Right and wrong -- does thinking make it so?

by Ken Briggs

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The Moral Majority fantasy arose decades ago and has all but vanished by now. Not that I wanted it to succeed on its terms, but it reminds me that the very idea that we share any kind of moral consensus now seems zany.

At a nervous breakdown moment in our national life, we not only lack an ethical context for settling grave matters. We occupy virtually no common ground from which to speak something of the same language about such issues. Gun control, reproductive rights, racial conflict, sexual assault, police brutality, the plight of immigrants, the rights of gays and women all become unapproachable because we have veered off in such contrasting moral directions.

The Bible once constituted a broad-based moral compass for deciding right and wrong. That didn't mean broad-based agreement about what the Bible said about these things, only that it existed as a pervasive backstop for the debate, a guide to which Americans tended to feel accountable. But as I claim in a new book "The Invisible Bestseller," the Bible has lost that status. It is read by few and adhered to by a dwindling number who still adhere to a religious tradition. We are more diverse, less bound by Western Christian or Jewish principles, more prone to strike out on our own.

Bonds of moral allegiance still do exist on smaller scales to defend positions on abortion, peace, capital punishment, racial injustice and economic violence, but they are less likely to form larger coalitions. The motif that has had the biggest impact is self-interest, a function of individualism. Whatever affects us personally can jolt us from complacency to fight for or against our own welfare. That has had little carry-over to the crisis besetting others, especially the needs and conditions of poor people and minorities. While there is activism, it is limited, often splintered and waged to protect certain sectors and focuses less on the whole.

What has displaced the Bible has been the driving force of the American "success" ethic. The mythical American Dream has captured the energies and the spirit of the nation despite the sobering evidence that class and racial mobility are mostly illusory and that all the striving has produced a society of vast and damaging income inequality. Religion's popularity hasn't held up perhaps because in its truest sense it espouses the common good and inner transformation from the ways of the world, but the American Way of Life remains wildly cherished, grounded, as it is, in that very promise of attaining ultimate worldliness.

As I suggest in the book, losing the Bible as guidebook isn't in itself an argument for restoring it to where it was. Rather, the problem is that a spiritually oriented moral outlook hasn't been replaced by anything like it, except in piecemeal fashion in scattered ashrams, mosques (who really understands Muslim ethics?), new spirituality movements and the like. Good as they may be, they don't begin to match the power and hegemony of the American Way of asserting oneself victoriously in the competition for status and wealth.

Trump arrives as the embodiment and champion of that triumph, therefore the greatest test of religious ethics, broadly speaking, in living memory. The public has been overwhelmed by Trump's assaults on human dignity, conflicts of interest, disdain for blacks, women and poor people, and weapons politics, to suggest only some challenges to Christian-Jewish ethics. The sheer volume of attacks on what many Americans took for granted as accepted behavior have undoubtedly left them momentarily shocked and numbed. But as one shock follows another, it becomes more difficult to know where to begin or if to begin. In this new climate where ethics become infinitely malleable, protest and opposition can become inconceivable. The abnormal becomes normal in the cauldron of need to justify one's own welfare. Refusing to reveal income tax returns becomes not so important anyway, though it contains seeds of corruption, because there is no moral need to demand something of someone who may slice your taxes.

Anomie, that state of being at sea in terms of right and wrong, is a chaotic place for societies to be. It isn't that the secular mind doesn't generate values that equal or achieve more than those from religious sources like the Bible. So long as either religious or humanitarian advocates pledge primary loyalty to the marching order of self-gain and narrow prosperity, however, we are increasingly and dangerously adrift.


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