The Nation's Pulse

Misdirected Fire

Can public morality exist without religion?

By 2.18.14

UPI
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When Paul Chesser turned a spotlight on “Blueprint NC” in this space last month, he did his homework, which is more than can be said for some of the local columnists now arguing about whether Reverend William Barber II, the best-known supporter of Blueprint NC, is a political asset or a political liability. At the Raleigh-based News & Observer, one J. Peder Zane, an opinion writer in the “Barber is a liability” camp, declared that “Religion can be a vital force in our personal lives, but it has no place in politics.” Zane then went on to suggest that morality has “almost no place in our politics,” either.

Fish, meet barrel. The problem from Zane’s point of view is that morality is inflexible, which puts it at odds with anything that relies on “adaptation and change” to the extent that democratic politics must.

Dimly perceiving that morality depends on religion is one thing, but deciding that morality is more of a shackle than a compass is quite another. What would George Washington say? His famous Farewell Address is manifestly not famous enough to be remembered in certain newsrooms; it was in that speech that the great man noted that “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” Patrick Henry made the same case: “It is when a people forget God that tyrants forge their chains. A vitiated state of morals, a corrupted public conscience, is incompatible with freedom.” Other founding fathers wrote similar things, all of which escaped notice by Zane and his editors.

If the Sermon on the Mount were a speech to be boxed up and shelved next to ceramic chicken figurines, U.S. currency would not now be inscribed with the motto, “In God We Trust.” You do not have to be religious to be moral (as someone always points out), but even atheists live on the interest accrued by Judeo-Christian principal, and nowhere more so than in this country, which in spite of its increasing resemblance to a banana republic was designed to run by rule of law rather than by rule of men.

In letters to the editor, some of the people who read the Zane column reminded its author that fights against slavery and for civil rights were moral. Unfortunately they stopped there, without mentioning that his prescription had already been tried, and that even desultory attention to history is enough to show that when you take religion out of politics and morality most of the way out, what you have left is not tolerance for different points of view, but public life dominated by the “will to power.” Been there, done that: it’s not theoretical. Memo to Mr. Zane: Do the phrases “Warsaw Ghetto” and “Killing Fields of Cambodia” ring any bells? You don’t have to read Friedrich Nietzsche to learn from him.

The local alternative newspaper does no better than the News & Observer when covering issues like this. Independent Weekly treats attacks on the Republican majority in North Carolina’s General Assembly as credential enough to make anyone a voice for the downtrodden. Not surprisingly, its reporters approach Christianity as though they aren’t sure whether it’s dangerous or domesticated. Eager to defend progressive moralizing but unfamiliar with the rhetorical demands of an effective rebuttal, one “Indy Week” writer cheered the involvement of religion in politics by extolling the virtues of its zero-calorie cousin, “spirituality.” A headline writer for the print edition of the story had some tongue-in-cheek fun by calling it “Keeping the faith,” and although all of the juicy quotes in the piece came from the pastor of a progressive Baptist congregation, the only discernible faith in the allegedly big tent uniting groups as laughably “diverse” as Planned Parenthood and the AFL-CIO was an iron confidence in their shared definition of “social justice.”

That’s like trying to decide whether it’s more accurate to call someone “the worst pirate I’ve ever heard of” or “the best pirate I’ve ever seen” with reference to a single actor working from a script that allows him to steal ships with impunity.

Enough with Potemkin Village homage to diversity-that-isn’t. Let’s switch metaphors one last time and deal all the cards face up for the sake of expediency: Religion supports morality, and both not only can mix with the politics of a free people, they must mix with those politics. But if the resulting alloy fits too neatly with any political ideology, then we’re probably worshipping ourselves, and that never ends well.

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.