The liberal Christian approach to moral values
With 81 percent of Americans bemoaning the decline of moral values in America, the conservative right is encouraged by a national administration that has surrendered its religious policymaking to evangelical Christians.
To Christian liberals, this constitutes political meddling in matters that should remain in the church or with individuals. Conservative Christians doubt the genuineness of liberal search for Christian values.
While conservative Christians see personal morality, enforced by law if necessary, as the answer, liberal Christians search for moral values in social and economic justice for the “have nots” in society.
Rev. Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic Moral Man and Immoral Society discusses at length the reasons the moral values of individuals do not manifest themselves in the economic, political and social system of the country.
“As individuals men believe that they ought to love andserve each other and establish justice between each other,” he notes. “As racial, economic and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command.”
He is saying that somewhere between the individual and impersonal groups, moral values are lost and the “haves” get more and the “have nots” get less. This was manifest in the recent tax bill that put the “haves” in charge of greater wealth and left the “have nots” with crumbs.
“Those who benefit from social injustice are naturally less capable of understanding its real character than those who suffer from it,” Niebuhr claims.
Take the DACA kids who came to America with their parents and are now being threatened with deportation to countries they never knew – thrown under the bus by privileged people who are not experiencing the pain. If they would take one DACA kid home for supper, the problem would become personal and their attitudes would change.
Those of us who have medical insurance cannot appreciate that cutting Medicaid for the poor will leave fellow human beings with anxiety. Those in charge know that transferring Medicaid to the states will result in less care for the most vulnerable. Liberal Christians call that immoral.
In every session, Congress and the state legislature enact immoral policies on the assumption that “have nots” are as capable as they but are just too lazy or rebellious to respond to middle class values. Legislators are made of leadership stuff; “have nots” struggle to keep up.
To this, Niebuhr says that “…it has always been the habit of the privileged groups to deny the oppressed classes every opportunity for the cultivation of innate capacities and then to accuse them of lacking what they have been denied the right to acquire.”
Public education was critical for the rise of the lower classes. However, this was never true for African- Americans who were first forbidden to learn during slavery and were given inferior schools after slavery. That must be immoral in some sense.
Today, we continue on the same path. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos who has no experience with public schools intends to undermine public education with “choice” vouchers that will leave African-American and other minorities with inferior schools and, consequently, ending up in inferior careers. That must be immoral.
Niebuhr offers little hope that we will ever be able to understand moral values beyond ourselves. Nevertheless, Christian progress requires that love of our neighbor includes caring about social injustice. It is a dimension of morality we find hard to appropriate.
As an evangelical who shares many of the values of conservative Christians, I think it would be a major step for Christianity if the conservative and liberal Christians could sit down together and come to understand that immorality is immorality wherever it is.
Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota and former political science professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.