Once upon a time, I believed that Eric Metaxas was a relatively reasonable Evangelical. Sure, his Bonhoeffer book was a bit revisionist, to say the least, making Dietrich out to be more-or-less an Evangelical himself (he was not), but it still introduced a whole lot of folks to an important historical figure whom they may not have otherwise heard of.
But things have only declined for Metaxas from there. He has joined the ranks of Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. in selling his soul to become an apologist for Trump, even going so far as to craft an entire series of Trump-idolizing children’s books that would honestly feel like twisted parodies if it weren’t for the fact that he claims to actually believe this stuff.
Suffice it to say that little he says is going to surprise me at this point. But one thing he said recently is just so outlandish that I nonetheless feel it worth responding to. Here’s the video where he says it.
In a Godless framework, who determines right & wrong? We know racism is a sin because it violates human dignity, but where does that dignity come from? Questions and morality can only be answered if morality has an absolute source. That source, we know, is God. @ericmetaxas pic.twitter.com/5sEUH7LbGc
— Falkirk Center (@falkirk_center) September 16, 2020
It [racism] is not wrong if there’s no God. Nothing is wrong: there is no right or wrong, or good, or evil or, [sic] meaning in the Universe apart from the Scripture.
It’s not particularly uncommon for Christian apologists to argue that the shared morality we take for granted comes from the Bible. And to a limited extent, they have a point. For better or worse, within the Western world, our history and culture has been steeped in and shaped by Christianity. It would be impossible to fully extricate our current shared values from that influence. However, that’s a far cry from the idea that evil would not even exist apart from God, which is what Metaxas is here saying.
According to Metaxas’ line of reasoning, if God didn’t exist, then it would not be wrong to murder, steal, rape or do any other heinous acts you could imagine. These things are not inherently evil, according to Metaxas. In his mind, they only become wrong because God says so.
So let’s unpack this a little bit.
What about non-Western cultures?
You may have noticed above that I specified the Western world in regards to the influence of Christianity. But despite our myopic focus on our own culture, worlds beyond the Western world do exist, where Christianity has not had the overwhelming influence in shaping morality that it has here. Yet the core moral values are universally the same.
Murder, theft, and rape are considered evil no matter where you go. Different cultures may have slightly different understandings of exactly what qualifies as each, but we all agree about the fundamental reality of such evils.
Why? Because it’s innate to us. We know instinctively that it is wrong to do to others what we wouldn’t want done to ourselves.
Some might suggest that this is the law of God imprinted on human hearts, and others might say that it is an evolutionary instinct developed as a survival technique. I’m personally comfortable with the idea that it’s both: God used the evolutionary process to give us this innate understanding of right and wrong.
But it doesn’t really matter how you believe we got it. What matters is that the global human community does share an innate understanding of certain core principles of right and wrong, regardless of whether or not a given culture was influenced by Christianity.
What about exceptions?
Metaxas’ denial of this innate morality is particularly troubling because we actually have a word for the exceptions to this rule.
Some people do exist who do not share this innate understanding of right and wrong, who have no feelings of remorse for wrongdoing or empathy for others, who only follow the conventions of morality in as much as it suits their own needs. These folks suffer from the personality disorder known as psychopathy.
I am not suggesting that Eric Metaxas is himself a psychopath, but the argument he is making is literally psychopathic in the most straightforward sense of the word. If his argument was true, then psychopaths would be the only folks who have a coherent perception of morality. All the rest of us non-psychopaths would be the ones with a personality disorder.
What about racism in particular?
While Metaxas made sweeping statements about there being no morality at all apart from God, he did so specifically in the context of racism, so let’s push back a little further on that.
According to Metaxas’ revisionist history, “You never would have had the abolition of the slave trade if it hadn’t been for Wilberforce taking his faith into the public sphere.”
For starters, Metaxas has inexplicably singled out a white guy who did comparatively little to abolish slavery as the one person without whom slavery never would have ended. Wilberforce had some positive influence in Britain, for sure, but the suggestion that “You never would have had the abolition of the slave trade” without his help is patently absurd.
Far more influential were the uprisings by the slaves themselves. They fought back, and they gained their own freedom as a result. Some of them were Christian, and many were not, but they did not have to be Christian to understand that what was being done to them was evil.
And if Metaxas cannot, apart from God, understand that slavery is evil, then he is only reflecting on himself and his own lack of empathy.
What about American slavery?
American slavery is a whole other story to itself. While Britain passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, America’s Emancipation Proclamation waited until 1863—more than half a century later—and American slavery didn’t actually end until two and a half years after that!
So why did America take so much longer to abolish slavery? Because of Christians. American slave owners were overwhelmingly Christian (at least in the sense of professing the Christian faith). These professing Christians were at the forefront of ensuring that slavery stayed legal in America for as long as possible, and they used scripture to back up all of their claims.
Metaxas believes there is no right or wrong apart from scripture? Well, apart from scripture, American slave owners could not have made some of their primary arguments in favor of slavery. Some moral foundation scripture turned out to be.
That’s not to say that there weren’t Christians on the other side of the debate as well. Plenty of Christians also filled the ranks of the abolitionists, pointing away from the literal interpretation of scripture which does support slavery, and toward a love-based ethic from the teachings of Jesus. And the abolitionist movement was also filled with Deists and atheists.
But there’s no getting around the fact that the Christian slave-owners’ belief in God failed to make them give up slavery.
For God’s sake! The whole Southern Baptist Convention—which is today the largest Evangelical Protestant denomination in the United States—was founded specifically because of their support for slavery. They literally split from northern Baptists in order to maintain their fervent opposition to abolitionism. That is the history and legacy of conservative American Christianity.
Then in the Civil War, the vast majority of leading Confederate figures were Christians. And let’s not forget the time following slavery—Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK is, of course, an explicitly Christian organization, with all members being required to swear to uphold Christian morality. It’s not for no reason that their symbol of choice is the cross.
Christian “morality” did not end slavery. Christian “morality” was a major factor behind American slavery lasting so long. And Christian “morality” continues to be one of the primary reasons behind racism to this day. Just look at Metaxas himself. He’s a Christian, and as such, he’s become an apologist for the most flagrantly racist president in recent history—who also claims to be a Christian.
Far from Metaxas’ belief in God giving him a correct understanding of right from wrong, it seems to have done exactly the opposite.
So I’m pretty sure my non-Christian friends can do just fine with their own innate senses of morality. They don’t need God in order to be anti-racist. And we certainly don’t need there to be a God for racism to be wrong.