The Life & Times of Anthony Comstock, Moral Crusader
The foes of nineteenth-century purity crusader Anthony Comstock commonly spoke in fulminations. His “free love” contemporary D. M. Bennett called Comstock “a first-class Torquemada” who had shown “the same energy, the same cruelty, [and] the same intolerance” as “the envenomed persecutors of the past centuries.” Bennett continued: “It is seriously doubted whether the church has ever had a cruel zealot in its employ who has labored with more resolution and zest than this active agent of the Young Men’s Christian Association.” Another “free love” advocate, Ezra Hervey Heywood, called Comstock “a religio-monomaniac” whom the United States Congress and “the lascivious fanaticism of the Young Men’s Christian Association” had empowered to suppress free thought.
Even Comstock’s political “descendants” in contemporary America, the socially conservative Religious Right, are largely oblivious of his legacy. My informal survey of a dozen contemporary American pro-family leaders found only one who had even heard of him; this despite the fact that Comstock succeeded in almost every aspect of his purity campaign: from crushing the pornography industry to suppressing abortion and contraception. Indeed, under any fair comparison, the current pro-family and pro-life movements have been failures.
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Allan C. Carlson is the John Howard Distinguished Senior Fellow at the International Organization for the Family. His most recent book is Family Cycles: Strength, Decline & Renewal in American Domestic Life, 1630-2000 (Transaction, 2016). He and his wife have four grown children and nine grandchildren. A "cradle Lutheran," he worships in a congregation of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. He is a senior editor for Touchstone.
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