The ‘MAD’ Morality,
An Exposé
by Vernard Eller

This article was originally published by The Christian Century Foundation, Chicago, IL, in The Christian Century, on December 14, 1966. It is reproduced here with their kind permission.

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The Caesars of contextual ethics have told us that morality, like all gall, is divided into three parts:

  1. the authoritarian legalists take the high road (too high);
  2. the lawless libertarians take the low (too low); and
  3. in between, on the smogless plain, the New Morality moves purposefully back and forth.

Obviously there is something wrong with this typology. It is clear that the ethical theory regnant in respectable circles even before the New Morality put in its appearance could hardly have been classified under either No. 1 or No. 2. Neither the Niebuhr brothers nor Paul Ramsey could have been called legalists or libertarians, so they must have been New Moralists; yet it is also clear that the New Morality was intended to be something actually new and different from theirs. There just must be more than the three simple options.

I. Tried Content, Venturesome Means

My purpose is to present one: the MAD Morality. Now because the very fact that the present company is reading The Christian Century is proof enough that they aren't quite "with it," I must explain that MAD denotes a magazine. It is a periodical of about the same size and heft as the Century and printed on the same sort of shoddy paper. Both sell for 30 cents--although MAD’s is 30 cents cheap and the Century’s is a donation to a nonprofit foundation. The important difference, however, is that MAD has pictures and is funny. Granted, the Century rates as high as the next one in being a funny magazine, but in its case the word has a slightly different connotation.

[NOTE: Eller should know that we are publishing his article for the same reason, and only for the reason, that MAD publishes its garbage--in the hope that it will help sell at least a few extra copies. --Ed.]

Whether the MAD Morality should be described as an Old Morality or a New Morality is rather hard to say; essentially it is old morality in a new form--old-fashioned morality but without moralism. A distinction must be made between "morality" and "moralism." A "morality" refers to the content of ethical teaching, what it affirms as being right and condemns as being wrong; "moralism" denotes a means, a style, by which morality is taught and enforced: a handing down of edicts in an arbitrary, authoritarian, no-nonsense sort of way--regardless of whether the edicts be right or wrong, good or bad.

Evident though it is that modern society is in a moral crisis, the trouble has come not so much because of the old moral standards as because of the moralistic way those standards have been presented. The New Morality has reacted against this moralism by striving to adapt and modify the moral standard itself--a case of not throwing the baby out with her bath ... if she is old enough to make the gatefold of Playboy magazine. But the New Morality is no answer, premised as it is upon a too flattering, unrealistic anthropology which assumes that average people (even the kids--who are anything but "average") are smart enough, informed enough, good enough and well intentioned enough that the simple admonition, "Always respect the personality of your brother (or sister)," is sufficient to bring one through even the glandular crisis of a parked car.

II. Who Wants to Be Stupid?

The MAD Morality is of a vastly different stripe. The moral code reflected in the pages of MAD is strait-laced enough to put to shame any Sunday school paper in the land. MAD takes out after alcohol, tobacco, drugs, licentiousness, deceit, hypocrisy, et al., with a brash and blatant zeal that in comparison makes Billy Sunday sound as tolerant as Joseph Fletcher if not Hugh Hefner. Nor does it overlook the issues of social morality. Judged strictly by the evils it speaks out against, MAD represents as old fashioned a morality as is currently in circulation.

Besides, the MAD Morality is based on the old, realistic, biblical anthropology. In fact, the magazine is dedicated to the proposition that the human animal is at base a rather stupid and hypocritical clod. Although Christ may be the model of what we are to become, MAD knows that the type of what we are is Alfred E. Neuman--that we are not the little Jesuses the New Morality takes us for. Not even our dear young people. Whereas the Christian world tends to read the hippies and their brethren as embodying the righteous protest of the innocent against the moral hypocrisy of their perverted elders, MAD, though not for a moment denying the justice of such a protest, has been particularly effective in making the point that in their way the protesters are just as hypocritical as the aged establishment is in its. Thus, like those presentations of the New Morality which inevitably close with the benediction, "God bless all you lovely people in your lovely efforts at finding new and astonishing ways of expressing luv," the benediction closing each feature in MAD is "How stupid can you get?" And yet ... and yet, especially with kids, MAD is much more popular than the New Morality.

How can this be? It is here that the plot behind the magazine must be exposed. MAD is teaching an old, a real old morality--but without moralism. The shift was neat but actually very easy: where the old moralism said "WRONG," MAD simply reads "STUPID." And though actually "wrong" and "stupid" are morally synonymous (an action is morally "wrong," and ethics rules against it, when its tendency is to destroy and harm persons; but it comes to the same thing to say that it is stupid for persons to harm and destroy one another), that little switch makes all the difference. In both cases it is the same old morality, but where the old moralism said, "We tell you this is wrong, so don't do it!" MAD says ("We can show you that this is stupid, so decide whether you want to be a stupe or not!" And moral ism the kids rebel against; MAD they eat up.

III. The Place to Find Out

The full truth about the MAD Morality came to me in a discussion with a small group of high school kids. It was at a church camp, and it needs to be said that these young people belong to the Church of the Brethren. By tradition the Brethren have taught and held to a rather high and stringent morality (I have not said "moralism" at this point). For instance, the church used to advertise itself as being "the oldest temperance society in America"--a line heard too often nowadays. In any case, the historical evidence indicates that the 18th century Brethren founders maintained a quite exalted moral standard--without any particular taint of moralism. But in the 19th century the balance slipped, and the Brethren went through an orgy of oppressive and petrifying legalism. Then, during the past 50 years or so, the move has been gradually but decisively away from the authoritarianism of a strict code-ethic. But because the memory of it has rankled, in at least some circles of the church the New Morality is being taken to with considerable spontaneous enthusiasm.

I opened the discussion at camp by asking the kids what they felt about the teaching they had received from the church regarding personal morality--smoking, drinking, sex, etc. The immediate reply was that they hated it, resented being preached to and told what to do and what not to do. A girl named Cheryl said she was sure it would be better if the church would just keep quiet about such things.

I expressed some surprise at the vehemence of this response and said that in my view the church was doing a pretty good job of keeping quiet already. I was familiar with the youth curriculum (having written part of it myself) and knew very well that matters of personal habit barely get mentioned there, and then in a way to which the Newest Moralist hardly could object. The youth paper distributed by the Brethren, the same as that used by the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ, is such that not even a hippy could fault it on this score.

"Well, then," they responded, "this moralism in the church [although by this time they weren't quite sure whether they actually had experienced it or whether they were simply repeating clichés which young people are expected to repeat about the church] must come from the Sunday school teachers themselves rather than from the printed materials."

IV. Blunt, Yes--But Why Not?

"In any case," I said, "it strikes me as really funny that you blow up if the church so much as mentions these things; yet when MAD opens up on them in a way that no Sunday school teacher would think of doing, you take it and like it."

That stopped them.

Carole was the first to recover; she decided to take the line that "there is nothing serious in MAD; it's all just for laughs."

I challenged her and dashed back to the cabin to get my copies. MAD I carry with me; the Century I read in the library. [NOTE: This shows how 30 cents cheap Eller is. --Ed.]

We started through, page by page.

  • An anti-smoking ad.
  • An antiliquor ad.
  • A telling demonstration that the new TV shows which the networks bill as being so great we honestly know to be garbage.
  • A satire making the point that most advertising is pure hogwash if not worse.
  • A caustic commentary about the petty falsifying that goes on in our everyday business transactions.
  • A slam against anti-Semitism.
  • A most effective whack at the John Birch Society.

One number of MAD deals with more moral issues--and takes stronger stands on them--than does a year's total output by most church publishers.

Then we came to a parody of the surfing movies that are now the rage. I quoted to the group the part where She says to Him: "You know why these beach pictures are so popular, Go-Go? Because teenagers in the audience like to identify with us and all our dancing and making out!" To which He answers Her: "That's right! It takes their minds off the humdrum things in their own lives ... like dancing and making out!"

I put it to the kids: "Now isn't that a pretty blunt way of saying that if life is to be at all meaningful it's got to consist of something more than just dancing and making out?" To which Carole (the same Carole who not ten minutes before had insisted that there is nothing serious in MAD) responded: "Yes, but the church never would be that serious and honest with us."

I for one do not believe that young people really accept or want to hear the flattering view of themselves that underlies the New Morality. Down deep they know that MAD presents a more accurate picture of their own moral character, competence and concern. The church would do well to take a lesson in honesty from MAD rather than to keep on trying to sweet talk its young people into being good.

"But why," I pressed, "are you so willing and happy to take all this moralizing from MAD and yet so resentful if the church tries to say even a word?"

Cheryl came back: "It's because the church always tells you, but MAD lets you draw your own conclusion!"

Cheryl was only half right, but in that half lies the secret of the MAD Morality, the secret that enables MAD magazine to get away with teaching a 13th century ethic to 20th century young people (13th century BC, that is--like, say, the Ten Commandments). MAD lets the kids think they are drawing their own conclusion, although the truth is that it already has drawn the picture in such a way that the conclusion is a foregone matter. Actually, MAD is every bit as preachy as that old codifier Moses is. Beneath the pile of garbage that is MAD there beats, I suspect, the heart of a rabbi.

V. Danger from Exposure?

It has been only with deep reluctance that I have brought myself to write this public exposé. The revelation may put an end to the whole crafty game and break up the good thing MAD has going. This would be particularly true if word ever got out that a magazine named The Christian Century (how stuffy and pretentious can a title get?) was interested in MAD. My consolation comes from the knowledge that there aren’t all that many influential people (influential with teen-agers, that is) reading the Century. And if it should turn out that my little piece excites a few old fuddy-duddies to rush to the nearest newsstand (libraries don't carry MAD-- so much the worse for libraries) and buy a copy in order to check it out, perhaps the MAD men will forgive me (they aren't careful about whom they sell to).

[NOTE: Because the Century has no intention of taking a back seat to MAD when it comes to moral honesty, we must point out that all the editor's notes contained herein (including this one) were written by Eller. Further, if we are going to be really honest, we must voice the suspicion that the whole piece is a ploy to prod MAD into following the lead of Playboy magazine and hiring a Religion Editor--and with comparable inducements (though what all inducements the Playboy post involves we have no way of knowing). But Eller has grand dreams of becoming the first MAD theologian--or at least the first to admit the title. However, the distinction is this: The Playboy position requires a theologian without morals. Such, of course, come a dime a dozen. But a MAD Religion Editor would have to be a puritan with a sense of humor, and you don't see that kind very often. --Ed.

(If this thing catches on, it may end up with the Century’s acquiring a Religion Editor. That would be the day! What his qualifications would have to be God only knows. And what the Century would offer as inducements, probably not even God knows. - V.E.)

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Copyright (c) 1967, The Christian Century