Speaking of Moral Values

Ralph Waldo Emerson said that the real value of a dime is knowing what to do with it. In that, Emerson had distilled volumes of dense philosophical theory on the topic of value. He was affirming, with the classical philosophers, that such objects as dimes have no intrinsic value. They are merely symbols. In fact, like “money” itself, they are nothing but ideas.

It also has to be said that Emerson was mistaken. In spite of Kant’s conviction that we can know the moral law within, one really cannot know what is best to do with a dime. One only makes choices about what is best to do with it. Those choices are not grounded in facts. They are actions which one personally holds to be more worthy, more important, more useful, than other actions.

Emerson might well have believed it to be more worthy to give his dime to a needy person than to purchase breakfast at the Concord Inn. But that decision lies neither in the dime nor in the starry heavens above. Furthermore, if Emerson’s behavior with his dime leads him to feed a needy person, that is his decision – it need not be mine.

Mr. Emerson’s behavior in relation to his dime might indicate that he values one behavior over another. How he might come to hold one way of behavior with his dime over another way of behaving would have something to do with his upbringing, the particular sub-culture in which he lived, and, of course, his religion. Emerson’s Christian religion – even his Unitarian Christian religion – would have taught him to feed the poor and hungry, as Jesus taught his disciples to do.

As we see in the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, behaviors in relation to coin symbols vary. Scrooge endured no inward struggle about what to do with his money. It was his. He intended to keep as much of it as he could. And he was uninfluenced in his valuing by any such thing as religious teaching or example. In terms of pure economics, and in terms of pure value theory, there is no basis for judging Ebenezer Scrooge. Aside from conflicting beliefs, largely unsupported by facts, he was well justified in what he did with his money. What judgments are to be made on his behavior must be made of softer stuff than coin – namely morality.

So, here we are, speaking of moral values. Values – social values – are essentially behaviors, some behaviors weighted over other behaviors, often for moral reasons. And what is moral?

Moral. Good. Decent. Right. All these synonyms are related essentially to what we do, how we do it, and to whom and why. And, like values, our morals – our ways of doing – are related to our upbringing, our culture and subcultures and, again, our religion. Perhaps, as Kant declared, there is a moral law within as truly as there are stars in the heavens. But within whom is the moral law? Within everyone? Is there a single moral law imbedded in every human being? One size fits all? And if there is such a moral law imbedded, how did it get there? Evolution? Intelligent design? If indeed there is a single, unified moral law within all humankind, then the right wing of Christianity is quite correct in asserting that all we, like sheep, have gone astray and a course correction is necessary.

Moral values. What to do. How to do it. With whom to do it. The value, the worth, of doing this rather than that. Moral values are, at bottom, behaviors; behaviors weighted as worthy, worthier, less worthy, or unworthy. And moral values are not intrinsic, not embedded in nature or in our selves, neither innate nor inescapable. The moral law within the cannibal leads him to devour devoutly the heart of his victim. Indeed, it might be considered immoral for him not to do so. No amount of distaste or missionary moral furor changes the fact that moral values are culturally, personally, religiously determined. The Good Samaritan was able to pick up the beaten man beside the road and carry him to safety and healing precisely because he was a Samaritan. The others passing by were forbidden by their religious-based morality to touch what no doubt appeared to be a dead body. The passers-by were not, in fact, to be blamed for passing quickly by.

Value theory and studies in morality would advise good Christians to keep their judgments to themselves and focus on love and compassion. But, of course, love, compassion, and value theory have little – have nothing – to do with the culture wars that are upon us. The power struggles, economic struggles and struggles for what some call justice which we will endure in the next decade will be firmly grounded in Christian fundamentalist belief and the conviction that those beliefs are eternal Truths.

When I force myself to read letters to the editors of various newspapers I am struck by the self-satisfaction with which writers point out to us that their positions are firmly rooted in Scripture – God’s Word – as if that obviously settled the matter. It is inconceivable – and I mean literally inconceivable, beyond capability – for these folks to consider the possibility that there could be anyone for whom what is said in the Bible is irrelevant.

You’ve read, I’m sure, that exit polls in the recent election indicated that 22 percent of those voting said that “moral values” were the basis for their vote. Granted, the poll was deeply flawed. We don’t know what the respondents meant by “moral values.” The assumption is that those twenty-two percent were moved by opposition to gay marriage and abortion. But we don’t know that. The matter is confused by the fact that over 60 percent indicated that they were in favor of partnership rights for same sex couples.

Whatever lies behind the polls, it is clear enough that millions of people were led to vote as they did by their place on the spectrum of moral values. Despite the fact that the liberalization of morality in America has not declined in any measurable way in fifty years, there are those – like Jerry Falwell and his ilk – who are convinced that America is going to hell. They are committed to stopping the slide. And they are convinced that their time has come.

My concern – and what I believe needs to be the concern of every liberal, progressively minded person in America – is that more social and political conservatives and more religiously fundamentalist Christians are committed to the issues of moral values than are liberals. I am also concerned when I hear reasonable people say that if we want to win the next election we are going to have to slow down our marches, tone down our rhetoric, and seek reconciliation and a middle way. Who, I wonder, is going to suffer, who is going to be left behind as formerly loud and pushy justice-seeking people pull back and make nice with the political and religious right?

I’ve read that liberals will probably not resist the appointment of Antonin Scalia as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court if they are given a few middle-of-the-roaders in lower courts. Chief Justice Antonin Scalia. How frightening is that?

Any who think moral values are not issues to reckon with in our time are in for a rude awakening. Moral values – as interpreted by the religious right – are going to be what politics are all about for a long time to come. James Dobson, the child psychologist and founder of the evangelical organization “Focus on the Family,” continues his rise as one of the most frightening of Christian right demagogues. In a letter being sent to over a million of his supporters, he promises, “a battle of enormous proportions from sea to shining sea” if President Bush does not appoint strict constructionist jurors or if Democrats filibuster to block his appointments. “The next battle,” Dobson says, “Will be over the replacement for [Chief Justice] Rehnquist.”

It is said that politics is the art of the possible. Perhaps so. But justice is the art of the necessary. In my sermon a few months ago about the Serenity Prayer, I pointed out that theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, the author of the prayer, did not write “Give us the courage to change what can be changed”. He wrote, “Give us the courage to change what must be changed.” American liberals are as guided by moral values as certainly as any fundamentalist Christian. We simply are not as certain about our sources, perhaps, and our feet are not as solidly planted in biblical soil. Leonard Steinhorn, who teaches politics and media at American University, has this to say:

For baby boomers and younger people, there’s nothing equivocal about their views of right and wrong. These Americans condemn bigotry, intolerance and discrimination. They reject constraints on personal freedom and don’t like it when women are not treated as equals. They find pollution objectionable and see nothing moral in imposing religious beliefs on others. They believe a moral upbringing is teaching kids to think for themselves, not to follow another’s rules. What they embrace are pluralism, privacy, freedom of choice, diversity and respect for people with different traditions. Perhaps the only thing missing from this new morality is a politician capable of articulating it. 1

Oh, no. Does this mean we put up the wrong horse in the last race? In retrospect – obviously, yes. Liberals missed entirely what the last election was going to be all about, what the political and social face of America was going to be all about. John Kerry was not entirely to blame. He thought it was about politics. Why wouldn’t he? He did not have the wherewithal to articulate the moral values of the American progressive mind. Why would he? He underestimated the opposition. We were up against Jesus, my friends!

We were up against the forces for self-proclaimed goodness and morality. Forces which have created a strategy, garnered unparalleled strength, political influence, and reinforcements from the American center – and we had little or nothing with which to counter it, not the organization, not the language to articulate, and not the point person to take back moral values from the monopoly of the Christian right.

“Baby Boomers” have become the new “Silent Majority” – a silent majority who, as Steinhorn says, “is fairly content with the new morality and unwilling to believe that America will turn back the clock on their rights and freedoms.” Anyone who believes that is not just content but is in a state of denial.

For everyone who believes that the right to choose is a moral value, there are those who believe that the right to life of a fertilized egg is a value – and not just a value, but a God-given, absolute, value that is worth just about any means to protect. For everyone who believes that the freedom to live out their lives as their sexual orientation dictates, in a loving partnership, with rights taken for granted by others, there are those who believe the only true value is the union of male and female – again, a value God-given and absolute.

Diversity is a value. But we do not live in a society in which diversity is valued by all. For millions, “diversity” is just another word for sin, profligacy, and lives given over to the Great Satan. The Kingdom of God in America, as envisioned by the religious right, is not a kingdom of diversity but a kingdom ruled by enslaving the mind to beliefs belonging in the Middle Ages, a kingdom ruled by bigotry, division, and fear.

We liberals and progressives do not have moral absolutes. We do not have the certainty that all we proclaim to be moral and of value is Truth now and for all time. But we are not without guides. We are not without lamps unto our feet. We are not without principles to shout from rooftops and to call out from podiums and to proclaim from festooned halls. Our values are not religious verities carved in tablets. They are affirmations grounded in the ages. They are affirmations grounded in the greatest of all values – compassion.

Compassion. “Love others as you love yourself.” “Do not do to others what you would not have done to yourself.” Let compassion be the test of anyone’s proclamation of moral value.

Ironically, it was an ultra conservative who, during his election campaign, quoted Edmund Burke: Barry Goldwater said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.” Eternal vigilance will be the price of freedom in the decades to come. If we must sleep, we must sleep with one eye open. And we must end the silence. Vigilance is not enough if it is only to watch and take note as freedoms slip away. “Oops, there goes another rubber tree plant.”

Let us keep watch over the air, over the earth and water. They will be sacrificed if we miss a trick. Let us keep watch over the barons of industry. Compassion is not their guiding value. Keep watch over self-anointed bishops, self-proclaimed apostles of truth, all diviners, prophets, White House Evangelists, white-suited, scripture-spouting reverends. Keep an eye on everyone who claims to know the mind of God. Keep watch over all Senates, and Congressional Halls, all carpetbaggers, solons, mayors, boards and commissions.

In these lights, I begin this new year with some lines of the nineteenth century Unitarian minister, William Ellery Channing.

I call that mind free which jealously guards its intellectual rights and powers, which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith. Which opens itself to light whencesoever it may come; which receives new truth as an angel from heaven.

I call that mind free which protects itself against the usurpations of society; and which does not cower to human opinions.

I call that mind free which sets no bounds to its love, which, wherever they are seen, delights in virtue and sympathizes with suffering. Which recognizes in all human beings the image of God and the rights of God’s children, and offers itself up a willing sacrifice to the cause of humankind.

I call that mind free which has cast out all fear but that of wrongdoing, and which no menace or period can enthrall: which is calm in the midst of tumults and possesses itself though all else be lost.

1 “Scrooge’s Nightmare,” by Leonard Steinhorn. Salon. Steinhorn is actually optimistic. He believes Karl Rove’s tactic of “letting the evangelical lion out” is going to backfire by the time of the next election.