How should I Iive? What is the nature of the Good? How should we live together? By what authority? These life quandaries, often not explicitly stated, have haunted humans from the time of our cave dwelling ancestors. Religion provides an explicit, sanctifying framework that situates our lives within a cosmic horizon, providing meaning, purpose, and moral grounding. Answers to fundamental moral quandaries are conferred by supernatural powers beyond the frail groping of humans—something clear, universal, unassailable, absolute.
Christianity and morality have been synonymous in the West for nearly two millennia, the Bible providing the moral pillar supporting church, state, and the grounding for adjudicating good and evil. The worst crime in Christendom was not murder (”Thou shalt Not Kill”), as punishment could be mitigated by circumstances1, but heresy, which usually could not. Indeed, heretics received especially intense condemnation and persecution, and for good reason. Heresy doesn’t violate a commandment. It is much more dangerous—it challenges the legitimacy of the commandments.
Not surprisingly, one of the deepest divides in contemporary American life and politics is between moral absolutists and their rivals, often called “moral relativists” by the absolutists. Absolutists, led by the Christian Right2, claim the country was founded as a Christian nation and therefore should adhere to Christian moral dictates. The “relativists”, in stark contrast, allow for a multiplicity of moral codes and religious beliefs. Indeed, they argue for respecting diverse moral orientations, and strive to be open and non-judgmental, acknowledging the claims of legitimacy of many, often competing, moral frameworks. Debate and disagreement are to be expected, but no one approach is inherently superior to another, should hold sway simply because those in power say-so. What is valued is a plurality of voices and possibilities.
The absolutists raise challenging questions about this seemingly all-embracing doctrine of fairness and acceptance. How are we to arrive at any moral certainties, to find any moral basis on which to act, to discover the answers to: “How shall I live?” “What is the nature of the Good?” And how, specifically, are we to address foundational political questions: “What should be the rule of law?” “By what justification?” It is easy to conclude that the “relativists” guiding moral principle is that none should hold sway, that morality is arbitrary, that “anything goes”—simply another name for amorality. It is also easy to understand the absolutist’s opposition, even militant resistance, to this apparent decent into the moral abyss.
The absolutist code, free of the confusions of mortals, offers the promise of clarity, safety and security. As alluring as this is, it begs the question: Whose moral code? Christians were among the first settlers to arrive in America, en masse, from Europe. Most made the harrowing journey to this distant shore because they were persecuted minorities in their country of origin, heretics to the ruling orthodoxy. Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Quakers, Mennonites, Huguenots, Catholics, and Moravians all fled to the “New World” seeking freedom to practice their unique orthodoxies without persecution.3 European history, that is, the history of Christendom, is written in the blood of the vicious slaughter of millions over disagreements about orthodoxy. The lesson to be learned from over a millennium of Christendom’s history is that Christian absolutism leads to absolute chaos, wanton murder, and brutal persecution of individuals whose sole moral failing is to believe a different interpretation of biblical text.
The framers of the Constitution of the United States, having just won a war of independence from a despotic monarch who was also head of the state church, were acutely aware of this legacy of Christian absolutism. They also were acutely aware they were creating a new order, free of absolutism. Monarchy was countered by an elected president and a system of checks and balances. Christian absolutism was countered by the first Constitutional amendment guaranteeing freedom of religion. James Madison, the principal author of the Constitution, understood “that the government sanction of a religion is a threat to religion: Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?4 God is not mentioned once in the Constitution.
America was not founded as a Christian nation. It was founded as a nation defined by the Constitution, establishing a form of government unlike any in human history5; one that has become a beacon for many other peoples across the globe seeking liberty. It is a radical alternative to absolutism in its many forms. It is more than a political document. The Constitution is a Revolutionary Moral Order. It allows a multiplicity of moral codes and religious beliefs, respects diverse moral orientations, is open and non-judgmental, acknowledging the claims of legitimacy by many, often competing, moral frameworks. Debate and disagreement are to be expected, but no one approach is inherently superior to another, should hold sway simply because those in power say-so. What is valued is a plurality of voices and possibilities.
This moral order is not “moral relativism”. It embodies the values of democracy, explicitly crafted to avoid the plagues of moral absolutism, religious warfare, arbitrary justice, and the gross mistreatment of the many by the few. It is a statement of ethical principles of relationship, of respect for each person. It is the basis for justice and order of a different kind than offered by absolutists; it forbids as much as it allows. It also is not the opposite of absolutism—it is an alternative. The opposite of moral absolutism, as well as democratic morality, is anarchy, the true morality of “anything goes.”
We live in a large multicultural society with untold number of congregations and believers ascribing to diverse, often absolutists, moral codes and commandments. We are confronted with the same urgent question as the American founders: How can we live together if there is NOT a superordinate moral and political framework that allows a multiplicity of moral codes and religious beliefs, respects diverse moral orientations, and acknowledges the claims of legitimacy by many, often competing, moral visions? Democratic morality allows each of us to live a moral life free from persecution, and in doing so necessarily results in disagreement, confusion, and uncertainty. It also can be quite distressing and disturbing, requiring strength, fortitude, faith, and humility. Living a moral life is never easy. But it is necessary. It is what living in a democracy involves. Living together peacefully, but with considerable discord, in the 21st century requires that we embrace, with courage and conviction, the demands of democratic morality.
- Notably privilege, position, and, of course, war.
- In the 70’s and 80’s, they called themselves the “Moral Majority” to contrast themselves with the unstated but implied “Immoral Minority” . Today a different name, “Christian Right”, is used and contrasts with the unstated but implied “Unchristian Wrong”. For a revealing history of the “Moral Majority” and its roots in segregation and racism, see https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133 . The names have changed, but not the foundational beliefs.
- It was “New” for the Europeans, not for the Native Americans; so it was not, originally, a Christian nation. Ironically, the Native Americans became the persecuted.
- See https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/americas-true-history-of-religious-tolerance-61312684/
- The Constitution used Greek democracy and the Roman Republic as models but the foundational principles of individual rights and equality before the law was unimaginable until the late 17th and 18th century.