The Loss of Right and Wrong: What's Worse Than Being Mean?

The Loss of Right and Wrong: What's Worse Than Being Mean?

Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Vice President at Family Research Council. This article appeared in Religion Today on April 24, 2013.

Earlier this week, I was interviewed by a very nice radio talk-show host about the proposal to allow what the Boy Scouts term "open and avowed" homosexuality into Scouting itself.

During the conversation, I made a point about Scouts promising to be "morally straight," and the gentleman interviewing me said, "You can be morally straight without being sexually straight, can't you?"

I responded that Scouting was founded on Judeo-Christian moral principles and went on from there. But a more candid response would have been a simple "no." Morality encompasses human sexual behavior. The morality of the Scouts historically has been the morality of the Old and New Testaments, which teaches that the only sexually intimate behavior countenanced by God exists between a man and a woman within marriage.

There has been, over the past 40 years or so, a growing detachment of human sexuality from morality. Moral relativism, near-universal access to the birth control pill, entertainment media that increasingly purveys, depicts and encourages sex of all kinds among people of all ages, and a culture riven by such relational phenomena as divorce, fatherlessness, promiscuity, adultery and abortion work together to diminish sex as a thing of spiritual beauty and personal intimacy reserved for marriage alone.

Historian Victor Davis Hansen notes the fundamental irony of a society that not only has detached morality from sex but made subjective arbitrariness an objective arbitrator:

Graphic language, nudity and sex are now commonplace in movies and on cable television. At the same time, there is now almost no tolerance for casual and slang banter in the media or the workplace. A boss who calls an employee "honey" might face accusations of fostering a hostile work environment, yet a television producer whose program shows an 18-year-old having sex does not.

In other words, it's OK to abase oneself, but a wolf-whistle gets you fired. Is this truly the sum of modern ethics?

Moral absolutes of all kinds - fixed, eternal, unyielding - are seen not only as archaic but hateful. A Facebook correspondent contacted me recently, accusing me of being "hateful" because I believe in marriage as the union of one man and one woman and in protecting children from premature exposure to sexual controversy in the Boy Scouts. His vinegaresque comments defy reasonable discourse.

Similarly, to say that something is "wrong" is seen by many as harsh, even primitive. Instead, we talk in terms of "appropriateness." Was it wrong to call someone a name? Or just "mean" or "hateful?" Wrong implies a standard of truth that is objective, knowable and permanent. Such a standard implies a standard-giver, namely God. Thus, asserting moral right and wrong is grounded in religious belief and therefore cannot be upheld as normative in public discourse.

Or so the argument goes. But consider a trick performed by Japanese soldiers during the notorious Rape of Nanking and the German military during the Holocaust: Was it only "inappropriate" or "distasteful" that infants were flung around on bayonets, or was it wrong?

We cannot elude "the law written on the heart" (Romans 2:14), the moral sense that is as inherent to humanness as breathing. We cannot continuously abrade that sense without dulling it. And when the callous born of repeated evil becomes too thick, our sensitivity to good and evil become sufficiently dull that there is no final right and wrong but mere extemporaneous preference or social approval.

No civilization can long endure on such a platform. Moral acceptability must be governed by more than popular consent and derived from something other than any act's immediate effect on single individuals. Men and women are simply too fallen to re-craft the Creator's moral universe.

Thomas Jefferson claimed, "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." Really? What if the atheist or polytheist to whom Mr. Jefferson refers decides that public nudity is acceptable (as some in San Francisco and elsewhere already are doing)? Such conduct does not harm me materially, but by diminishing the dignity of the body it hurts those who practice it and, more extensively, hurts society as a functioning, organic, interrelated unit. Harm goes beyond the body and the wallet; it extends to the soul and the mind.

Moral incoherence is growing. Adultery is not wrong, merely unwise (or liberating, depending on one's personal point of view, which to challenge is arrogant, not to mention mean). Confiscation of property and wealth, aka theft, is not wrong if performed by government entities, but good luck if you get caught stealing a car. Murder is a capital offense unless its victim is a 9-month-old unborn child, her life ended in an antiseptic "clinic."

Christians must continue to appeal to the conscience, to make reasoned arguments, to tell stories that subtly explain moral truth. Persuasion is a multi-pronged endeavor. And we must wed grace with truth as we make our case.

We just need to be prepared for looks of uncertainty, amazement and even hostility from our peers and not to assume that our basic moral assumptions are theirs. There has never been a time when being a Christian in America has been, for so many, so very peculiar.