When popular Harvard political theorist Michael Sandel was a graduate student at Oxford in the 1970s, men and women were still separated into different colleges. Further befitting a staid institution such as Oxford, male visitors were not permitted to remain overnight in women’s rooms.
By Sandel’s time these rules had gone the way of jaywalking, ignored by perpetrators and authorities alike. “Most college officials no longer saw it as their role to enforce traditional notions of sexual morality,” Sandel says. But a number of older women on the St. Anne’s College faculty still felt squeamish about these relaxing standards. They were equally reluctant, however, to reveal their scruples to be what they were: moral. Immorality had won the day to such an extent that morality dared not speak its name.
So,the spinsters borrowed from Bentham and took a utilitarian tack. Sandel describes their tactic in his excellent book of moral philosophy, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? They complained that overnight male visitors would cost the college money by taking hot baths and requiring more frequent replacement of mattresses. This argument sealed the progressives’ victory, of course, for they quickly found a way to defray these costs: women would simply have to pay fifty pence for each evening on which they entertained male visitors. (The Guardian proclaimed, “St. Anne’s Girls, Fifty Pence a Night”!)
As Sandel summarizes it, the language of morality “had not translated very well into the language of utility.” In a short time, the fees joined the rules as casualties of the sexual revolution.
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Hear, then, the parable of the pence: The world needs the church, because the church gives its members guidance and strength for using moral language in the public square.
Christians whose light shines in public places should prefer the language of morality to that of utility, that they ought to self-consciously speak of “right and wrong” whenever possible. It doesn’t help the world for Christians to hide their allegiances, placing their lamps under baskets. But we all know—we just know—that “premarital sex decreases graduation rates” is an acceptable argument for a legislator to make, while “premarital sex is morally wrong” is not. Major institutions of the West are arrayed against the very possibility of speaking moral truth to cultural power. The church, despite its flaws, provides a strong institutional basis for Christians to speak moral language in the public square—and this is good for the world.
Public squares are never naked
Let me remind the already skeptical or the already nervous of a truism that is starting to feel like a slogan, the kind of thing you shout at your opponents when you’ve given up on persuading them. This slogan needs to be stated, illustrated, dramatized, even shouted, because it targets one of the most breathtaking blindnesses of our age.
It’s this: public squares are never naked.
Neutrality is always a myth. Supposedly secularized iron cages always have back doors through which metaphysical and theological beliefs get smuggled. Whose Justice? Which Rationality? can always be answered by pointing to a particular who and which. Everyone’s views on everything are prostrated before either creature or Creator. There are no godless regimes. If Jesus hasn’t (yet) put a particular square inch under his feet, some principality or power is standing there instead.
This ought to be especially evident today, when elite opinion has actually begun to put less weight on the claim that all of its positions are utilitarian, neutral, procedural. There is a definite moral cast to their arguments in favor of the ongoing sexual revolution. It’s no longer enough to say that every pattern of sexual desire ought to be treated as “equal” in a laissez-faire fashion (except, for the moment, for pedophilia, incest, and bestiality). The emancipatory project has become a positive good, a distinctly moral imperative. “Let It Go, Let It Go!” is our cultural anthem, and everyone had better wear the ribbon or else.
Western culture is currently speaking to itself out of both sides of its mouth. If asked directly, it will still commonly insist that any pre-rational commitments once found in its public square have committed seppuku—metaphysician-assisted suicide—for the public good. There are no theological justifications left inside the square.
I actually see the attractions of a world in which Christ’s opponents feel some burden to step behind Rawls’s veil of ignorance, to appear neutral and evenhanded. Secularism has actually managed at times to be a common-grace restraint on majoritarian evils. But secularism is itself an evil, and this must not be forgotten. The idea that public arguments ought to be made on the slimmest basis possible, usually a dollar bill turned on its edge, is a challenge to Christ’s authority. It is its own kind of moral language; it assumes a non-Christian “vision of the good,” a moderator of polite opinion who is not God. Sex outside marriage is not bad, finally, because it increases costs to the taxpayer; it’s bad because it violates the most powerful possible picture of Christ’s exclusive commitment to his church. It’s wrong because God said so. Against you, you only have I sinned.
All I’ve known is the secular order; I do fear what a balkanizing “resurgent discourse of identity“ will do to a system that has helped my family “live peaceful and quiet lives” (1 Tim 2:2 NIV). I can very nearly get a justification for secularism out of that one verse, for at its heart it’s an agreement that no intrasocietal disagreements should lead to bloodshed. But I’m so weary of the temptations secularism has given the church that I find myself glad its star is fading. This fading actually clarifies the line between light and darkness—like the crisp perimeters of the shadows during a total eclipse. Now both conservatives who have syncretized Christianity with civil religion and liberals who have syncretized it with the emancipatory project should be able to see their compromise. In a post-secular future, I pray that the Western church will be able to teach its members to speak a public moral language more effectively because it will be harder for the syncretists to dilute.
All people have consciences
The church builds a community around the truths God has revealed in Scripture; it sets up plausibility structures founded on the rock of God’s word. And that’s what it will take for Christians to prefer moral language when the rains descend and the language of utility beats upon our house—when utilitarian arguments seem to offer immediate public-square success. Far from telling us that our opponents in any given public conflict are minions of Satan, the church’s founding documents insist that all people are made in God’s image and have God’s law written on their hearts.
When Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them. (Romans 2:14–15 NIV)
Notice that Paul holds out the possibility that non-Christian consciences can not only accuse them but excuse them, defend them. In other words, people who refuse to follow Christ personally nonetheless sometimes follow and obey their God-given consciences.
I believe the pro-life movement has had the success it’s had in the United States precisely because it has appealed to non-Christian consciences. It has done this by sticking to moral language and avoiding—abhorring—merely utilitarian tactics. If certain legislators vote for a bill requiring abortionists to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, and if they full well know that the effect will be to curb abortions, and if they nonetheless give a utilitarian justification for their vote (We’re just keeping up medical standards!), nobody is fooled. Worse, some pro-choicers will be incensed at the evident duplicity: it will violate their own consciences. In my experience, however, pro-lifers are open about their desire to end the scourge of abortion. They whittle away at the abortion rate through whatever legal means they can find without being embarrassed—and without failing—to call it a precisely moral evil. And this moral language calls forth a grudging respect from pro-choice people. Oppose transgenderism, and you’ll be called the meanest name our culture hurls at its pariahs: “bigot.” But I don’t see that epithet sticking to those who oppose abortion. Non-Christian consciences are, I believe, accusing them too loudly to let them try.
Of course, large crowds still march in favor of abortion rights. Not all “gentiles” obey their consciences (not all “Jews” either). To be pro-choice is, in fact, to “suppress the truth in unrighteousness,” a rather common sin as Paul tells it (Rom 1:18 ESV). How could anyone not know that killing defenseless babies is wrong? Only by assiduous cauterization of God-given moral feelings. The practice is “heartless” (Rom 1:31 ESV).
But suppressed feelings have a way of rebounding. When Abby Johnson, director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan, Texas, was called in to assist an abortion one fateful Saturday in 2009, she experienced a sudden and disorienting emotion, one that overcame years of rationalization. Her conscience began “bearing witness” loudly to the truth. You are what you love, and that day Abby showed herself as loving her tiniest neighbors. She ceased her work for Planned Parenthood and sought help from the very pro-life group that had long prayed outside her clinic. If her local pro-life groups had studiously avoided moral language and prayer in a bid to be more secular and therefore more persuasive, Abby would have felt intuitively that she didn’t belong with them. I have to imagine that the language of utility would have bewildered her.
All of the people I’ve met in my local pro-life group are churchgoing Christians. The Christian church has been the major institution sending articulate speakers of moral language into the culture war over abortion. My little group wouldn’t even know how to make utilitarian arguments for life. And look at the good God has done through Christian speech for the most defenseless people in existence: abortion has been restricted in and even harried out of many communities. There is far more work to do, and I pray that our efforts to appeal to gentile consciences with our moral language will bear good and lasting fruit.
The church, the eschaton, and our political moment
The only everlasting good that will ever come to this earth, of course, will come in the eschaton. For now the Father has told the Son, “Rule in the midst of your enemies” (Ps 110:2). Abortion will go away only when the final opponent of Christ is put under his feet: “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:26 NIV).
So moral language will not win every battle in any public square, not until Christ does. This means that the church must be prepared to see defeats. The fusty female Oxford dons who complained of the financial burdens brought by promiscuity thought they could avoid defeat by playing the utilitarian game. But they still lost—and if indeed any of them were Christians, they did something worse than losing. They acted as if they could put their Christian discipleship on hold for a moment in order to purchase political success. That success would no doubt be offered back to Christ once they got it—at least that’s what (in my now-speculating imagination) they told themselves. But they forgot that Christ doesn’t need them to win his battles. They forgot an important truth only the church will teach its members in our secular age of buffered selves: this age is not the only or even the most important one humans will be part of.
I am utterly dismayed at the failure of the church to teach this lesson to its U.S. members. I was just coming of age when every evangelical leader was saying with one voice, “Character matters for a U.S. president!” I remember this very distinctly. I believed they meant what they said. I never imagined that respected evangelical pastors, theologians, and other leaders would defend the character of a thrice-married reality TV star who, who… who needs no more digital ink spilled about his infamous exploits. When he won the Republican nomination, I assumed we would get hold-your-nose-and-vote-for-the-lesser-of-two-evils opinion pieces in Christian publications. I did not expect what I actually got, which was rah, rah, and rah, every rah a blow to my gut. Some evangelical leaders stood firm on Christian principle, but I still genuinely feel like I’m walking around in Bizarro World.
U.S. evangelicals were indeed given a terrible, apparently no-win situation. They could get their Supreme Court picks (the importance of which is itself a testimony to the breakdown in our political discourse) and hope everyone forgot what they said about presidential morality oh so long ago, or they could invite an apparently gleeful progressive evisceration of their agenda. But there is always a way to escape temptation for individuals (1 Cor 10:13), and there has to be one for groups. It was the church’s job to create a community of sojourners and strangers who had the eternal perspective necessary to notice that the current election is always The Most Important One Ever. Only a church that believes that the arc of history bends toward a final, divine justice can possibly entrust the next four years to him who judges righteously. The American church may never know what authority we could have had to speak moral language in the public square if we had not revealed decisively that our morals are “a wholly owned subsidiary of our political loyalties.” As it is, my progressive friends aren’t sure whether to blow a social media gasket or have a party as they behold this evangelical hypocrisy.
The authority for moral language: a clarification
My most important mentor throughout my graduate-level biblical studies work was the PhD-toting pastor of my own local church. Besides my parents, he shaped me more than any other person. And the key lesson he taught me as a student of Scripture came in the form of two questions. Every preacher, he said, asks one of them at the beginning of every sermon prep: either “What can I say about this?” or “What does this say?” Every homiletical journey starts with a massively significant fork in the road. Choose the wrong way, and you cut yourself off from your only source of authority as a preacher. Choose the right way, and by God’s grace you will be a faithful herald of the divine message.
This lesson left me with an abiding dread of saying “thus saith the Lord” without adequate work to discern what he has in fact said. I take this same dread into the public square.
So I must make an important clarification: I do not have the authority to use moral language—to call something “right” or “wrong”—unless God grants it to me through general and special revelation.
Some hot political issues are truly and merely that: political. The various participants already agree sufficiently on a vision of the good—a world in which no one urinates in a particular subway terminal stairwell, say; they merely differ on the best way to accomplish this goal within a large group of people. Christians need not prefer the language of morality when that of utility is all they can use with confidence. There is no Bible verse giving instruction on Stairwell Urination Mitigation. In this case Christians cannot speak with authority unless they have a prophetic gift. It’s okay to limit one’s argument to, “Well, this plan worked in Vancouver.”
In fact, utility is your only permissible appeal in such a situation, lest you appear to claim God’s support for something he never said. Careful analyses of past court decisions, diligent tabulation of survey data, and insightful examinations of historical precedent cannot and must not be replaced with facile appeal to Bible verses (Banish homeless men to Baffin Island, because 1 Kings 16:11 says, “He left him not one that pisseth against a wall”!).
I am not walking back everything I just said. My argument is not that Christians must always and everywhere use moral language; it is that the church will help us and guide us in using it. And guidance means telling us when we’ve mixed up our own opinions and God’s. This is a genuine and massive problem in its own right—but not the focus of this article.
You are my witnesses
Recently, somewhat by accident and against my better judgment, I found myself in a social media debate with strangers, where I was the lone defender of the idea that pirating movies is an immoral act. I was quickly informed by my two interlocutors, digital Robin Hoods both, that movie moguls are rich; that movie (and music) stars are not really “working” anyway; that even if they are, they are getting paid too much.
One wonders what key grips, prop handlers, and boom mic operators might wish to say. But what a Christian would say should not be in doubt. I brought a biblical moral framework to the issue. Thou shalt not steal. The laborer is worthy of his hire. My Christian worldview does not guarantee that I see all things clearly; it only means I have access to a clear standard by which to judge all things (though that judgment is subject to my own fallenness and finiteness, I readily grant). I chose to use my moral language explicitly in this small corner of the public square, citing the eighth commandment. This is what I was told by the other participants:
Participant 1: “Quoting the bible. Hah. I’m done.”
Participant 2: “Not everyone has the same religious background as you, so for your moral arguments to carry any weight you need to stop making faith-based arguments…. I’m not talking right and wrong at this point, just thought processes and reasons.”
When I pointed out that these proposed ground rules for our public-discourse-writ-small effectively put duct tape over my mouth, eliminating anything I could feasibly contribute to the discussion, Participant 2 decided he had not used enough tape. To his credit, he seemed to dislike the task I had forced him to perform, and he told me kindly,
I am not asking you to compromise your principles, but your arguments need to hold up to those who don’t believe as you do, otherwise you’re only “preaching to the choir.”
He seemed concerned for me—like I was a culturally jet-lagged foreign exchange student who just did not understand that “football” is played by entirely different rules ‘round these parts. (Perhaps I should have said, “Studies show that thou shalt not steal.”)
What did I accomplish by my resort to moral, yea, even biblical language? I didn’t “win.” One guy left and one guy patronized me. I ran right into old-format Western secularism and got flattened. I got shut out of the public square.
I’ll tell you what I accomplished: witness. “You are my witnesses,” Jesus told the apostles, the foundation of the church. Not, “You are my Super PAC.”
The words of Peter Leithart ring in my ears:
Perhaps Christians are called to do no more than speak the truth without worrying about persuasiveness. Perhaps we have entered a phase in which God has closed ears, so that whatever we say sounds like so much gibberish. We can depend on the Spirit to give ears as He pleases.
My safe home in the church—the guidelines it gives me for moral language, the final judgments that, it reminds me through liturgy and word, are in God’s hands—grants me the confidence to tell Herod he can’t have his brother’s wife, to stand up against pharaonic filicide, to be willing to lose an election if the alternative is losing my movement’s own soul. Thank God for the church. It is indeed good for the world.