‘Claiming the moral high ground’

‘Claiming the moral high ground’ June 7, 2021

Peter Wehner writes in the Atlantic about “The Scandal Rocking the [White] Evangelical World.” He does a good job here summarizing the causes and the implications of Russell Moore’s departure from the Southern Baptist Convention.

Moore was a long-time protege of the fundamentalist SBC powerbroker Al Mohler. Moore rose to national prominence when he replaced Richard Land as the leader of the denomination’s “Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission” — the vehicle for its lobbying and its public statements on political and cultural issues in the broader society. The ERLC post is a big deal because it’s the main position from which any one person acts as any kind of official spokesperson for the entire SBC.

Moore is a very, very conservative guy, but where Land had been enthusiastically racist and misogynist, Moore seems like someone who doesn’t want to be either of those things. The SBC has many prominent leaders who seem like they don’t want to be perceived as racist and misogynist, but Moore, to his credit, seemed as concerned about the reality as about the perception. That made him the focus of a lot of hostility from people who — correctly, I think — perceived criticism of racism and misogyny as an existential threat to the entire Southern Baptist Convention.

This simmering hostility reached a boiling point in 2016 when the presidential campaign of the former guy made a lot of resentful white guys feel free to express their support for racism and misogyny more openly. You can read what that was like for Moore in his own words in a recently leaked 2020 letter to the trustees of the ERLC in which he details the kind of crap he’s been dealing with over the past five years. All of which explains his recent departure from that job, and from the SBC entirely.

You should read the whole letter for the stark details, but Wehner does a good job summarizing the main points, which is that the worst of the hostility toward Moore was focused on his modest attempts to address the SBC’s massive problem with sexual abuse and his rather bland affirmations of “racial reconciliation.”

I’ve been a blunt critic of the SBC for both its intrinsic racism and its paternalistic, patriarchal misogyny, but no one who reads that letter from Russell Moore can ever again accuse me of overstating those problems.

Anyway, back to Peter Wehner. His piece has an odd duality to it. It starts off as his attempt to describe all of this inside-business to outsiders — to explain the nuances and the magnitude of all of this to Atlantic readers who wouldn’t be expected to be familiar with the implications of all of this within the white evangelical world. But he gradually shifts his tone and his intended audience, so that what begins as news reporting for outsiders ends as a sermon aimed squarely at insiders.

The transition between those sections and audiences is confusing and also, I think, confused. That confusion is summed up in this quote from Moore-ish conservative (but not Southern Baptist) pastor Tim Keller: “‘Evangelical’ used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with ‘hypocrite.'”

Read that again. Keller seems to imagine he’s describing some drastic change — a 180-degree reversal. He doesn’t seem to understand that he’s actually just reciting a tautology. What is a “hypocrite” if not a person “who claimed the high moral ground”?

That is, after all, what hypocrites do. Otherwise they wouldn’t be hypocrites.

The weirdest thing about Keller’s statement and Wehner’s endorsement of it is that both men seem to regard being “people who claim the high moral ground” as commendable. They both see claiming “the high moral ground” as synonymous with virtue — as indistinct from actually acting morally.

And it’s not just that these two things are not identical, but that they’re rarely even compatible. The idea of the “moral high ground” shifts our focus from doing good to just trying to be better than some real or imagined other. That way lies madness. Once we shift our aim toward “better than,” we’ll never be any better than “better than.” And better than is never any good.

And, just as perniciously, once one begins thinking of justice and goodness in terms of military battle — of seizing the high ground to gain an advantage over one’s foes in a power struggle — then justice and goodness become, at best, tactics in service of some other, higher goal. If your identity is tied up with “claiming the moral high ground” then actual virtue is something you’ll only value as a tool to reach that goal.

And once that’s true, then you don’t really need the thing itself, only the perception of it. You can act unjustly in service of unjust ends as long as you also claim to be acting justly in service of justice. That claim — that pretense — serves the tactical goal of seizing the military advantage of “the moral high ground” just as well as actual virtue would, but without all of the complicating limitations of having to behave morally in order to get there. To identify oneself as entitled to “the moral high ground” or, even more so, to define oneself as “claiming the moral high ground” is, if not tantamount to hypocrisy, a massive step in that direction.

The clearest demonstration of this in Wehner’s piece is this wretched business here:

The abolitionist and civil-rights movements can’t be understood without taking into account the role of faith; the same is true of the anti-abortion movement.

That starts off badly and ends up worse.

First there’s the sleight-of-hand switcheroo of the first clause — Wehner’s deceptively true statement that “the abolitionist and civil-rights movements can’t be understood without taking into account the role of faith.” That’s grossly misleading in a self-aggrandizing way for an article that’s mainly about white Southern Baptists. The abolitionist movement can’t be understood without taking into account the role of faithful white Southern Baptists who opposed it at every step with sanctimony and violence — all while piously “claiming the high moral ground.” And the same can be said of the Civil Rights movement.

The United States Needs a Third Reconstruction,” Wilfred Codrington III wrote, also in the Atlantic, a year ago, in one of several Atlantic essays that have used this historical framing of the Civil Rights movement as the “Second Reconstruction.”

That Second Reconstruction was necessary because the first was violently ended in what historians call “the Redemption.” That’s an explicitly religious term because the violent, lawless backlash against Reconstruction was an explicitly religious undertaking. They burned crosses, after all. “It can’t be understood without taking into account the role of faith” — the role, specifically, of white Southern Baptist faith.

The Second Reconstruction, of course, was followed by the ongoing Second Redemption — a movement led, again, by white Christians who have, for a generation, reshaped the Republican Party into a force committed to rolling back every legal gain of the Civil Rights Movement. Southern Baptists and white evangelicals more generally reshaped their own doctrines — and even rewrote their Bibles — in pursuit of the political power to restock the federal judiciary with Redemptionist jurists who would erase or diminish the legal import of everything from the Voting Rights Act to the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.

Nothing in that bears the slightest resemblance to “the moral high ground,” and so some figleaf of moral respectability had to be concocted to allow this immoral, lawless and antichrist agenda to be pursued while still claiming that moral high ground.

Which brings us to the second clause of Wehner’s perverse sentence: “the same is true of the anti-abortion movement.”

One of the defining moral obscenities of our time is the fact that the “anti-abortion movement” is able to even pretend to some claim of “the moral high ground.” It’s a corrosively disingenuous set of lies — a form of toxic self-deception that requires the extreme and extremely implausible bearing of false witness against one’s neighbors on a massive scale. It’s “claim” of the “moral high ground” is convincing only to those who agree to pretend to accept its lies about others, and which thus abandons any attempt to convince or persuade those others of its legitimacy.

But it doesn’t need or want to convince or persuade. It’s not about persuasion but about the military advantage of the “high ground” and the opportunity to rain fire down upon one’s enemies from the commanding heights of alleged moral superiority. The Second Redemption — which is to say, now — is a battle whose aim is indistinct from the first. “The anti-abortion movement” has served as its battle flag and its burning cross.

Stating that with such candor leads to a great deal of defensive indignation, howls of protest from those who insist that their own participation in and endorsement of that anti-abortion movement has been motivated by nothing but the best of intentions.

OK, fine.

It seems odd to think that pride, self-flattery, and self-deception had nothing to do with someone’s eagerness to accept the claim that women are inherently untrustworthy and that millions of them are morally depraved monsters, but I’ll accept that many of the followers who have inherited a place in that political movement and religious deformation did so because they were convinced by it’s pious rhetoric about the “sanctity of life” and “saving babies.”

But intent doesn’t alter the effect or the prevailing function. And that effect, that function — that “fruit” in the terms of the Sermon on the Mount — has been overwhelmingly Redemptionist. Every “anti-abortion” justice has also turned out to be a Redemptionist jurist — one who refuses to regard the Reconstruction Amendments as legitimate and binding. That’s an unlikely coincidence and an undeniable fact. If that wasn’t your personal “intent” in supporting the “anti-abortion movement,” that has nonetheless been the overwhelming, life-denying consequence of your support.

Given that, one might say you’ve abandoned any “claim to the moral high ground” — but, again, worrying about such a claim is a dubious distraction. What matters is not what we “claim,” or whether that position elevates us above others. What matters is whether we’re on the side of justice or against it.

And for most white Christians throughout most of our history — abolition, the Civil Rights movement, and abortion — we have been on the catastrophically wrong side.

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