January 28, 2012

Moral authority

I have argued for sometime that the modern conservative evangelical church has a very flawed approach to moral questions. As I have noted to my conservative friends, if 60% of my students fail, the issue is systemic, not individual. Doesn't mean that some of those students also failed individually, but the numbers dictate that I reevaluate both how I communicate the information and how I design the exam.

Likewise, if only 10% of evangelicals supported evil like torture or racism, I would chalk that up to the individual. But 60%? Something stinks.

In that vein, Greg has a great post on moral authority, and, in this case, Mark Driscoll's latest book on true marriage. I have no interest reading that particular book, but like how Greg connects Driscoll's parsing to this issue of moral authority. And I especially like how he explains how people who say they look to God exclusively as their moral authority are probably not being completely honest.
When people say God is their moral authority, I'm absolutely certain they don't understand what they're saying. First, God is not immediately available to talk to them, and as for those (like one student) who said a relationship with Jesus was key to understanding the Bible, I simply ask why you have so many denominations and traditions if that relationship steers you the right direction. It's simply a way of avoiding the dilemma. God is not your authority because God is not telling you what to do. A book is. The authority people believe is resident in God is mediated through a text, and that text must be interpreted; God, over against Elijah's assertions, is not readily available to answer questions. That leaves a community, or in most cases, an individual to ascertain which portions of the Bible function as moral authority. All this to say, if an individual is making the assessment about particular texts, then the locus of moral authority is the individual's conscience and desires, not God and not the text.
Evangelical churches (from what I hear, and probably not just evangelical churches, btw) have decided to not engage on many of today's moral issues. In the case of some of my friends, they see those moral issues as too political, or as too liberal. Can't really talk about environmental issues because it is simply too easy to become too liberal. And as Tony found out, talking about torture critically could also result in being tagged a liberal.

As Greg notes, moral authority is a difficult thing. It takes, I think, a community of people engaging on these issues. Otherwise, it is left up to individual desire and bias. That Pew poll on torture revealed exactly that, by the way. Those evangelicals who supported torture said that they based it largely on sources other than the Bible or their faith. When they were asked, as a part of the poll, in a mini act of accountability, to view torture through their faith, support went down.

If you leave race issues up to South Carolina's evangelicals--on their own--they will respond to Newt Gingrich's dog whistle campaign with great approval. They are not being asked to really confront that kind of hatred. If you leave torture questions to the average conservative evangelical, you will find that their conservative part outweighs their Christian part.


Monk-in-Training said...

I am not sure if I have mentioned the excellent essay by Michael Spencer (may he rest in peace) titled "I'm Not A Conservative Christian (Dare I say it? I don't need Rush, Sean or O'Reilly to tell me what's important.)"

Google it, great reading. But this is the core paragraph, that I think, speaks to your issue:
How many conservative Christians are listening to multiple hours of Rush Limbaugh every week? I wonder how many include a couple of hours of Fox News Channel's conservatives, Hannity and O'Reilly, on that menu. I wonder how many regularly listen to Marlin Maddux's "Point of View" program, or Pat Robertson's "700 Club." How many surf Newsmax.com, Conservative News Network or WorldNet Daily.com, the tabloids of conservative web journalism? If we were to take the total hours devoted to these--and many, many other--conservative information and opinion outlets, how would it compare to the amount of time spent under the teaching of scripture? How would it compare to time spent in acquiring a Biblical vision of God? Does the total amount of time spent by that same random evangelical in "the renewing of the mind" with the Word of God come even close to the amount of time spent seeing the world through the eyes of conservative pundits and journalists?

Over and over I find conservative Christians defending their positions from everything BUT Scripture. An oddity if there ever was one. I think they have been seduced by something other than the Holy Spirit into watching and listening to someone other than God via His Word.

Smitty said...

First, I am bookmarking that guy's blog. I love his perspective (though, to be as honest as reading his posts require someone to be, I'd have to admit that that's because I agree with him!).

On to your post:

I appreciate how you've taken Greg's post and added your bit about the "60%;" that if a large number of a particular sect find it in themselves to believe something as broken as 'torture is OK' then it is the system itself that is flawed. Greg illustrates that same point quite well when he lists a number of very positive actions and then says "...I don't believe in God. Am I still a Christian?" Clearly, the operative is the belief in God. Someone can then be and do none of those positive traits, but so long as they believe in the agreed-upon authority, it is OK.

Man, that's backwards.

I really like this post, and I'm glad for your thoughts as I am glad for your link to the excellent article.

This feeds into a secondary theme I see in your post: liberal versus conservative. This, under the context of "am I still a Christian," is directly related to the agreed-upon authority. But the agreed-upon authority is no longer any recognizable version of God or Jesus. It's politics. Politics - conservative politics, mainly - is God. If I don't believe in torture, tax cuts for the rich, or that global warming is a hoax, I am branded a liberal and disallowed from one (or more...) particular sect of Christianity.

And what the Hell is so bad about being a liberal anyway?? Under Greg's explanation of moral authority and from whence it is derived, what does it say about the inner workings our my or your brain versus the inner working of, say, Limbaugh's?

And given the truth behind evolution, why is it that the pro-evolution-and-species-survival behavior (feed each other, clothe each other, share, protect the air so's we can breathe...) seems to be losing to anti-species-survival behavior???

Probably because survivalist behavior requires one to step away from themselves. Selfish behavior is an easy place for moral authority because I merely have to listen to my own biases. Greg says as much: My personal preference becomes the moral authority.

Blah blah blah, ramble ramble, but this is fun, dude! Good stuff.

steves said...

Love the Spencer essay. I think he is dead on. The reality is that many people (myself included) compartmentalize their belief systems, especially if there are inconsistencies. This allows them to be both A and B, even if there is some level of conflict.

This certainly happens outside of religion. Take torture, for instance. Among many on the left, there was justified outrage at waterboarding and similar practices that were being illegally used by the government in the GWOT. While we have received reassurances that we are no longer doing this, we are still engaging in torture by proxy, through rendition, and we are certainly still holding people without charges, ignoring due process, and engaging in some of the more ignominious acts of the previous administration.

At this point, very little is being said and there is certainly not any outrage that I can hear. I doubt that one should conclude that former critics are now ok with these practices, but rather that the political choices are very limited.