Thursday, April 19, 2007


Recently my church lost a valuable member of its leadership team. This leader had come with a vision for the social activism he believed we were all called to engage in. The activism he had in mind involved organizing, as a church, to support GLBT civil rights measures - a cause that most (if not all) of us sympathized with, but which ran against the church's longstanding commitment to remaining apolitical on a collective level. Seeing that his plan had very little support among the congregation, he decided to leave the church.

In his eyes, the cause he wanted to advance was strictly a moral issue and not a political one, and hence not in conflict with the church's commitment to being a safe haven for anyone who walked through its doors. But is it ever realistic to elevate a cause that calls for legislative action by defining it strictly in moral terms?

Most pro-life advocates would view the protection of unborn children as a moral issue that deserves to transcend normal political considerations, while most pro-choice advocates would consider it immoral to take away a woman's right to choose. Many on the religious right would say that opposing gay marriage (and most likely any legal recognition of GLBT individuals) is a moral imperative, even as advocates of gay rights believe it immoral to deny anyone those rights.

And the list goes on. Religious left advocates view their own social justice issues in moral terms, Al Gore is on the record as declaring that he sees global warming as a moral issue, George Bush sees a moral imperative for invading and occupying Iraq, and Bono calls for increasing the amount of aid that Western governments are sending to Africa in similar terms.

So which of them is right? Who has the authority to declare when a matter of public policy carries a moral obligation? I can understand the reasoning that led to each of those declarations, and in some cases I sympathize, but in each case there are valid - and sometimes even superior - arguments for opposing the 'moral' policies being advocated.

The problem with the statement "it's a moral issue, not a political issue" is that it is, at its heart, an attempt to silence all dissenting voices. Anyone who opposes the "moral" solution to a particular problem, after all, is by extension an immoral person.

Thus, with a single proclamation, dialogue on an issue can be completely shut down. Since those who disagree with me are immoral, I can dismiss anything they say without further thought. My opponents, meanwhile, have just been belittled and insulted. They certainly don't consider themselves immoral individuals, and most likely don't consider their political stances to be immoral, either. So why bother trying to talk to someone who holds them in such obvious contempt?

And so we see why true dialogue is all but nonexistent in the American political scene. Major issues are dominated by two or more warring camps, with each side viewing its opponents as enemies whose very existence threatens everything that's good in the world. Searching for common ground is out of the question, since even the slightest compromise is a bargain with the Devil himself.

Christians can be found on both sides of most of these issues, not that one can find much Christ-like behavior in the midst of all of the name-calling and doomsaying. It's easy enough to say that about the religious right these days, yet the religious left is scarcely any better behaved; neither side puts much stock in the notion that those at the opposite extreme could truly be people of sincere faith.

It's difficult to envision any truly positive resolution ever being reached, when everything is couched in terms of war: the culture war, the values war, the war on poverty, etc. Such acrimony is hardly unique to the modern era, even within Christian circles, of course. But if Christians who supposedly worship the same God can't learn to live together peacefully, what hope is there for a nation divided by deeper differences - much less the rest of the world?


Mark said...

I suppose I could fall back on the old saw, "Our hope is in Christ".

Really astute and perspicacious observations -- thanks for writing this down.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. The morality card is one major part of the problem, and it functions just as you have outlined it.

A possible place to begin healing is in the principles of liberal democracy--those ideas that were revolutionary when Europe confronted feudalism, such as private property, Rule of Law, and sovereignty of the individual. I have a whole site that focuses on healing the dialog at