I’ve been noticing for some time that Christians’ morality appears to be shifting–very subtly, but it definitely is. The Christianity I behold today sometimes seems like it has only its name in common with what I experienced as a young person. I’m seeing a lot of Christian leaders remarking upon a new study that’s come out about morality, but they’re getting something very wrong about that study.
The End of Absolutes? Are We Sure?
One News Now was freaking out over a Barna survey last summer. It seems (they said) that “biblical morality in America is being escorted out of all facets of society, while a new moral code has been ushered in to take its place. . . The broader culture in the United States is confused between the difference of right and wrong.”
Oh my, that’s a rather shrill call to arms, isn’t it?
The survey is called, rather dramatically, “The End of Absolutes: America’s New Moral Code.” It’s based on two surveys Barna conducted of a total of about 2000 adult Americans of varying ages. Remember, please, that Barna is a religious group that sells its research–so despite its nonprofit status, the people involved with it have a teeny little tendency to ask questions in a misleading way and to interpret data in a way that would make evangelicals either very comforted or very riled up. This study is no exception to that rule.
In “The End of Absolutes,” Barna asked a couple thousand people about what faith they practiced, if any, and what their ideas about morality were. To nobody’s great surprise, we discover in their answers that Christians aren’t a whole lot different than everyone else in America and that they don’t really take the Adult Pretendy Funtime Games they’re playing too seriously.
Barna concludes, with no evidence that I can see, that “Americans are both concerned about the nation’s moral condition and confused about morality itself.” (Emphasis theirs.) I don’t see either of those self-created problems reflected in any part of the survey as they report it, however. None of their survey questions relate to any concern for the nation or confusion about moral questions of any kind. The only place I see this particular question addressed is in the introduction to the report, where they state that 80% of Americans have that concern.
But they don’t say where this figure comes from or how the question was asked–or when. Nor do they ask exactly what the concern might be. I myself am very concerned about a lot of things about our country’s morality, but the main thing concerning me is fundagelical bigots-for-Jesus trying to rob me and my fellow citizens of our bodily rights while forcing their morality upon others. Not everyone citing a concern about morality has the same concern about morality. But to Barna, there’s only one kind of morality and only one concern anybody might have about it.
When they sanctimoniously ask right afterward about how many Americans “pledge allegiance to the ‘morality of self-fulfillment,” a new moral code that . . . has all but replaced Christianity as the culture’s moral norm,” one must wonder if it’s really that new of a moral code. After all, Christians have been complaining about this exact kind of self-seeking since at least the 1980s. And our pal Ed Stetzer over at the SBC has been wringing his hands over exactly the same “new moral code” since forever–here he is in 2009 panicking about how few TRUE CHRISTIANS™ there are who hold “a biblical worldview.” (When Ed Stetzer uses that term, he means “a worldview like the one Ed Stetzer holds.”)
The following survey questions are pretty straightforward and don’t sound any different from what I heard growing up: “People shouldn’t criticize someone else’s life choices,” “The highest goal of life is to enjoy it as much as possible,” “People can believe whatever they want as long as those beliefs don’t affect society,” etc. And Christians tend to answer those questions very similarly to how Americans as a whole do.
When 91% of US adults are saying that “the best way to find yourself is by looking within yourself,” it doesn’t sound like they’re confused in the least about that question. It’s the 76% of Christians who agreed with the sentiment who might be confused. The 89% of Americans saying that people shouldn’t criticize other people’s choices don’t sound confused either–or concerned that the nation’s moral fiber is weakening.
I wonder if Barna is reading confusion into the fact that their favored religion no longer holds sway over non-believers–or even over all believers. 27% of Christians only agreed “somewhat” to the question of whether the Bible is a source of moral truth “without exception,” and 17% appear to have disagreed with the question. (Another misleadingly-worded statement, “Whatever is right for your life or works best for you is the only truth you can know,” got 41% of Christians agreeing to it to some extent–that must have just given Barna and One News Now the vapors.)
Barna’s talking about the fundagelical notion of objective morality here. Basically, Christians of a certain bent have been successfully taught that their interpretation of the Bible is not only definitive and completely correct, but that the resulting commands and dictates issuing from that interpretation are to be regarded as ineffable wisdom and eternally binding upon all people in all cultures for all time. These commands and dictates never, ever change (except when they do) and are always and completely totally the same and never relative to the situation (except when they are), and that all people must follow them (except when it’s obvious to them that they don’t need to).
Yes, that means that a document that never even once outright condemns slavery must be regarded as the end-all, be-all of moral instruction. And a god who destroyed (nearly) every living thing on the planet in a fit of rage, condemned billions of women and infants to death through childbirth complications because of the ignorant “sins” of one woman, commanded his people to commit genocide a few times (except for that one time he told them to keep the enemy tribe’s little girls for their own sexual use), created an eternal, punitive torture-land for the sole purpose of punishing and wreaking vengeance upon puny humans for their tiny little lifetimes’ transgressions, and commanded rape victims to marry their attackers: that’s a god who must be regarded as the font of all moral wisdom and the source of this objective morality.
Christian leaders are very fond of claiming that being Christian gives them the magical access code to this objective morality and that they therefore are better people than those who do not possess that magical access code–in other words, the rest of us heathen scum (if you deconvert, you lose all your morality, in their estimation, and if you reconvert again, you instantly gain it back–it’s like a baton, I guess). There isn’t much of a leap from that thought to the next, which is the idea that because they are soooo much better and more moral than everyone else, they should be the supreme and unquestioned arbiters of everything that people do. It’s downright insidious how quickly toxic Christians leap to this conclusion. And they’ll do it while preening and admiring themselves for being oh so very humble while they try to control the private lives, intimate choices, and medical decisions of every single person in the world, and then scream about persecution if their overreach is slapped down.
Naturally, adherence to this thinking is used as a barometer for how much of a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ someone is. Barna’s researchers certainly do sound horrified about “secularism spreading through culture” and how so many Christians “have embraced corrupt, me-centered theology.” They sound downright panicky over how most Christians “ascribe to five of the six tenets of the new moral code” that they’ve identified and are pretending is some big new shocking thing.
They’re not alone. That One News Now site has this idea that “God’s wisdom” tells Christians about morality, but I’ve certainly never noticed Christians being more moral than anybody else or even in having a better bead on what it means to be a good person than anybody else might have. What they actually have is not “God’s wisdom” but whatever they think they’ve interpreted as such–and despite their insistence that the “Bible is black and white in regards to laying out the moral path for man to take,” the truth is way fuzzier than they’d like to imagine. That fuzziness manifests itself all through One News Now’s opinion post. They claim that Barna’s supposedly-new moral code is “New Age dogma,” though it really isn’t, and also that “the religion of godless secular humanism” is to blame, showing that maybe the confusion is happening a bit closer to home than Christians would like to imagine. I don’t think they actually understand what either the New Age or secular humanism are, but if you think that’s going to stop them from having an opinion, you’re quite mistaken!
The Problem With Christians’ Ideas About Morality.
The big problem is, morality–as Christians conceive of the idea–doesn’t translate into action at all. Barna never asks how well the people responding to their surveys actually live by their own moral codes–whether Christian or not. They never examine how a society shaped by notions like bodily ownership and consent differs from one shaped by “do what I’m telling you Daddy says right now or you’ll be set on fire forever.”
And they sure as hell don’t ask which society might be more functional and pleasant to live in.
Because arguably, Americans are improving by nearly every single measurement possible of societal functionality. Some forms of crime are up, but that might be a function of our national problems with racism coming to a head. Teen pregnancies have declined sharply. The abortion rate in our country is the lowest it’s been since abortion was legalized. More kids are graduating from high school, and fewer of those kids are tangling with booze and drugs. Fewer people in America live in poverty. We’re finally having that big conversation about racism and sexism that we needed to have, and we’re starting to seriously examine systemic bias in both areas–and to try to dismantle it. It’s hard to see all this progress and not attribute it to exactly what Christians fear the most: a widescale movement away from “Christian morality.”
Most of us have seen exactly what kind of culture “Christian morality” creates, and we don’t want a part of it. It’s a culture of sex-shaming and repression; of vicious judgmentalism; of control-lust and victim-blaming; of rigid hierarchies and leader worship. The more hardcore a Christian group is, the more dysfunctional it is on every single measure. That’s why Christian-dominated states and cities tend to be the most crime-riddled, the most studiously ignorant, the most cruel, the most aggressive and violent, and the most unhealthy. And conversely why the most secular states and cities tend to be the most progressive and the most functional on all scales. Really, the further we get away from that Mayberry-like Christian-dominated culture fundagelicals want to return us to, the better everything seems to get.
Christians take for granted that their “biblical worldview” would create a perfect, harmonious, functional society, but it seems to do very little in the way of improving actual societies, or in making Christians actually better people. But as more and more of us are noticing, the opposite seems to be the case.
A Conclusion More and More People Are Coming To.
The very few moral ideas in the Bible that are worth keeping, aren’t unique to its various religions. And there are a lot of very immoral ideas in the Bible that are not worth keeping–and which even Christians tend not to keep, as this Barna survey has revealed. Most Christians are considerably more moral than their religion’s source document is, and that might be what worries Barna. A great many are considerably even less moral than their source document is, and that–weirdly–doesn’t worry Barna at all.
A lot of the problems that Christians are having now stem from their very ill-advised marriage to the Republican Party in American politics to gain greater power over both their own adherents and over greater culture itself. Thanks to neoconservative activists’ tireless, deliberate, and concerted efforts, a huge segment of Christians now firmly believe that their god-given role in life is to take over the country and institute an honest-to-dog theocracy here, ruling with an iron fist over all those godless heathens who don’t know any better. They believe that not only do they have the answer to ultimate morality but that they should force that answer onto every single person alive. And they think that they should be given the force of law to do it where their cultural influence isn’t enough to gain the compliance they demand.
None of that sounds particularly moral to me, and I don’t think it sounds particularly moral to a growing number of other Americans–including other Christians. People who figured out that the religion’s supernatural claims are bogus might otherwise have stuck around just because they thought religion as a whole was doing some good things or that it was relatively benign–but fundagelicals and hardcore Catholics teach them more every day about how wrong that notion is. So when faced with a religion whose claims are completely untrue and that is a significant force for evil in our culture, why stay at all?
If the Christians who are knee-deep in that muck want to accuse us of being less moral because we do not choose to associate with a group like theirs, are we really supposed to be bothered by that? It baffles me that a group that worships such a shockingly grotesque and horrific deity and that lives by such an unjust and broken social system demands that the rest of us treat them as the keepers of all that is moral and defer to their wisdom in all things–and then insults us when we refuse and laugh at them for even making such a ridiculous demand.
When I look at the complete wreck Christians have made of their own groups and their constant attempts to strong-arm everyone else outside of their groups, I come to the conclusion that maybe people are better off figuring out morality without Christianity. I don’t think I’m alone there, either.
Maya Angelou very famously taught us that when people show us who they really are, we would do well to listen to that message. We’re hearing a very clear message now–and we’d do well to take those Christians seriously when they show us exactly and precisely who they are and what they want. They are upset about this “new moral code,” but the one that ought to upset them even more is the one that slipped into their group right under their noses–and became the one that governs them now. Next time we’ll be looking at another study–this one about that subtle shift in morality, and what it tells us about the shape of things to come.