Elvis. Tupac. The ivory-billed woodpecker. Sometimes it’s hard to let go and acknowledge when a celebrity or a species has left us. Christians find it particularly hard to come to terms with the passing of the “moral relativist.” Yes, there is the occasional reported sighting in the local university’s philosophy wing or at the late-night dorm room’s impromptu debate club. But compared to this creature’s former range and numbers, they’re all but extinct in the wild.
Many Christian preachers, apologists, evangelists, and writers have taken heed of the declining numbers, but decades of pitting “Christian worldview” against “moral relativism” left habits that are hard to break. You’ll still hear Christians assume that the reason for so much rampant immorality in our culture is because people reject objective right and wrong. Many still assume that discussions over morals are likely to end with, “Well, that’s your truth, but I have mine.” Make no mistake: Disputes over morality are as strong as they have ever been. But if we view these disputes through the lens of “moral relativism,” it’s not only our understanding of our culture that will suffer. Our evangelistic witness will also be severely blunted.
If anything, today we live in an era of constant moral indignation. This magazine has repeatedly observed and lamented the modern outrage culture, especially in its most performative social media outlets (see “Slow Down, You Hashtag Too Fast”). Recent CT cover stories looked at the American outrage culture’s similarities with global shame cultures (“The Return of Shame,” and its tendency toward self-righteousness (“Justify Yourself”).
In the past, lament over moral relativism had a political edge: Conservatives were cast as judgmental, liberals as morally lax. At least that was the caricature. Recently, researchers have asked: Do conservatives really have a more robust moral mindset than liberals?
The answer has been a qualified yes. Jonathan Haidt’s influential The Righteous Mind (2012) argued that liberals and conservatives really do have radically different moralities and ways of weighing loyalty, authority, sanctity, liberty, care, and fairness. Conservatives embrace all six but emphasize the former ones, he said. Liberals are “indifferent at best” to the first three. Haidt (a self-identified liberal who believes there is no “one true morality”) argues that conservative moralities are more persuasive because they are broad; liberal moralities, he said, are impoverished.
Other researchers have argued for different value frameworks, but now a new study is questioning the moral superiority of conservatives.
“If liberals want to know what it feels like to be a conservative opposing same-sex marriage, they only need consider how they themselves feel about the environment,” said psychologists from the University of Winnipeg and University of Illinois at Chicago. In the researchers’ experiments, conservatives arguing against same-sex marriage based those arguments in sanctity. But in arguing for the Keystone oil pipeline, they based their case in fairness. Likewise, using almost the same language, liberals argued against the pipeline by saying it violates the sacred order of things, and argued for fairness when supporting same-sex marriage. “Liberals and conservatives may be more alike than previously thought,” the researchers said in Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy. “We demonstrated a near-complete role-reversal vis-à-vis sanctity-based justifications of moral opinions.”
It isn’t that conservatives and liberals have shrugged off transcendent ideas of right and wrong. Rather, they each appeal to a different transcendent moral foundation. We are not in an era of moral relativism but moral pluralism.
That’s not necessarily good news: It’s hard to build a unified society when we hold radically different moral visions. It’s even hard to have a conversation when we view each other as immoral.
But it does offer evangelistic opportunities. Our Great Commission was never to convince liberals that there are objective moral truths. Our neighbors already have a deep sense that something has gone terribly wrong in our world, that “all have sinned.” In our conversations with unbelievers, we owe them the respect to try to understand their moral commitments and frustrations. They very well may be motivated to look for answers, especially as they find their best moral efforts frustrated. The fields are ripe for the harvest.
Our culture’s moral indignation offers opportunities to proclaim Jesus’ saving grace and direct people to the one who is truth, beauty, and goodness.
Ted Olsen is editorial director of Christianity Today.
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