constitution – and that person was – by definition – immoral, a racist – and for some folks today – a traitor.  And, of course, the intent for anyone whoever honors such a racist is, naturally, racism.

Yet, the broad brush of the permanent sin stain is not applied evenly. 

The heroes of one side of America’s first American Civil War (ACW I), 1775-1783, who owned slaves or were from Southern states – even though there were slaves in all 13 colonies – are tainted for not ending slavery with the new Nation.  But, their names – Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Henry, Lee Sr, Mason, etc. – may remain on buildings and statues.  No one need spit on them, but a strong “tsk, tsk” is appropriate with an apology whenever they are mentioned.  And, even though these rebels had a legal warrant declaring them traitors by the legitimate, established government, they remain patriots.

However, the heroes of one side of America’s second American Civil War (ACW II), 1861-1865, even if they didn’t own slaves, but fought for Southern states are permanently tainted with slavery, segregation and racism.  So is anyone who honors them, because their intent has to be evil to honor anyone with such obvious, radioactive evils as slavery, segregation and racism.

But, their moral myopia of presentism fails a simple eye chart test.   The folks who see the morality of 1861 differently from the morality of 1776 in conclusive, non-negotiable, settled facts, can’t see the moral conflict in events just 40 years old.

Consider this test to of the presentism moral compasses:

Year 1968. You are an able-bodied 18 year old in a NoVa county where a lot of kids go to college.  If you don’t go to college, you will be drafted and likely go to Vietnam.  A little over 300 Americans will be killed every week in Vietnam.  Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese military, civilians, Vietcong and North Vietnamese will be killed in this year.

Here are four choices of behavior and thousands of intents that could motivate those behaviors.

1. Seek a deferment.   Enroll in college or defense industry.  (for every 1000 persons there are over 1000 intentions)
2. Enlist and fight in Vietnam.  (“”)
3. Let yourself be drafted.  (“”)
4. Resist the draft and go to jail.  (“”)

Year 1970. You are a different fellow with the same situation two years later.  The difference is the draft is now a lottery.  You are #183 out of 366.  No idea if you will be drafted or not.  Clearly, the U.S. is pulling out of Vietnam.  My friend, John Shull (USMA 70), is on the cover of the NYT Sunday magazine in cadet uniform for the cover title article, “Who wants to the be the last American to die in Vietnam?” (he doesn’t, FYI).

1. Seek a deferment.   Enroll in college or defense industry.  (for every 1000 persons there are over 1000 intentions)
2. Enlist and fight in Vietnam.  (“”)
3. Let yourself be drafted.  (“”)
4. Resist the draft and go to jail.  (“”)

Okay, judge these two situations where there are personal decisions of political behaviorial choice – thousands of possible intentions behind that choices and terrible moral implications of the choices.

Which 2 choices are the only moral choices God demands of these young Virginians? 

Which 2 choices shout “Yes” or “No” to the individuals then, today and 500 years from now?

Is there a choice that makes any future heroism – on the battlefield, politically, in science or education or missionary work etc. – less than the taint of the wrong choice?   What is it that person can’t be honored because of their wrong moral choice? 

What are the intentions of the persons making these correct choices?  How do you know? Can someone make the right choices with the wrong intentions?

The consequences involve killing military and civilians – and these behaviors are called different things by the shades of the political spectrum.  One decision might have some other American take your place and get killed or wounded.  Or, you could be fighting for American (white) imperialism or colonialism or fighting against the enslavement and murder of millions of Asians, etc, etc.  

The very moral consequences – defining them – are issues of debate – then and now.  But, using presentism moral vision, give us the simple, absolute, clear Will of God and correct moral judgement, behavior and intentions in these cases.

It’s pretty funny how presentism fails this test.  One person who was so sure about the sinister intent of the Virgininans who made Lee-Jackson Day a state holiday, said there “were no moral issues” in the situations above.

And, yes, Vietnam doesn’t equal the War of Northern Aggression – unless you got killed in either war.  But, let them say it again – with a straight face – that there were no moral issues in the Vietnam War.

Presentism – it’s not for Conservatives.




  1. Morality aside, wouldn’t most people simply choose the “I don’t want to die option” and go to college ?

    I know that’s what I would’ve done.

  2. […] […]

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