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The earliest example of the phrase I found was in an article titled “Against Rationalization” by Christopher Hitchens in The Nation (Sept 20, 2001):

Does anyone suppose that an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza would have forestalled the slaughter in Manhattan? It would take a moral cretin to suggest anything of the sort

Other examples can be found in articles from 2009 and 2003

Is the usage original to Christopher Hitchens or is he using a phrase used earlier?

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  • Google ngram shows nothing. One cannot know for sure who used such a phrase first. It becomes a matter of speculation or opinion.
    – Anton
    Feb 12, 2022 at 7:54
  • There's a mention of "moral cretin" in 1882 (the earliest I could find): page 429.
    – Justin
    Feb 12, 2022 at 8:25
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    Cretin has a complicated and fascinating history - and it is a mispronunciation of Christian that was parodied by the British in French Indochina. French missionaries petitioned the British to treat converted natives with more respect. So moral cretin is what the French were on about originally. This, and the somewhat later cretinism (chronic iodine deficiency) are each sufficient reason to avoid the term as far as I'm concerned.
    – Phil Sweet
    Feb 12, 2022 at 8:43
  • @PhilSweet This deserves to be an answer. It makes it obvious how the phrase in question arose. It is a clever (albeit possibly unacceptable, juxtaposition of two words which jar together so as to give the phrase great force.
    – Tuffy
    Feb 12, 2022 at 10:19

2 Answers 2

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Is the usage original to him

No.

In At Home in Paris, Volume 1 by Blanchard Jerrold published in 1884 we have:

"[I] unfolded the last edition of the Tattoo [...]. I had just read that Henry V was a moral cretin..."

As the author - not a medical man - was conversant with the term, we can assume that it came into being somewhat earlier.

Indeed, little earlier, we have The Medical circular [afterw.] The London medical press & circular ..., Volume 2 (1882)

Exeter Hall [...] asserts that the opium smoker is a kind of moral cretin

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The term was use in the Chicago Tribune as early as 1865. It was in a response to a Rev. Dr. Hatfield asking "Is there a man who is an actor, and has a respectable character? Who is there in this house who would not sooner see his daughter in her grave than married to an actor?"

The article quotes the actress Anna Cowell who replies:

When I read these lines, I am lost in indignation and amazement that any sane man could have been found fanatical enough to place the professors of an art on the same level with traitors, burglars and murderers,--to represent them as moral Cretins and lepers, unfit by their loathsome impurity to fulfill the sacred duties of a husband and father!

"Amusement: The Theatres--Mrs. Cowell's Reply to Rev. B.M. Hatfield, DD." Chicago Tribune, November 21, 1865, p4

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