July 23, 2012

Reclaiming the “M Word.”

“Refusing to speak in moral terms does not necessarily remove one from the moral fray.” 

~ Janet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Freedom

“You know what really gets me, as a Christian,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), “is to see the ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs, and then some senseless crazy act of terror like this takes place.”

I know, I know–another rightwing nut-job blaming everything—in this case, starting with the horrific shootings in Aurora, Colorado­—on the fact that America is no longer a Christian nation (as if it ever was.) And there’s no doubt that Rep. Gohmert is a genuine wingnut; for instance, he recently accused Hilary Clinton aide (and Anthony Weiner’s wife) Huma Abedin of having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

As a Texas Republican, he is officially opposed to the teaching of critical thinking in the public schools because it could “challenge students’ fixed beliefs” and “undermine parental authority.”  So yes, he’s crazy and an idiot.

But hear me out.

I’m here to suggest that if we listen past the aggrieved Bible thumping of people like Gohmert, we may find that all that ideological body-armor is protecting some vital truths.

“Some of us happen to believe that when our founders talked about guarding our virtue and freedom, that that was important,” Gohmert continued. “Whether it’s John Adams saying our Constitution was made only for moral and religious people…Ben Franklin, only a virtuous people are capable of freedom, as nations become corrupt and vicious they have more need of masters…We have been at war with the very pillars, the very foundation of this country.”

I am interested in Gohmert’s use of the word “virtuous.”

While it’s easy for many of us to be put off by the conservative Christian pong the word has acquired in the last 40-plus years, it may be worthwhile to hold our noses and give it another look.

Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,conducted a study in the 1970s of 200 years of American

Stephen Covey (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

writings on success.  He found that since the 1920s, American writing on success has focused on specific strategies for particular problems­, recipes for success in the short run–what Covey calls the Personality Ethic.

For the first 150 years, however, the literature dealt primarily with the cultivation of personal virtues that lay the foundation for sustained successful living: courage, justice, patience, integrity. Covey calls this the Character Ethic. To the eighteenth-century minds of the Framers, “the pursuit of happiness” meant the building of character through the cultivation of virtues.

So while conservatives are wrong about this being a “Christian nation,” they are onto something when they remind us that America’s founders were more overtly concerned with moral virtue than most of us are today.

What has happened is that Gohmert and other conservatives have mapped the Character Ethic onto conservative Christian belief.  The problem, of course, is not that we aren’t all Christian conservatives, but that we’ve allowed Christian conservatives to hijack the language, and with it the very concepts, of character, morality and values–to the point where “it’s difficult in America to produce a language of values…that isn’t framed in religious and, particularly, in Christian terms.”

There are two ultimately untenable results. The first is that the rest of us have ceded the moral field to the conservatives. The liberal churches have been the incubators of most of the great movements of social change in America—from the abolition of slavery to civil rights, child labor laws to women’s suffrage—yet even those churches have become cautious about the language of morality and virtue. And the problem is even worse, if anything, among progressives outside the churches.

Although there is an important history of progressive social movements actively and explicitly struggling with the question of freedom and values, nonetheless many progressive intellectuals and activists have become suspicious of any use of moral language at all. These progressives are concerned about the ways in which moral language can be used as a club in public discourse to shut down opposing viewpoints and enforce social control.[i]

So a church like mine, that supports the full participation of LGBT people in the life of the church, that works for sane gun laws and local jobs and voter rights and fills a truck with donated food, continually risks being tarred with the same brush as the conservatives by those who fail to discriminate between us, while people of other religions and no apparent religion can no longer hear words like “values” without cringing in anticipation of another Gohmeric screed.

Which means that the very concept of morality has become pinched and impoverished, restricted almost entirely to those areas that are of concern to Christian conservatives­–meaning sexual behavior.

And while the younger generation of evangelicals is awakening to the existence of other moral issues than gay rights and abortion, and realizing that war, poverty, racism and environmental despoliation are moral issues, too, the moral well may have been already poisoned as far as those outside the fold are concerned—as though advocating a moral position would lead us to some Puritan nightmare out of The Scarlet Letter.

Why does religion seem like the natural and appropriate basis for public policies concerning sex, but not for other ethically charged questions? Poverty, the death penalty, the exploitation of earth’s resources, international trade policy—it is not as if these issues have no moral bearing. And yet religion is not the primary language for debating them.[ii]

The second result of non-conservatives’ opting out of moral debate is that we reinforce the marginalization of everything but conservative Christianity. Unless we strongly enact a “robust pluralism”[iii] that challenges the de facto establishment of a certain narrow spectrum of faith and practice, we enable that establishment–a top-down “toleration” of alternatives that pressures all but the dominant group to mute and attenuate its differences out of respect for our imagined Christian foundations–we enable that “toleration” to continue to masquerade as the true religious freedom enshrined in the Constitution.

So the time has come for those of us with different spiritual paths and moral values to stand up and own our ethical positions out loud.

I’ve written before about how I want to see the yoga world reclaim its ancient spiritual foundations and become a moral force for good in the world. But I’m more ambitious even than that­, and I’m not prepared to let anybody off the hook.

I want to see pagans step out of the shadows and claim their moral space.

I want to see yogis organize around the public expression of the yamas and niyamas in a more meaningful way than doing “protest yoga” (???) at Occupy sites. (Individual yogis already do a great deal, I know–what I’m talking about is doing it visibly as a spiritual community.)

I want to see Buddhists do less aspiring that all beings be at ease and more active, concrete ease-bringing (Ditto what I said about Yogis above).

And I want the churches that take the Gospel message of peace and love seriously to stop being so tentative about Jesus and the moral imperatives that come with following Him (especially us starchy Episcopalians.) I want us all to reclaim the M word from the Gohmerts of the world.

There is simply to much at stake to do otherwise.


Visit Scott at Open to the Divine!

[i] Jakobsen, Janet and Pellegrini, Ann.  Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance


[iii] Ibid.


Editor: Kate Bartolotta

Like elephant spirituality on Facebook.

Read 6 Comments and Reply

Read 6 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Scott Robinson  |  Contribution: 9,315