The aim of this commentary is to identify and assess three central myths promulgated by America’s Christian right. For the purposes of this piece, the ‘Christian right’ is defined as a group of socially conservative, politically active organizations within Fundamentalist Christianity who share the objective of implementing conservative changes to American culture and law. Its members have been especially successful building coalitions opposing abortion and same-sex marriage.
The movement generally rejects any modern method of Biblical interpretation and many of its adherents place far less emphasis on the Gospels than on Pauline doctrine. Its adherents are generally anti-intellectual, hostile to science, pluralism, tolerance, and the separation of church and state. Amongst its central aims are downsizing the government, and “restoring” America as a Christian nation by imposing religion through the mechanisms of the state.
Much of the movement’s ideological strength has come from their expertise in circulating and reaffirming three powerful myths central to its image. These are:
(1) that the Christian right have a monopoly on moral realism,
(2) that they have a monopoly on respect for the ‘sanctity of life,’ and
(3) that they have a monopoly on Christianity
The Christian right’s pundits present this set of abstract concepts – moral “values,” sanctity of life, and Christianity – as their core values. Over and over again they have successfully framed complex issues as oppositions between these core values and their opponent’s position. This has worked partly because, instead of engaging in an analysis of these concepts, they equate them with a set of public policies that are assumed to meet the conditions that define them. Thus it would appear that if you do not support their policies, you cannot support moral values, the sanctity of life, or Christianity. A closer examination of the fallacious reasoning underpinning each of the Christian right’s core myths will follow.
Analysis of an abstract concept involves defining its necessary and sufficient conditions. Confusing necessary and sufficient conditions is a form of fallacious reasoning that has worked well for the Christian right. For example, one could argue that winning the lottery will make you rich, so if you don’t play the lottery, you’ll never be rich. However, while winning the lottery is sufficient to becoming rich, it is not necessary, as there are many ways to become wealthy and winning the lottery is only one. Likewise, there are many ways to promote moral values, protect the sanctity of life and practice the Christian faith. While the Christian right’s social policies may be sufficient to achieve these valued ends (although even this is questionable), none of their policies are necessary to achieving them.
Myth 1. The Christian right is the only purveyor of moral realism.
The Christian right’s spokespeople have repeatedly implied that secular humanism, liberalism and religious tolerance are equivalent to moral relativism, or, as they put it, an ‘anything goes’ society, lacking a ‘moral compass’ . These misrepresentations have become veritable mantras of rightwing talk radio hosts and evangelists. Having established a false portrait of liberalism, the theocratic right pose in front of this backdrop as the sole guardians of moral realism.
Moral realists maintain that moral statements like ‘female circumcision is wrong’ are expressions of beliefs, which can be true or false. So, whether or not it is wrong to circumcise females does not depend upon one’s cultural positioning or worldview. It depends upon the way the world is, on what properties an action, person, or situation really has. The realist holds that value judgments are related to facts, and, if true, mirror as closely as possible the way the world actually is. There are many facts that are made true by the way the world, including the human world, is. Realists maintain that giving reasons in support of moral claims is appropriate. “The practice of female circumcision causes unjustified female suffering” is a factual claim about the way the world is, including the human world. It is either true or false. According to moral realists, the truth about moral beliefs is culture-transcendent. What this means is that a moral statement is either true or false — whether or not we have evidence of it’s truth or falsity. Truth, for the realist, may go beyond our current or future methods of testing the truth of statements and so we could always be completely mistaken. One problem for realists is that even where two parties agree on the facts, they may not agree on the relevance of particular facts to a moral question or issue. It can be very difficult to establish whether a matter of fact constitutes a reason for believing something is right or wrong.
Abraham Lincoln’s statement in 1859 confirms his realist commitments:
All honor to Jefferson – to the man who, in the concrete pressure of struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there that today and in all coming days it shall be a rebuke . . . to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny.
The ‘abstract truth’ to which Lincoln here refers is most probably the concept of natural rights embodied in The Declaration of Independence and the preamble to the Constitution. Realists maintain that what the state does not give, it cannot take away. If human rights are natural rights, as opposed to human conventions, then their being rights by natural endowment makes them inalienable in the sense indicated in our founding documents. Their existence as natural endowments gives them moral authority even in the absence of legal sanctions. Their moral authority imposes on their bearers moral responsibilities, even when these responsibilities are ignored. When such human rights are denied or violated by the state, or simply not enforced, they nonetheless retain their moral authority. If their moral authority did not exist, then we would have no basis for condemning as unjust governments that fail to enforce them.
By contrast, moral relativists maintain that moral right and wrong are always relative to a particular culture or belief system. The truth of moral statements is not absolute, but relative. For the relativist there is no absolute answer to moral questions, such as whether it is wrong to circumcise females. In some cultures female circumcision or sati are accepted norms. In others these practices are seen as morally wrong. For the relativist, there is no single truth that could be used to measure the moral claims of one society, or one time, against those of another. ‘Truth’, for the relativist, just is the way a particular society envisions the world and this entails its methods for testing the truth of moral statements. Because the relativist makes fewer demands on the meaning of truth, he could never be guilty of a complete mistake.
Moral relativism is weak on a number of fronts. It is true that some liberals embrace moral relativism because they view moral realism as ethnocentric and intolerant. On the surface, relativism might appear more tolerant of both individual and cultural differences. But this is simply not the case. In fact, relativism neither promotes nor guarantees tolerance, and may be deployed to justify oppression, discrimination, abuse and inhumane practices within any given culture. The relativist’s preferred policy of tolerance between cultures provides a veneer of acceptability for intolerance within cultures, by endorsing a policy of whereby non-intervention (omission) is less culpable than acts vis-à-vis preventable atrocities. If, for example, the majority of members of a particular society happen to believe that anti-Semitism is right, then this belief would justify whatever barbaric practices might follow within that society, and there is no standpoint from which their beliefs and practices could be morally condemned by another culture. In fact, a relativist might well argue that it would be ethnocentric or intolerant for an outsider to judge that society or to act against it’s ‘abuses’, since there is no universal or ultimate truth in moral matters …. “anything goes”. The right’s spokespeople understandably pour scorn on “political correctness” because they see it as a weak and hypocritical attempt to play the diplomat, rather than to stand up for a consistent set of values.
Nowadays we are so timid about offending anyone, even people who rationalize treating women as subhuman chattel, that we dare not raise the least objection for fear of being accused of “cultural imperialism”. Never mind that we have already criticized the same abuses within our own culture when they have been justified by our own religious traditions. No one in our own culture dares to label us ‘sexist’ or ‘inhumane’ for this frightening neglect of issues that affect whole groups of human beings, such as women. What this omission suggests, of course, is that we are not fully convinced that sexism is morally wrong, even though we presume that it is within our own cultural context.
Political Correctness is shorthand for socially acceptable speech or behavior – the values status quo. Ideas about what kind of speech or behavior IS socially acceptable vary dramatically from culture to culture and from time to time. In 1950’s America racial segregation and discrimination were P.C.. In Nazi Germany anti-Semitism was P.C. In India at certain times Sati (the requirement that a widow throw herself on her dead husband’s funeral pyre) was P.C.. I think these examples are sufficient to show that what is politically correct at any given time in history is not necessarily a guide to moral infallibility. ??
Do we want to live in a society where behavior X is right because we say so, or where we say so because it really is right? Of course, we want the latter. This implies that what makes it right has to be some standard independent of mere cultural popularity. It may be frustrating to lack absolute certainty about what this standard is, but as human beings we all possess rationality. Hence we can, by means of open, interdisciplinary debate and discussion, reach some tentative agreement about what is right, or at least what is not right behavior in a human context. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights represents an inclusive, cross-cultural attempt to lay down some minimum moral standards. The preamble to the Declaration states that the document is: “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations” that Member States and the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction shall strive to promote.
Relativism makes nonsense of moral progress. Progress can only be measured against some fixed standard, or ideal. Without a fixed moral compass, we cannot know whether there is an increase in moral virtue or moral vice over time. Our notion that the United States has made moral progress by abolishing slavery would be unfounded were there no moral touchstone against which to measure various forms of human behaviour.
Moral relativism is also logically self-defeating. By its own standards it can only be relatively true or relatively valuable, and thus cannot form the basis for moral law.
A final weakness in moral relativism is that it lacks consistency. If the majority of Americans believe on Monday that slavery is wrong, and then take another vote on Tuesday, shifting the majority to the side of favoring slavery, then the answer to the question of whether slavery is right or wrong could change as often as people’s opinions do.
Given its many weaknesses, it is little wonder that the Christian right have painted liberals with the brush of relativism. Associating liberalism and the weak doctrine of relativism creates the illusion that liberalism is weak. The Christian right has also successfully exploited liberals’ confusion over the apparent identification of realism and ethnocentrism. This confusion allows the right to divide and rule, especially where arguments about ethnocentrism estrange liberals who are otherwise in agreement about the core values of liberalism: liberty, the importance of the individual, reason, tolerance, and equality of opportunity and pluralism.
Many liberals are moral realists, although (due to the confusion mentioned above) it is impossible to generalize here. The right’s admirable preference for moral realism is, however, no guarantee of the truth of their moral statements. In fact their brand of religious moral realism stands on far less solid ground than does the liberal realist’s.
The Christian right’s advocates seem to want a realist meta-ethics to do all the work of an ethical theory. They mistake methodology with content. To say that there exist absolute moral truths is quite different from saying that one’s own beliefs are absolutely true. The fact that the theocratic right’s leaders subscribe to moral realism is a separate issue to their psychological certainty regarding their own moral statements. Whether such statements do in fact correspond to actual features of the world is another matter, which does not depend on the degree to which they feel convinced. To say that there are absolute moral truths is not the same as saying that I possess infallible knowledge of which moral statements are true and which are false. Knowledge in moral matters is necessarily tentative, but when we do assume the truth of our beliefs, it is because they are supported by evidence, no matter how much Alvin Plantinga may wish to ‘reform’ epistemology to make it conform to his pychological states.
John Stewart Mill, the father of liberalism, favored tolerance of unconventional things and freedom of expression over censorship because those who suppress opinion are not infallible yet they are deciding for others. To deny others the opportunity of judging amounts to an assumption of infallibility. Government suppression cannot be justified even in the case of apparently dangerous or unpopular opinion. Liberty of discussion and debate is the very thing that allows us to assume truth for practical purposes of action. Even mistaken views can contain elements of truth, so they too should be discussed openly. A society’s accepted wisdom needs to be subjected to questioning in order to maintain its legitimacy.
Both secular humanism and theocratic Christianity are grounded in moral realism. Secular humanists believe that morality is culture-transcendent because human nature is culture-transcendent, and that it is because of our common humanity that we can talk meaningfully about equality, a moral law, human rights, and moral conscience. Secular humanists argue that the moral law is grounded in human nature and human reason, whereas theocrats assert that it is grounded in religious belief and scripture.
Liberal moral realists are committed to searching for the truth of moral statements in light of the best available evidence, and with the help of an open and inclusive examination of the arguments. Unfortunately for theologians, there is no consensus amongst rational human beings that the Christian Bible constitutes evidence at all, much less the best evidence. Many religious claims are impossible to test.
Liberal realists know that truth may always go beyond our current or future methods of testing the truth of statements. We could always be completely mistaken. Given this possibility, liberal realists encourage open, interdisciplinary and international cooperation and debate on moral issues. This means that our conclusions, while they form a tentative basis for law, are always open to revision in light of further evidence, or new discoveries. Even with new discoveries, we cannot be absolutely certain that our worldview will capture exactly the facts as they stand independently of our beliefs. Therefore we must be both strong and modest. Our strength lies precisely in our ability to grow and to learn from our mistakes. Our convictions rest on the best evidence at a given time, and so are probable at best, but this is no reason to disparage them. The important thing is that they admit of testing by the best means we have available.
Liberals acknowledge that Americans have freely given our Constitution its authority over us, because of our commitment to human rights, which we believe have independent moral authority. By contrast, the theocrat denies that he gives the Bible its authority over his life, and instead says that God gives him his authority over the rest of humanity. Never mind that this claim cannot be tested by any accepted methods. Nor does the theocrat take responsibility for the ‘interpretative role’ he plays in selecting which parts of the Bible to enforce.
If a moral command is right just because God commands it, then anything God commands, regardless how inhumane, ought to be done. Yet no sane Christian would accept that a divine command to, say, kill our children is right. The Christian would use his moral sense to claim that the command must be false, that there is a mistake in interpretation, or that the part of scripture that commands such things must be inauthentic. Surely X is not right just because God says so, rather God says only things that are right anyway. This makes God’s divine commands dispensable, or at least redundant. There must be an independent standard against which God’s commands are measured for their authenticity, or worthiness. That standard is some concept of the good for man (humankind). This is what we understand by human rights.
While liberals take personal responsibility for their values and beliefs, and attempt to reach a consensus based on reason and the best available evidence, theocrats deny all responsibility for their values, saying that these are ‘God’s’ values, and that they are simply paying tribute to the divine intelligence. This just betrays their arrogant delusions about their own beliefs. They must know at least as much as God, or more, in order to ‘compliment’ Him on his wisdom in this manner.
The ‘straw man’ tactic of defining liberalism as moral relativism ignores the liberal opponent’s real position on the issues and sets up a weaker version of that position by misrepresentation, exaggeration, distortion or simplification. This makes it easier to defeat, thereby making it easier to create the impression that the liberal’s actual argument has been refuted.
Moreover, the Christian right’s myth depends rests upon a fallacy in reasoning. Here’s an invalid form of syllogistic reasoning (denying the antecedent):
1. All X’s are Y’s:
2. S is not an X:
3. therefore S is not a Y.
Here is a more concrete example of the same fallacy:
1. All Democrats drink water.
2. Ann Coulter is not a Democrat.
3. Therefore, Ann Coulter does not drink water.
All of the premises are true, so the argument is sound. But the conclusion does not follow from the premises. The myth that all moral realists, and only moral realists, are Christian right-wingers deploys the same form of invalid reasoning. So, the argument looks like this:
1. All Christian right-wingers are moral realists.
2. Liberal democrats and moderates are not Christian right-wingers,
3. Therefore, they are not moral realists.
The reasoning slides from the possibly true premise ‘all Christian right-wingers are moral realists’ to the false conclusion that ‘only Christian right-wingers are moral realists’. Being a moral realist may be necessary to being a Christian right-winger, but being a Christian right-winger is certainly not necessary to being a moral realist.
Myth 2. The Christian right defends the sanctity of life.
In the abortion issue the theocratic right’s strategists found another opportunity to divide and rule. One of the problems for the movement’s early leaders was that traditional Catholics, who make up 24% of the American population, overwhelmingly voted for Democratic candidates. By championing a single issue, on which Catholics have famously held strong views, the theocratic right drove a wedge between pro-choice Democrats and traditional anti-abortion Catholics. On the strength of that single-issue, they persuaded a fair proportion of Catholics to vote for Republicans. By defining their paternalistic sexist position as “pro-life” they were able to create the impression that they, and they alone, value life. If you do not support their policies, you cannot support life.
But Catholics have tended to be more consistent, and so appear more sincere on pro-life issues than other segments of the Christian right, whose strategic use of divisive issues to win elections is betrayed by their overall ambivalence to killing innocent life. In order to minimize the impression of hypocrisy on sanctity of life issues, Bush has been careful not to alienate Catholics. By placing limits (not a full ban) on stem cell research, which Roman Catholics oppose because it involves the destruction of human embryos, he can walk a line between traditional Catholics and the progressive medical and scientific establishment (and avoid alienating fiscal conservatives and libertarians, including wealthy Republican investors in pharmaceuticals and biotech).
When Republican Congressmen intruded in the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling in the Terri Schiavo case, Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee proclaimed that the motive in keeping Schiavo alive was to maintain ”the sanctity of human life.” However, ABC News and The Washington Post then reported that a memo distributed to senators by Republican leaders over the weekend called the Schiavo case a ”great political issue,” adding that ”the pro-life base will be excited” by the debate. The memo also highlighted the vulnerability of Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who refused to support the effort to save Terri. By turning her family’s dilemma into a sensationalized showdown between right-to-life protesters and the right-to-die faction, theocratic demagogues saw an opportunity to frame sound bites for political ends.
While Catholicism has tended to be more consistent overall in advocating the protection of innocent life, the Roman Catholic Church’s guidelines on how to conduct a “just war” suggest that the principle of ‘sanctity of life’ is indeed open to compromise, albeit within strict limits. Francis Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice has pointed out that these guidelines are for men, and assume that men can exercise their reason in matters of life and death, within a moral framework. We might ask why there are no equivalent guidelines for women when the issue is abortion.
Despite their “sanctity of life” mantra, the Christian right’s actions prove that their commitment to this value is negligible. Looking across the spectrum of issues in which the protection of life, even innocent life, is the core concern, we find the theocratic right’s support for innocent life conspicuously absent on all but one issue – controlling women’s reproductive choices. This implies that the “sanctity of life” rhetoric is a disingenuous cover for their real concern: maintaining patriarchal control over women’s fertility. Given their views on the subservient role of women, this is hardly surprising.
The Southern Baptist Convention and the Christian Coalition support the death penalty, because they see their moral obligation as limited to the protection of innocent life. Even if critics are charitable enough to overlook the implicit guilt of the infant inherent in the Christian doctrine of original sin, there are other flaws in this reasoning. The indisputable evidence showing that the United States has, and continues to, send innocent people to death appears not to have entered the radar screen of either group. Since the death penalty was reinstated in the 70’s, the United States has exonerated 82 innocent men and women, releasing them from death row. This represents one innocent death row inmate for every seven executed, an alarming statistic for anyone concerned about protecting innocent life.
Former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R- Tex) has spoken passionately about his goal to make us all into one “God-centered” nation. As House majority leader he made sure that Clinton’s 1994 ban on assault weapons would not come up for a vote, ensuring that these lethal weapons can be legally bought and sold in the United States today. Such weapons have but one purpose … and it is not hunting.
Equally absent from the “pro-life” agenda is any form of protest against the American war of aggression against Iraq. This is especially surprising since it is now widely accepted that the Bush administration lied to Congress, there were no WMD’s and Sadam Hussein had no connection with Al Quaeda or Ossama Bin Laden. Yet in the name of these myths, some 250,000 Iraqi civilians have so far been killed. These are not embryos, these are innocent children, women and civilians.
Another plank in the theocratic right’s “pro-life” platform is a rapacious attitude towards the environment that has ensured the extinction of countless species. Belief in a strong and vibrant private sector unencumbered by excessive government regulation is a core value of the movement. Because of their unholy alliances with big corporations, disregard for the environment is virtually mandatory. The Texas Republican Party Platform, a document that reflects the goals of the theocratic right, opposes efforts to regulate industry and calls for abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency. James Dobson of Focus on the Family believes global warming is “junk science,” despite the fact that virtually every reputable scientist in the world supports the idea. Instead, Dobson relies on the more compelling Biblical ‘evidence’ in the Old Testament book of Genesis, the same book that says the world was created in seven days. Focus on the Family executives signed an open letter to the American people which included a section explaining that God put human beings on the earth to “subdue it” and to “have dominion over” the animals.
So again, by means of fallacious reasoning, the right’s demagogues have persuaded many that opposing abortion is sufficient to “respecting the sanctity of life”. One would have thought that anyone sincerely worried about abortion would start by looking at it’s cause – unwanted pregnancies. One of the most obvious causes for unwanted pregnancies is the failure of men and women to use the nearly perfectly reliable methods of contraception available. Yet the use of harmless and (at times) life-saving methods of contraption is reviled by the same Christians that pour scorn on women for using abortion as “birth control”.
It is arguable that opposition to abortion is a necessary condition for “respecting the sanctity of life” but I hope the above examples show that it is far from sufficient.
Myth 3. The Christian Right have a monopoly on Christianity.
Leaders of the Christian Right allege that a “relationship with Christ” lies at the core of their belief system.
It is rather misleading to refer to America’s politicized theocratic movement as ‘Christian’ (their preferred term), because the word has so many different referents, many of which bear no resemblance to this movement. To allow this network of politically active social conservatives to monopolize the term ‘Christian’ is grossly misleading. I prefer ‘theocrats’ because it more accurately describes the values this movement represents. It seems the proper question is not whether it is ‘Christian’ to be homophobic, feminist, or pro-life, but whether the word ‘Christianity’ refers to any single thing. Mainline moderate Christians concede too much to their theocratic rivals by taking for granted the unity and coherence of the New Testament (i.e. the Christian bible).
There has simply never been a coherent Christian moral philosophy capable of reconciling the inherent tension between the Synoptic gospels and Paul’s letters. The latter are commentaries on the significance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for human salvation. Paul demonstrates astonishingly little knowledge of, or interest in, the traditions about Jesus. This, according to Dr. John Ziesler, is “one of the strangest and most puzzling areas of early Christianity.” The West has no single, coherent basis for ‘Christian’ ethics because the New Testament contains two conflicting ethical systems. One can be traced to the traditions of the followers of the historical and fully human Jesus of Nazareth (i.e. the ‘Q’ source), and the other takes its authority from the metaphysical interpretation of Jesus’ death found in Paul’s epistles.
Jesus was a polemical figure precisely because he came on the scene at a time when Judaism was facing the threat of radical transformation from within. He was a catalyst who exacerbated tensions endemic in first century Jewish culture. Ironically, the tensions in ancient Jewish culture were not unlike those that presently divide America over how properly to interpret Christian ethics. At the time of Jesus’ ministry, there was widespread controversy between those who exercised rabbinical ‘priestcraft’ in a literalistic, legalistic manner and those who understood Biblical literature as metaphorical and hoped to derive a philanthropic ethic from it. The former group was probably fairly reactionary — they appear to have used a good deal of Midrashic license in order to adapt the old texts to newer, unprecedented situations as their culture came into contact with the surrounding Greco-Roman environment.