Morality vs. Ethics

And while we’re talking about jargon and special definitions, I’d like to vent a bit.

Specifically, I’ve had it up to here with those total ignoramuses who state, with an air of obvious truth, that America is a Christian nation and always has been.  They point to the references to God in our founding documents as obvious and unanswerable proofs of the assertion.


One could, of course, point out the obvious fact that most of the Founding Fathers were Deists.  That is, they believed that while there was a Supreme Being who created the world, he more or less left it to run itself from that point on.  Key idea here is that Deists emphatically did not believe that God was daily guiding the world and engaging in personal interventions.  And while they prayed for divine guidance in their deliberations, they had no conviction that God was directly controlling their actions as they established the new nation.  Collectively, and with a small number of vocal exceptions, they intended to create a secular government that would, they ardently hoped, merit divine blessing.

Our Founding Fathers believed that human institutions were made by fallible human beings for human beings and that God deserved none of the blame when things went wrong.  Nor did they believe that there was some divine blueprint they were supposed to adhere to.

Equally, one could point out that, in the periodic rise and fall of American religious fervor, the Revolution happened to occur at a time when religious feeling was at one of its lowest points.  Of course, the American conscience abhors a vacuum, so the second Great Awakening, the revival (in every sense) of evangelical ardor, came soon after the Constitution.  But the Revolution and all that Founding occurred just about exactly at the low water mark that preceded the Awakening.

Nevertheless, we know those Founding Fathers mostly called themselves Christians and that they certainly invoked God often enough.  It is reasonable, I think, to ask exactly what was going on here.  As it happens, I’ve done a fair amount of research on religion in early America and I think this paradox follows a pretty familiar model.

The historian’s rule of thumb (often, alas, neglected) in such a case is this: If there seems to be a paradox in history, some basic fact is probably misunderstood.  And in the vast realm of possible misunderstandings, none is more likely than some confusion about language.

It is easy enough to see that certain words like Tory had a meaning to an American of 1789 that was rather different from its current name of a political party.  Equally, we know that terms like states’ rights have been the subject of continual tugs of war between factions.

What is not so easy to see is that commonplace terms, too, can shift their meanings over the years.  Take, for instance, the word Christian.

We might as well simply say it right out: Christian not only had a different meaning in colonial and Revolutionary America, but believing Christians of that era would simply reject most, if not all, of the current definitions.

One can get a glimpse of their understanding of Christianity by noting two very simple facts: All of the terms of public religious discourse of the era were Protestant in tone.  And while they called themselves Christians and invoked God quite frequently, Protestants of that time rarely invoked “Jesus Christ”…and never in the same tone as they invoked “God.”

As a by-product of the religious wars, Colonial Britain was rabidly anti-Catholic and none were more so than the extremists who became America’s first settlers.  And while a certain reluctant tolerance had grown, particularly in Rhode Island, Catholics in general kept a low profile and left the rhetorical sphere to the Protestants.

Another by-product of the Reformation was that Protestants and Catholics implicitly divvied up the Bible: The Protestants concentrated on the Old Testament and largely left the New to the Catholics.

The result was that Protestantism, and hence American religious discourse, treated the Old Testament God as the focus of religion.  Jesus Christ had, of course, by His death made Salvation possible.  But sinful mankind’s actually achieving Salvation depended upon its obedience to God’s laws and His unfathomable Grace.  Jesus merely opened the door.  God the Father was the gatekeeper.

The touchstone of today’s evangelicals seems to be the phrase, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?”  Insofar as one can judge, the idea that Jesus Christ would personally intervene to save our miserable souls would have seemed, at the very least, incredibly arrogant to an eighteenth century Christian.  I rather suspect it would have been considered actively blasphemous.

Another central concept of today’s fundamentalism was also foreign to our ancestors: the idea of being “born again.”

This is a twentieth century term, completely absent from all older Christian traditions.  To us, to be “born again” is to achieve some sort of direct perception of God’s love and our personal salvation in a transforming way.  It is a gift from God, through His Son, Jesus Christ, that grants us an assurance of salvation.

This sort of cathartic conversion was not merely foreign to our eighteenth and nineteenth century forebears; it was anathema to them.  Both Jonathan Edwards, the spiritual father of the First Great Awakening and Charles Grandison Finney, the father of the Second, were adamantly opposed to emotional conversions.  Conversion, in their day, was a matter of long days, weeks, and even years of hard work and study.  Of a gradual education and cleansing of the mind and heart.  The short-term evangelical experience of Awakening focused the mind and gave a sort of jump-start to the process, but it was in no way sufficient.  Evangelists themselves warned against the emotional epiphany as an actual bar to true salvation and a snare of the Devil.

The point here is that their definition of Christian and that of a contemporary religious person who claims the adjective is so different that, if we could put them together in a room, each would declare the other no true Christian.  Each would reject the other’s definition of Christian as a special definition, misguided and probably dangerous.

So, yes, the Founding Fathers largely called themselves Christians.  And yes, the born-agains of today call themselves Christians.  But when someone says that the United States was always a Christian nation from its founding they are indulging their ignorance in the worst sort of anachronism.

Which brings me to a pair of special definitions I like.  In fact, I have campaigned for them before this.

Years ago I read an author who said that Christianity could be said to represent the highest achievement of human morality, just as Judaism could be said to represent the highest achievement of human ethics.  This distinction has become an Occam’s Razor for me, a tool to make the world simpler.

According to this idea, the heart and soul of Judaism, as practiced and embodied in the Talmud and its endless commentaries, is primarily concerned with how man can live with his neighbor.  This rich Jewish tradition is filled with endless specific cases of how some rabbi dealt with some problem of his congregation, why he chose the way he did, followed by an incredible wealth of opinions on whether the choice was a good one and why.  Often enough, the reasoning is based on God’s Law, the Torah.  But a lot of it is simply based on whether the choices are good or bad for the group.

By contrast, Christianity, with its Old and New Testaments and equally endless commentaries, is concerned with how man can discern and obey God’s laws.  While the peace of the group is a concern, Christian literature is rather heavily larded with moral indignation and condemnation.

The difference, then, is that Judaism is heavily concerned with the man-to-man relationship while Christianity is mostly concerned with the man-to-God relationship.  Within that context, Judaism is all about what is ethical for human beings to do, while Christianity is all about what is moral for human beings to do.

Not too surprisingly, they often come together.  To use my favorite example, it is obviously bad for society if someone robs a bank.  That is, it is unethical.  In addition, a minister would say it is also a sin.  That is, it is immoral.

The problem, of course, is that while society (e.g. juries) can have a fair shot at agreeing about what will work in society, large segments of humanity vehemently disagree about what is pleasing or displeasing to God.

Within this special definition dyad, then, ethics is concerned with what will work for people, while morality is concerned with right and wrong.  Ethics is relativistic, while morality is absolutist.  Ethics permits compromise, while compromising with the moral is inherently wrong.

From which I conclude that government naturally falls within the realm of ethics, while morality has no place in government.

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