“We have in fact, two kinds of morality, side by side: one that we preach, but do not practice, and another that we practice, but seldom preach.” – Bertrand Russell
Quite often, morality, to borrow from the familiar phrase, is in the eye of the beholder. That is to say, when something seems moral to some, that same something may be seen as immoral to others. On that basis, I take the position that morality is relative to the norms of a particular culture — principles of right and wrong, good and bad, and acceptable conduct. And those rules change over time, thereby making them relative.
Slavery was deemed moral for thousands of years; condoned by religion and the polity alike. Many of our nation’s founders were slave owners. Blacks became citizens, not property, as a result of the Civil War. But thereafter they were subjected to Jim Crow, which deemed them inferior. Hatred is most often immoral. And the hate embedded in racism, as it has waxed and waned, mostly waxed, continues even today.
Many of those in the Third Reich thought Hitler’s “Final Solution” was perfectly moral. Others, including the Jews, of course, saw it as an inhumane and barbaric. To quote Voltaire, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
There are cultures in Africa where female mutilation is perfectly acceptable. There are tribes of indigenous people in Borneo who like to make a tasty snack out of other humans – and then shrink their heads. There are whole countries, mostly in the Middle East, that practice Sharia law where beheadings, stoning, and lashings are almost daily occurrences; with the amputation of hands and crucifixion less common And, as we know, ISIS has been very creative in applying Sharia Law; also known as “Hudud.”
Moving from the 20th into the 21st century, there are many issues that, for some, present with questionable moral behavior. There is the decline of the nuclear family. Almost half of American children are born to an unmarried woman. And 43 percent of families are without a father.
Gay rights and gay marriage have provoked moral outrage too. The gays see this as a victory in the fight for equality and the defeat of gender bias. The anti-gay crowd believes that allowing such conditions to exist is the beginning of the end of civilization.
Then there is the mother of all moral dilemmas – abortion. This is as much about right and wrong as it is about right and left. The debates about when life begins and a woman’s right to choose have turned violent. Abortion clinic workers and doctors have been attacked; some even shot and killed by pro-lifers. The perpetrators of such acts no doubt believed they were morally justified.
Despite his lies, his apparent lack of empathy, his inability to understand foreign affairs, his outrageous and unprovable claims, his failure to admit wrong, his obvious predilection for an authoritarian state, and his preference for well-done steak, some of which can be considered unethical, Donald Trump managed to get himself elected president in a display of moral relativism. That is, those who voted for him seemed to have let emotion get the better of reason, facts, and clear thinking.
My point in saying this is to say that a steadfast and intransigent position on certain moral positions can lead to animus, divisiveness, hostility and a retreat into tribalism.
Tribes inform our identity, our history, our beliefs, our worldview. The tribe is an extended family, protective of its own, suspicious of outsiders. And tribal loyalty gives rise to the mistrust of others, sometimes intolerance, and even war. And the fundamental values of the tribe become its moral compass. But, tribal members will sometimes suspend their moral code when it is in their self-interest to do so.
For example, exit polls from the last election revealed that 81 percent of Evangelicals voted for Trump. Trump’s campaign promises of more jobs, lower taxes, better health care, and “draining the swamp” in Washington, D.C., must have appealed to Evangelicals even though Trump’s character and conduct mostly conflict with the Christian ethos. To quote Friedrich Nietzsche, “Morality is the herd instinct in the individual.”
The Dallas News, in its February 2, 2016, opinion piece, “10 Reasons you can’t be a Christian and vote for Donald Trump,” listed some of the conflicts below and the author added a few of his own.
For example, Trump shows no compassion – “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” (Colossians 3:12.)
Trump appeals to fear and anger — “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5: 22.)
Trump is enamored with “greatness” and ego, but has no concern for “goodness” or service, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5: 5-8.)
And Trump lies, “Beware then of useless grumbling, and keep your tongue from slander; because no secret word is without result, and a lying mouth destroys the soul.” (Wisdom 1:11.)
He does not attempt to love his enemies but cultivates antagonism. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43-48.)
He doesn’t care about the poor, “Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’” (Matthew 19:21.)
His love of money is also a betrayal of Christianity, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:24.)
Trump seems short on tolerance too — “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-6)
Then there are Trump’s promises — “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (Matt: 7:21)
The Dallas News article concludes with this:’
It’s a free country, thank God. You can vote for whoever you want. But for the Christian, this freedom is always constrained. Followers of Christ have taken up a yoke. And though it is light, it is not easy or common. This yoke ties all Christians, in all their perplexing diversity, to love, mercy, sacrifice, and justice. Voting, often thought of as a mere civic duty, is in this light, also a sacred act. It is the most powerful public expression of private values that most of us will ever harness. Let us cast all of our votes for love.
Christian voters, especially evangelical voters, want their candidates to offer them positions of immutable moral order. But all voters tend to feel insecure and powerlessness to deal with change. Voting then becomes a means of exercising control.
The means of transforming our society so that voters will feel empowered enough to take the risks, and tolerate the freedom that democracy requires is a political problem with a political solution. Unless and until that happens, there is no way to take the conservative message of Christian faith out of American politics.
One clever device that Confucius employed was to make the Emperor the font of all virtue, the crowning example for all to follow. To some limited degree, he at least induced some guilt on their part for malfeasance. But Confucius concluded by identifying a love of learning, with responsibility to oneself, to our father and family and to the heavenly Empire as his equivalence of moral behaviour. And responsibility is really all the morality needed – imagine if that was our species’ guiding principle today; much less Christians busy with their latest crusade.
The most recent example of Trumpian moral hypocrisy is his impulsive decision to enter into the Syrian civil war on behalf of gassed children while at the same time denying refuge to countless others and their families. Where will this lead? I am reminded of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident.
I think it’s one of those guns and butter deals. Unfortunately, these days guns always win. We glorify war. It gives us a sense of security, even if it’s a false one. It perpetuates the “them or us” mentality. Morality be damned, full speed ahead!