(This post is my attempt to write the essay I assign to my students every year: what makes right, right?)
Many people in the last election cited moral values as their reason for voting for one party or the other. Candidates not receiving votes from those concerned about morality objected to being portrayed morally indifferent. The whole debate may be the result of the political parties having different sources or foundations for their central moral values. Beneath all the political arguments is a deeper argument about what is the best guide to moral values. I believe the Judeo-Christian tradition is our best guide to right and wrong, but many today look elsewhere.
Those who reject a religious source of morality usually see morality as result of cultural influences. But insistence that morality is culturally determined offers no help when trying to decide between conflicting moral views within a culture or when deciding which culture’s values are best. To judge a society or a culture as racist, sexist, or unjust, we must stand outside the culture being judged. Our only alternative is to say whatever moral values a culture affirms are the right ones. And this could only be determined by following majority rule and assuming that even a 49% minority is wrong. Most people, however, know enough history to recognize that even a significant majority can be wrong.
Others simply choose a principle like the golden rule or the admonition to “do no harm” as a guide to morality. Although the golden rule is embedded in Judeo-Christian tradition, it is also widely accepted in other religions and, therefore, has universal appeal. However, when cut loose from divine authority, the golden rule can seem more like a personal preference. Others could simply say that they prefer to live by the rule of the jungle and survival of the fittest. Another weakness of the golden rule is that it doesn’t help us with many of the moral issues we most frequently debate: suicide, prostitution, pornography, abortion, and drug use. “Doing unto others as we would have others do unto us” only works if we clearly define “others”. If we exclude the Jews, the blacks, and the unborn children from “others,” we can justify the holocaust, slavery, and abortion.
The Ten Commandments and Judeo-Christian tradition have the advantage of possessing the authority of divine commands. Reasons to obey them are rooted in the character of God and his wisdom as man’s Creator. However, in a democracy, society must make moral decisions with many people of other religions and no religion. Does this mean religion cannot be a useful source of moral guidance? Not at all. It simply means that arguments for accepting Judeo-Christian values must be based on evidence everyone can consider and evaluate.
Fortunately, history provides a lot of evidence that the Judeo-Christian tradition has created the societies with the greatest freedoms and the greatest degree of justice. The Biblical idea of every person being created in the image of God has, throughout history, made steady progress against all kinds of social evils: racism, Anti-Semitism, sexism, and caste systems. All of our modern experiments with religion-free systems (Soviet Russia, Maoist China, and communist Cuba) have been a disaster for human rights and personal freedom. But the idea expressed in Declaration of Independence that all men are endowed with certain inalienable rights by their Creator has not only resulted in unprecedented freedom and prosperity, but also given us a firm foundation for opposing all expressions of injustice within our society. As a leader of the civil rights movement, Reverend Martin Luther King was able cry out for equality because “we are all God’s children”. Even earlier, Wilberforce in England and abolitionists in America found in the Bible the truths needed to fight slavery. In other words, Judeo-Christian moral values have been tested and found to work. So even if one thinks the Bible is mere mythology, it is hard to deny that biblical moral values have brought us greater liberty and human dignity than any other source.
At this point some will point out the many times that supposedly Christian nations acted with great savagery and barbarity—the Crusades, The Inquisition, the pogroms against Jews, religious wars, or even the pedophilia of some priests. But all of these evils are the result, not of faithfulness to biblical values, but rather a hypocritical rejection of those values. The evil done by some Christian leaders has not been the result of them being too much like Christ. It has been instead the departure from Judeo-Christians morals and the Church’s imitation of the world that has led to so much that discredits religion.
All of these failures of religion point out that following a moral code is more important than merely believing in one. And anyone can use morality as a hypocritical cloak for greed, hatred, or injustice. But once again the Judeo-Christian tradition strongly warns us against hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and pride.
Because much of the last century has been a long journey away from Judeo-Christian values, we have plenty of opportunity to evaluate whether this departure has led to moral progress or moral decline. I believe history reveals that our culture, our families, and our moral behavior have flourished best when we have followed Judeo-Christian values the closest.