At The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf responds to a Matt Lewis column with this opening:
In The Week, columnist Matt Lewis, a conservative who is regularly willing to criticize the right, explains why, despite his occasional frustrations, he isn’t tempted to defect. “I am repelled by the Left’s worldview, which implicitly argues that morality is subjective,” he states. “This is a natural outcome of a rejection of the numinous, but it’s an idea that has consequences. When there are no moral absolutes, we make policy decisions based on efficiency instead of compassion. Or we make decisions based on our own individualistic needs, not on what is right or good.”
Given his beliefs, I’d never urge Lewis to defect to the left for all sorts of reasons. But I don’t think the one he’s offered is what should hold him. The left encompasses a lot of people who believe in God, while the right has its atheists. I don’t think that there is any single world view that encompasses the whole left. And even if we presumed for the sake of simplicity that it makes sense to talk about “the” world views of the left and right, I don’t think the left embraces moral subjectivity any more than the American right, despite the fact that so many conservatives insist otherwise. How common is moral subjectivity on the left, according to Lewis? It is unclear, perhaps understandably, since he was constrained by writing at column length for print.
Pending clarification, let’s set the left aside and talk about the American right. To what moral absolutes does it subscribe in practice? Certainly some of the ones that are shared by the whole political spectrum. Slavery is wrong. So is rape. And genocide. Surely we can all agree that, on those significant questions, that neither the American left nor the American right are non-absolutists.
Friedersdorf then goes on to pick on the supposed “hypocrisies” of the right. The use of torture in the gathering on information on terrorism being his biggest bug-a-boo, but along the way he also discusses immigration, Gitmo and arms control. Then he says this:
In what moral absolute was their position grounded?
In other words, “How can we preach compassion when we engage in torture or deport the oppressed?” There are three things at play here that need to be noted.
First, there is a difference between something being absolute and something being universal. We must always act in compassion, that’s absolute. But that does not mean we act compassionately to everyone, that’s universal. Unfortunately, life presents us with situations where to act compassionately towards some we will be required to act harshly with others. It is an unavoidable reality. If a man is standing poised to kill another man, killing the threatening killer is, in fact, quite compassionate towards the intended victim, even if it is extraordinarily cruel towards the actor. Someone is going to die in this situation, compassion cannot be judged solely on the fact that someone is killed. Compassion is exercised in the choice of who dies and how. Morality may be rooted in absolutes, but that does not make it simple, by any stretch.
The second thing at play here is the where the moral absolutes are rooted. We cannot argue religion in public anymore, but there was a time we could invoke God. However, even then, it was not good to argue theology in the public square. Once we are discussing the complexities of applying our absolutes, the discussion will become theological very rapidly. Theology, even amongst protestant Christians, is far more diverse today than it ever was at the time when the invocation of religion in the public square was more common. In fact, there are some schools of theology that have grown not out of the religion in question, but purposefully to develop religious apologia for a political or social issue previously considered anathema to the religion in question. For example, the last couple of decades have seen scores of theological arguments attempting to make homosexual practice acceptable; something Judeo-Christian thought as rejected as wrong throughout its history.
Because of the confusion between absolute and universal, the gate-keeping functions inside religion have failed to sort the wheat from the chaff in these arguments and all are deemed valid. How is a public, largely not trained in how to think about these things, to judge what is a good application of the absolutes and what is not? Are we to now argue theology publicly? The result of this dilemma has been the sort of dogmatic approach that leads to the perceptions of hypocrisy that Friedersdorf presents.
The bottom line cause of all of this, and the third factor at play, was mentioned in that last paragraph. It is the failure of the gate-keeping functions inside religion. This failure has come as a) religion itself has become more personal that societal/cultural, and b) rather than fight inside the church, groups split off and form smaller groups that lack the critical mass to form the institutions needed to perform the function effectively.
Frankly, in today’s world, there is validity to what Friedersdorf has to say. It should not be so, but that is a failure that can be laid squarely at the door of the faithful. We continue to work on our series telling the 2012 election story. Unlike the 2008 story, the 2012 is not themed so much in politics as it is in the failure of the religious to do and be all that they are supposed to do and be. Thus that series will lead to a series on where Evangelicalism has failed. Thus we will leave this third factor at this point and allow the deeper discussion to come at a later time.
We are not the hypocrites Friedersdorf wants us, or paints us, to be. However, we have to be a lot smarter about our faith and its application in the public square if we do not want to appear as such.