The Trouble With Morality

Time magzine is wading into deep waters with its article What Makes Us Moral.  Christians automatically assume that morality is their objective, as opposed to those who would "abolish" it.  But the truth is more complicated than that.

Back in seventeenth century France, there were two very prominent preachers, the Jesuit Louis Bordaloue and the bishop Jaques-Bénigne Bossuet.  Bordaloue’s main emphasis was morality, while Bossuet’s was that of theology and doctrine.  In his time Bordaloue was the more popular preacher (especially with Louis XIV) but in the long run Bossuet has a more secure place in French culture and literature.  Bossuet’s preaching and writing is of such a calibre that the Huguenots he helped to exile into places such as the Netherlands still read his works!

The distinction between morality and doctrine is one that Christians seldom make.  When Christians in the US realised that the country had changed its bearings, didn’t they form the Moral Majority?  Isn’t the whole idea of Christianity to make people moral?  Aren’t we trying to bring back the morality we once knew?

Before we attempt to answer these questions, let’s look at the other side.  Until recently secularism in general and Marxism in particular posited that morality was one thing that would disappear with religion.  In the new world order, morality would vanish.  For many on the left, the morality that needed to go away the fastest was and is sexual morality, and that’s certainly the case today, as those who visited Boulder High School last spring reminded us.

But if you look at liberals in the US today, you will find some of the most moralistic and self-righteous rhetoric around.  It’s been that way for the last half century.  Liberals consistently use morally loaded terms such as "corruption," "hypocrisy," and the like.  Today people who are on the defensive about their behaviour come back with the inevitable "I’m not a bad person."  Really?  Wasn’t the purpose of all of the "advances" we were making to eliminate the separation of people into good and bad?

The simple truth is that neither side–for better or worse–is trying to abolish morality.  The difference comes when we consider the ideas as to where morality comes from.

Christians routinely think of morality as coming down from God.  How this actually plays out varies some, but the basic idea is there.  Christians thus consider what leftists and secularists come up with is a rejection of morality.  If you’re talking about a Marxist, this is true.  But there are very few Marxists out there these days.

On the other side, secularists reject morality coming from God but cannot bring themselves to dispense with it.  The key to the dilemma on the left is contained in the article: one source of what people think is moral or not comes from community standards.  This is correct; people are socialised in to thinking that certain behaviour is correct and others isn’t, and that distinction is usually posited in moral terms.  If you can get the legal system to sync with what people think is right and wrong, all the better.

That being the case, if your objective is to change society, a component of that is to change community standards, shared values, or whatever you would like to call these things.  In doing so you change what people think is moral or not, thus replacing one system of morality with another.  That’s the objective of much of what we see on the left, and if we end up with a bunch of pushy, self-righteous loudmouths to enforce this and make others miserable, so be it.

My challenge is directed in two ways:

To the Christians: Christians need to see that morality isn’t the objective; fidelity to the commandments of God, irrespective of what the community standards are, is.  Christians needs to also remember that it’s unrealistic to expect non-Christian people to exercise Christian morality.

To the secularists: What’s scientific about defining and enforcing behaviour with community standards, other than it works?  If we change community standards, where do they come from?  Why are they legitimate?  Community standards go hand in hand with the famous excuse, "We’ve always done it this way?"  What’s scientific about that?

The Internal Passport is One Step Closer

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) wants passengers to give the additional personal information — as well as their full names — so it can do more precise background checks that it says will result in fewer travelers being mistaken for terrorists. Travelers currently must provide only a last name and a first initial.

Read It All

Is This Stupidity, or Is This Treason?

When I was in my family business, we had quite an interesting customer base:

As its main theatre of operations was the Gulf of Mexico, Vulcan had two principal customers: McDermott and Brown and Root [a Halliburton division at the time] (whose construction operation was first divested to OPI, then Horizon Offshore.) It also serviced the other offshore contractors in the region, including Santa Fe, Raymond International, Movible Offshore (first Teledyne, then Global), Ingram (which was purchased by McDermott) and Fluor.

But Vulcan also had a wide variety of customers outside of the U.S. These included some of the major platform contractors, such as Heerema, ETPM, Micoperi (whose assets were purchaed by Saipem,) Uglands, Jardine and Nippon Steel. But these also included state owned (full or partial) oil companies which were doing their own platform installation: Aramco (Saudi Arabia), NPCC (UAE), ENAP (Chile), PDVSA (Venezuela), CMM (PEMEX), Brunei Shell, and CNOOC (China). [I have an entire presentation on our sales to the Chinese.]

Our international customers were, on the whole, good to do business with.  They paid well and came back to us for the spare parts.  In the years when Vulcan was active offshore, we routinely exported a third of our output.

This week one of those customers (or a related entity) spent their sinking US Dollars on something other than pile driving equipment:  the purchase by Abu Dhabi of a significant share of Citibank, one of the US’ premier financial institutions.  This is entirely sensible from the buyer’s standpoint.  What else is there to do with depreciating dollars?  What’s shocking from an American standpoint is the giddy reaction the whole transaction is getting from the “Americans” themselves.  People in this country are, to use an old Pentecostal phrase, “running the aisles” about this.  As Julian Delasantellis points out:

For me, the most surprising, and possibly the most upsetting thing about the Citigroup news was the absolutely orgiastic reaction to it. The general media, of course, saw this only in the context of something that would cause the stock market to go up, so it must be good. (Dead white American suburban young women = bad, rising stock prices = good; it’s not that hard to be a US TV news producer these days.) The Dow Jones Industrial Average opened strong, gave up most of its gains midday, then was rallying into the close to finish up 215, a fairly average price change these days.

If the electronic media are now history’s first draft, then, to judge by the reaction of the on-air personnel on business cable channel CNBC, America has just had its best day since the famous New York City Times Square victory celebrations at the end of World War II.

What a difference two years makes!  After all of the bawling and squalling over the CNOOC/Chevron and the Dubai Ports deal, our media is ecstatic over this, which (coupled with the Saudis’ own substantial state in the bank) will arguably give more substantial control of the US economy to foreign entities than either of those transactions.

Why is this?  The first is that this deal is part and parcel with bailing out our current ruling class from the mess it’s gotten itself into with the subprime mortgage fiasco.  (The Fed’s excessive dropping of the interest rates is in this too.)  Ruling class happy, media happy, everyone’s happy.

The second is the generally myopic view Americans take of their lives and country.  As Delasantellis goes on to say:

As has been proven so many times in the recent past, from America’s budget and trade deficits to its crumbling infrastructure, its appallingly dysfunctional primary and secondary school system, its non-existent savings rate, and the total diffidence with which it approaches the global environmental impact of its prosperity, this is a country that looks at the prospect of any pain or inconvenience in the present with such boundless levels of abhorrence that it is more than willing to satisfy its heroin-like addiction to immediate gratification with sales of any or all of its national heirlooms.

A comparable absurdity would be Americans selling their houses and forever being renters in order to gain the requisite funds to, in the newly sacrosanct modern tradition, line up at big box electronic retailers in the cold early hours of the morning after Thanksgiving.

As I’ve said before, the basic problem we have here is that this country has gone on for so long, has been so successful, and has so few rivals currently out there, that Americans simply think that they (individually and collectively) are invincible, that no amount of blundering will have any adverse impact on our future.

But such is not the case.  Unlike the Persians at the end of Herodotus, Americans have forgotten that it’s better to live in rugged places (literally or figuratively) and rule than to live in rich plains and be subject to others.  Some of us are already looking abroad for shelter.  Like the Anglicans who place themselves under provinces in the Global South, we implicitly or explicitly feel that those who direct our doings have abandoned us for their own selfish interests.  Allowed to continue, the US will not be the country it was; in fact, in many ways it isn’t the country our ancestors fought to preserve (and in some cases, to separate.)

This kind of scenario invites conspiracy theorists.  And I’m sure there are people out there (such as George Soros) who are pleased with this weakening.  It’s the same question that Pavel Miliukov asked the Russian Duma in 1916 over a litany of Tsar Nicholas II’s mistakes (one of which actually buoyed the stock market:) “Is this stupidity, or is this treason?”  In the case of Imperial Russia, it was mostly the former, and I suspect that it is also the case here.  But, as Miliukov went on to say, “Choose either one, the consequences are the same.”

And those consequences aren’t pleasant to contemplate.

Gene Robinson Travels to Sympathetic Territory

The controversial bishop is taking his message to Nova Southeastern University law school:

While some Episcopal dioceses are discussing breaking away from the church, the controversial bishop is traveling around the world to spread a peaceful and inclusive message.

His next stop — South Florida, where a number of Episcopal leaders have shown their support of Bishop Gene Robinson.

There’s no doubt that the Diocese of Southeast Florida is sympathetic to his idea.  But South Florida, with its lack of community, is not so much inclusive as balkanised.  The central problem with the whole diversity agenda is that it in fact tends to balkanise society rather than unite it.  Community erodes as members of a less and less homogeneous society see themselves as members of their own group first and a part of society second.

South Florida–where "the animals are tame and the people run wild"–has simply been ahead of its time.

Making a Better Case

A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece entitled Hanukkah: Opening Shot in the Culture Wars, which attempted to show that the whole war between Judaeo-Christian morality and the alternative isn’t just a creation of the 1960’s, but has been going on for a long time.

Some visitors to this site like to think that I am full of myself (one recent one actually said so,) but I have to admit that Dennis Prager does a lot better job of making the case for this–and explaining why it’s important to defend the faith–in Judaism’s Sexual Revolution: Why Judaism (and then Christianity) Rejected Homosexuality.  Take a look and see for yourself.

Making Marriage Private?

Stephanie Coontz’ New York Times piece on “Taking Marriage Private” presents an idea that’s been brewing on this site for some time.

Let’s start with my piece “Gay Marriage?  What Marriage?” back in 2004:

…in their quest for a change in the legal status of their relationships, homosexuals have at least three options to pursue:

  1. They could call for the abolition of civil marriage altogether. This would be the more “Sixties radical” position to take, and certainly more consistent with their political antecedents…

As far as the church is concerned, I suggested the following course of action:

With a little organisation, Christian churches could even enable their members to opt out of civil marriage altogether, divorcing themselves from an institution that first came from God Himself but has been nationalised to suit the needs of the state, and putting it back in the hands of Him who joined the first man and woman in the Garden.

Three years later in my piece A Show Stopper for Everyone in the Marriage Debate I made the following observation:

The sudden “revelation” by the California Governor and Attorney General, who say marriage can be eliminated in the future is only news to those who have not thought the issue out very carefully.

Before Christians in California go off and begin a quest for a constitutional amendment, they need to think about a few things.

First, without going into a long theological dissertation, marriage for the Christian is an institution of God.  Allowing the state to dictate the terms and conditions of that institution as blithely as American Christians do is a mistake.  We’ve already seen that many of those terms and conditions have been changed at law.  The opinions of both the Governor and Jr. Brown confirm the obvious: with marriage, what the state gives, the state can take away.  (The phrase “rational legislative purpose” is absurd; legislatures do all kind of things for all kinds of reasons, rational and irrational.)  The “rights” of civil marriage are in reality very ephemeral, which makes one wonder why some are fighting so hard to obtain them.

To which I received the following response from Liam, a gay Californian:

Although I am an advocate of same-sex civil marriage, I would like nothing better than to see civil marriage itself abolished altogether. My advocacy of civil marriage for all consenting adults has nothing to do with advocacy of marriage in general, and everything to do with providing all U.S. citizens equal protection of the laws, since the state confers material benefits to those who are married.

But the complete abolition of civil marriage would be even better! Marriage was originally a religious institution and, as such, deserves no legal recognition. Marriage should be more akin to baptism, which may very well be important in the personal lives of Christians, but which is completely irrelevant in the context of civil law.

Liam’s position makes a lot more sense than that of, say, Susan Russell.  She and others in the GLBT community in TEC want to consider the elimination of ecclesiastical marriage, satisfying themselves with blessings while the state does the job of marriage.  This is the state of affairs in most of Europe.  For example, the French took marriage away from the church in the wake of the French Revolution.  In most of Europe it is illegal for entities other than the state to say they marry anyone, as Belgian King Leopold III found out the hard way in his marriage to Lillian Baels.

And that indicates who will be the most formidable opponent of denationalising marriage: the state.  Prying the power from the state to pronounce people spouses will be a job.

Being Right May Not Be Enough

It’s tempting for me to dismiss Russell Kelly’s last outburst in our back and forth on tithing.  But I can’t quite bring myself to do so.  The whole encounter has been rather bizzare, given that we both agree on the most important premise: that tithing is an Old Testament concept, not a New Testament one.  Let me start by making two important points.

The first is that his charge that "you seem to want to judge me as very narrow minded" is not correct.  What I said was that he is "narrow-focused."  There’s a difference.  I’ve taken the trouble to find Dr. Kelly’s entries on other blogs, and basically he’s a "one-note" (thus the drone analogy) instrument about the falseness of tithing.  He’s like a one-issue candidate: he or she may be right about that issue, but if the candidate is elected, he or she will have to deal with the wide variety of matters other than the issue they’re running on.  My purpose in the original post (and follow up with him) was to broaden the debate to include the whole spectrum of Christian "prosperity teaching" and stewardship as a two-way street in the church, but he has chosen not to do so.  That’s his prerogative, and I’m sorry I offended him in the process, but he has to realise that some of us look at things from a different vantage point than he does.

And that leads to my second important point: although I am Pentecostal in affiliation and ministry employment, my Christian intellectual formation is heavily Roman Catholic in content.  That explains my view on the relationship between the Old Testament and the New, and that also explains my conviction (in part; my formative years in Palm Beach were the actual genesis of this) that selling all is the stewardship ideal of the New Testament.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s easy to do or not frought with practical difficulties.  But it’s like the Sermon on the Mount; it’s hard to put into practice, but the more of it we do, the better off we and the church are.  To its credit, the RCC does more to facilitate this ideal than just about anyone else.  But even if we never get to this point–and most of us don’t–the total commitment of our lives and resources is where we want to go in our Christian walk.

That last point, of course, is what Bernie Dehler (my other commenter on the original post) was trying to say, and I agreed with that.  But I suspect that Dr. Kelly’s reluctance to face this issue–and, if he did, his job of refuting the tithe enthusiasts would be a lot simpler–is a product of his Baptist/Evangelical formation.  Evangelical Christianity has brought the faith to new levels in many ways, but there are certain places where, to put it bluntly, Evangelical Christianity has pandered to the world around it in order to become respectable and accepted.  And I’m not thinking about prosperity teaching, which is relavtively new; I’m thinking about issues such as the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the reality of miracles and spiritual gifts and manifestations after the Apostles, and of course the business about selling all.  As far as Baptists are concerned, one could throw in the whole business of combining an Arminian view of election with a Calvinistic view of perseverance ("once saved, always saved,") which obviates the whole need for discipleship.  My comment that "Dr. Kelly is an adherent of a religious system that is simply too conventional and bourgeois to grasp the basically radical, revolutionary nature of the Gospel" needs to be seen in that light.

Finally, at this point in history, Evangelical Christianity in the US in in a tight place.  Out of favour with the country’s elites for at least a century, those elites are very much "on the move" to do it in, and many things that are going on–including Charles Grassley’s grandstanding–are a part of that.  My corporate and ministry experience, though, tells me that we need to do more than gripe about "corruption" or ape the world’s social goals (as the Episcopal Church is doing with the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.)  We need a constructive plan that works, and one that may be a major departure for American Christianity to boot.   Such a plan may put many people out of their comfort zone–including people such as Kelly and Dehler–but the survival of the faith will depend upon it.

When I look at Dr. Kelly’s website and admire the long list of Christian preachers he refutes, a line from the "John Boy and Billy Show" comes to mind: "We like a good fight down here."  That’s what I thought when I saw his original comment.  But we all need to keep the following in mind:

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.  (Ephesians 6:12)

Finally, on a more personal note, I make a lot on the site about growing up in Palm Beach, probably too much.  (People do find it interesting, though…)  My wife, on the other end, grew up in very serious poverty.  But she and her family tithed and gave offerings through the whole dearth of resources.  They also backed this up with serious Christian living and very tight management of their substance.  The blessings we have today are in no small measure a result of that faithful (and comprehensive) stewardship.  (Dr. Kelly might argue that being married to me isn’t much of a blessing, and he’s probably right!)  People who have the same experience (and there are many) will find Dr. Kelly’s message very offensive, especially his characterisation of tithing as a "lottery," which is one reason I satirised it the way I did.  The next reaction he gets may exhibit more anger and pain than mine.

The Worst Imperialist?

Although I find much about our government’s MO to be objectionable, I also find Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’ characterisation of the US as the ‘worst’ imperialist amusing and not a little disingenuous.

His idea that the US "wields its power in a way that is worse than Britain during its imperial heyday" shows a good deal of historical amnesia.  Same amnesia also pervades the following:

He poured scorn on the “chosen nation myth of America, meaning that what happens in America is very much at the heart of God’s purpose for humanity”.

The UK also had a divine component about its mission, one that included the state church sending missionaries to every colony it conquered.  Today those missions are the Anglican Communion that is giving Williams such a headache about same-sex relationships and other matters.  Perhaps his secret wish is that the UK hadn’t gone on its imperial binge, which would simplify his present job.

The blunt truth of the matter is that the English-speaking peoples are masters at myth-making about their own place and purpose in the world.  If Americans are exceptionalists, we got our start in the old country, as I pointed out in To Do The Work.  And, as far as combining moral certainty of speech with turpitude of action, they used to say that Britain ruled the waves, but on occasion waived the rules.

On a more personal note, I’ve known people over the years from former British colonies, and very few of them have a lot of good to say about British rule.  (That’s especially true of the Muslims.)  In some ways, Anglomania is most enthusiastically practised in the US, which had the good sense to leave the British Empire rather than wait for the mother country to get around to granting our independence.

Finally, the Archbishop has conveniently waited until dollar hegemony went into decline, making his comments a "kicking us while we’re down" kind of thing.  But if he and reappraisers in the US ever hope to make their "tolerant" agenda stick on a global basis, they will find it nearly impossible without dollar and other US-backed hegemony.  The EU simply doesn’t have the will to take up the slack and the rest of the world, Christian and otherwise, isn’t sympathetic to it.

Rowan Williams better hope he’s wrong on this one.

Note: after this, I noted the appearance of Ruth Gledhill’s posting, Why we should all love America.  I can’t agree with the entire list but it’s good to know we have a few friends.

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