Moral Kombat

Lessons from Early Christians  . . . and from Our Great-Grandparents

For the uninitiated, Mortal Kombat—with a t and a K—is the most successful fighting game franchise in video-gaming history. Launched in 1991, eleven versions have sold 75 million units. Three successful feature films have also appeared.

Mortal Kombat is also routinely ranked as the goriest video game ever. It is set in a fictional universe where eighteen realms created by the elder gods send out warriors to battle each other. The defining feature of this game is the Finishing Move, in which the victor ends a match by killing the defeated, defenseless opponent. Sometimes the victor turns into an animal that proceeds to rip apart the loser. One is reminded here of the Roman Coliseum, where hungry lions and hyenas tore asunder criminals, Christians, and other enemies of public order.

Giving a better illustration, one Mortal Kombat enthusiast describes the Finishing Move that philosopher Immanuel Kant would use if he were a warrior in the game: “Kant rips open the opponent’s head, sucking out the part of his opponent’s brain responsible for thought and reason.” Alas, so much for the Categorical Imperative.

At another level, though, there is an ethical order to Mortal Kombat. Each realm has a distinctive culture, and some of them (such as Earthrealm and Edenia) are attractive. Mortal battles to the death defend such realms from wicked invaders who would destroy them. Facing ruthless fighters, no quarter—or mercy in battle—is asked, and none is given. As the example of Kant suggests, a liberal tolerance of rival worldviews is completely absent.

Pornography Rampant

Once upon a time in America, Christians engaged openly and successfully in a form of Moral Kombat—no t here—where absolutes of a similar sort also ruled. The date was about 1880, and the specific subject was pornography.

We moderns may think we are unique in facing this subject, but erotic pictures and lustful books are nothing new. To choose one earlier example, when the Puritan regime of Oliver Cromwell in England collapsed in the 1660s, French books with graphic illustrations quickly crossed the Channel. Translated titles included Venus in the Cloister, The Crafty Whore, The School of Venus, Sodom, and Erotopolis, along with Ovid’s classic Artes Amatoria.

In the years immediately following the American Civil War, something similar occurred. Sometimes called “the first modern war,” this campaign deeply disrupted local cultures and customs. By the tens of thousands, demobilized soldiers torn from their mostly rural homes flowed into the cities. Obscene books and pictures appeared in abundance. (Note: By this time, photography was over three decades old, and while the first picture taken appears to have been of a man sitting in a chair, the second was most likely that of a naked woman in an erotic pose.)

In New York City, according to an 1866 report of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA):

[T]he traffic in these [erotic materials] is most extensive. They are to be obtained at very many news stands. . . . At one place, on a principal thoroughfare, there are openly exposed for sale two vile weekly newspapers, which can be purchased at ten cents a copy, and more than fifty kinds of licentious [illustrated] books.


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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