Losing the moral high ground

Posted: March 3, 2015 by J in Church, Mission

maxresdefault“We don’t go into churches” she said.

I’d just met this mum at school, and after a friendly chat, it occurred to me to mention our Playgroup. And that was her response.

I thought that was interesting. Not so much the attitude, but the statement. She didn’t need to say this – in fact she obviously felt a little awkward coming out with it. She knew I was ‘the minister’ and that it would put a dampener on our acquaintance. Most people who didn’t want to come would have just said, thanks for letting me know, and left it. But she felt the need to make this strong statement.

It reminded me quite a bit of the way I’ve seen some Christians admitting that they go to church. A little sheepish, but feeling that it was important to stand up and be counted. For this woman, I think it was a matter of principle, and she wanted to own that, wanted it known where her family stood.

This little exchange reminded me of what a different world the church in the West finds itself facing, especially among the upper middle class anglo professional set, to which this mum belonged, and which has been our traditional homeground.

For centuries people have had many mixed and negative feelings towards ‘the church’, whether fear or respect or guilt or lack of interest or whatever. But whatever attitudes the churches have faced we have generally felt confident about one thing in our social status: the moral high ground. Churches represented what was upright and good and moral. Society at large was generally immoral, selfish and irresponsible (in our view) – and so the church stood as a kind of bastion of righteousness, admired or avoided as the case may be.

The church has for long centuries accepted this role and acted the part of moral custodian and policeman, speaking out sternly when there was a decline in standards, letting people know who was OK and who was in disgrace, and so on. Evangelicals have added to this a missionary stance, viewing the world around them as a project to be reclaimed and redeemed by their efforts. Inside it is safe, but out there, the wrath of God is upon people and they must be warned to come in.

Built into the very DNA of our whole way of relating to society, is the assumption of moral advantage. We are OK and you are probably not OK. You ought to listen to us. 

We have always expected people might hate us for this. That they might ignore us, or mock us – isn’t goodness always subjected to this sort of treatment from debauched and cynical sinners?

What we rarely have had to face before is disapproval. We are used to people not listening to our sermons. What we are not used to is being preached to by the world. Which is what we now face from that section of the world that we ourselves come from: the educated classes.

While we were not looking, a new moralism has arisen in the West, complete with accompanying doctrine, ethical code and missionary goals. Our educated, inner-city neighbours do not think of themselves as sinners anymore. They have claimed the moral advantage. In fact, many have become increasingly puritanical. The Sydney Morning Herald editorial today speaks of “the moral high ground where we [Australians] stand”, and gushes, “The moral high ground is a place to which every human should aspire in our words and reach with our deeds.” Amen, here endeth the lesson. It might sound a bit comical, but the Herald was dead serious.

This preachiness comes naturally to the new moralists. Did you notice that they have started teaching Special Religious Education in the public schools? They call it Ethics. This social movement is zealous to capture the minds of the next generation for the cause.

There is a gallery of sins avoided and deplored by the new moralists. They are not the sins Christianity has denounced for so long, but the process is similar: expose sin in others, shun the offenders, keep bludgeoning until everyone falls into line.

The big sins of the new moralism are climate degradation, sexism and homophobia. But there are many smaller ones, including smoking, failing to recycle, gaining weight and using bad language. What constitutes bad language is also distinctive: anything that sounds religious or discriminatory is bad. Discriminatory behaviour such as ignoring migrant people is OK. But language will not be tolerated.

The new moralists expect to feel good about themselves. They know they are on the side of right. They support causes and charities. They take in causes with their breakfast cereal. Seriously. And with their Yoghurt. They want to make a difference in the world, even as they chew. The bands they listen to support causes. Think Coldplay, U2. It feels good to be a new moralist. This mum I met was telling me that her children had ‘two really solid parents’! The high moral ground is a nice place to stand…

These are fundamentally serious people. They like comedians, but preferably jokers with a message. They love their own preachers – think Tim Minchin – who tell them what they need to feel passionate about (“I hope people will be shocked – because they need to be.”)

New moralist male partners (‘husbands’ sounds horribly discriminatory) establish their creds by taking part in household chores, minding the kids, and knowing how to iron. Female partners (‘wives’ sounds so condescending), by holding down a job at the same time as bringing up kids and getting to the gym regularly.

One great way to feel good about yourself is to cultivate a sense of moral superiority over others. And there are plenty of others to look down on. The unreconstructed: people with old-fashioned ideas that are now seen as scandalous, like ‘I want to stay at home with my little kids and not go out to work.’ The smokers. People who let their children roam the neighbourhood unsupervised. Parents who use disposable nappies. Religious people who want to express their religion at all. All of these and many more are ready-made steps upon which the new moralist can climb to the moral high ground.

And of course, ‘The Church’: that nest of bigoted and disgraceful ideas that cause so much hatred and suffering. That last stronghold of an old patriarchal mindset that has kept people enslaved for centuries. We have eradicated Smallpox, but that pestilence Christianity and its accompanying symptom, ‘The Church’, has proved resistant. And pretty much every social evil can ultimately be laid at its door. This week in Sydney we are hearing how the Church promotes domestic violence. Next week it will be something else, for sure.

But the Church’s chief sin, from the new moralist point of view, is bringing religion out of the private and into the public sphere. Their dream is of a world in which every public place is swept clean of religion – especially Christian religion. New moralists do not feel guilty when they hear religion in public. They do not feel bored. They felt deeply offended. They feel angry. People are being irresponsible, abusive even.

They are aware that others do not share this point of view, but on this core doctrine, the new moralist is not willing to compromise, not one inch. For he feels the truth of it in his heart.

For people even a little influenced by the new moralism, attending a local church seems like a questionable, potentially blameworthy activity. It feels safer on the whole to not attend.

But the true new moralist knows she should go further, and take a strong stand on conscience even if that might offend someone: “We don’t go into churches”.

We have a certain amount of new moralist influence in our suburb, I know some of the card-carrying members. They know I’m the local minister. Some avoid me in the school playground. Others look at me askance, not because of anything I do (so far as I am aware!), but because I exist. Few occupations could be more shameful than minister of religion!

We’re facing a changed world. After the 1960s we thought loose morals were here to stay. But things have swung back the other way. We live in very moral, even moralising times. A kind of puritanical legalism is gaining ground. And it’s not our kind! We used to be the ones who could do the looking down, but in the eyes of a fair chunk of a society we lost the moral advantage somewhere along the way. So here are my questions to yall:

1. Who noticed?

2. How should we speak and address ourselves to our society now? Should we keep talking as though from the high ground? Or is it possible to testify to Jesus from any other position? Should we shift register? If we did that, what would it sound like? What would we say differently? 

What do you reckon?

  1. I recently came across an interesting text in 1 Corinthians 8:2-3. Paul is about to enter into a debate about eating food that may have been offered to idols at some point. He begins by saying we all claim to have knowledge. But he goes on to say that those claim to have knowledge don’t yet know as they ought to know. I wonder when we in church claim to have the moral high ground might not yet know as we ought to know. Humility and compassion in our interaction with our communities would go long way our relationship with others.

  2. J says:

    Good point, Lynside, I wonder how often comments from ‘The Church’ are perceived as humble and compassionate by our society?

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