““If you ask me what the biggest problem in America is, I’m not going to tell you debt, deficits, statistics, economics—I’ll tell you it’s moral relativism.”
-Paul Ryan, R-WI, Weekly Standard, Nov 28, 2011
Question: "What is moral relativism?"
Answer: Moral relativism is more easily understood in comparison to moral absolutism. Absolutism claims that morality relies on universal principles (natural law, conscience). Christian absolutists believe that God is the ultimate source of our common morality, and that it is, therefore, as unchanging as He is. Moral relativism asserts that morality is not based on any absolute standard. Rather, ethical “truths” depend on variables such as the situation, culture, one's feelings, etc.
--gotquestions.org, an evangelical Christian website
Paul Ryan is famously “not yet ready” to support his party’s presumptive nominee Donald Trump. The two met in a private confab on May 12, and the pressure on Ryan from the rest of the party to “fall in line” is mounting. Ryan, and other Honest Republicans including many evangelical Christians, may well find themselves in the role of the young pastor newly assigned to a small town church where two notorious brothers, Joe and Frank, wreak havoc in the congregation. Joe and Frank are scoundrels, drunkards, gamblers, and adulterers. They are rich and powerful enough to control every decision of the church’s board of elders. One day Joe dies, and the next day Frank calls on the pastor in his church study.
“Reverend, tomorrow when you give the eulogy I want you to say that Joe was a good man.”
“I can’t very well say that, Frank. You as well as I know what kind of man your brother was.”
Frank pulls a check out of his shirt pocket. “You don’t understand, Reverend. This is a check for $20,000. It’s enough to put a new roof on the church. If tomorrow I hear you say, ‘Joe was a good man,’ then the check is yours. Otherwise, I’ll tear the roof down on your head with my own hands.”
The pastor spends a sleepless night. The next day, he stands beside the coffin, gives Frank in the front row a fearful glance and begins: “Family and friends, we are here to bury Joe, someone who was a scoundrel and a drunkard, a gambler and a philanderer, but. . . compared to his brother Frank, ‘Joe was a good man.’
Some readers of this joke might appreciate having just such a pastor as the shepherd of their flock. He’s a clever tactician. He knows how to raise enough funds for a new roof. He even gets the satisfaction of saying publicly that Joe was a scoundrel and a drunkard, a gambler and a philanderer. But how will this pastor and his congregation feel tomorrow when the newspaper runs the only headline it is capable of running: “Local Pastor Declares Joe to be a Good Man”? This pastor did nothing to root out evil. Instead, while no doubt denouncing moral relativism regularly on Sunday mornings, he was happy to employ it to get himself out of a vexing dilemma during the week.
The definition of the word relative is “considered in relation or in proportion to something else,” and thus moral relativism occurs when we base our moral judgments, or take a moral action, on something—not in its own right—but rather “in relation or proportion to something else.” Paul Ryan and millions of other Honest Republicans are in danger of moral relativism when they declare—either by vocal endorsement or by private vote: “Compared to Hillary, Donald Trump is a worthy Presidential candidate.”
I encourage my friends who are Honest Republicans to try out a brief exercise. For my secular friends, I call it a “thought experiment.” For my Christian friends, I call it an “exercise in spiritual discernment.” The exercise goes like this:
Imagine that Hillary Clinton does not exist. Or, at least imagine that you have time travelled back one year earlier (before Trump announced his candidacy.) Now, say these phrases out loud:
I want my one vote to go to Donald Trump.
Donald Trump is a worthy presidential candidate.
I want to see Donald Trump be President of the United States.
Donald Trump’s character embodies my own most cherished values.
Donald Trump is a good man.
Now, if you were able to engage the parameters of the exercise—Hillary non-existent or time travel possible—how did you feel when you made each of these statements? Was one of the statements more dissonant to you than another? Did you gain any insights into your thought processes, or in what God might be saying to you about your vote, a moral action?
Admittedly, some Honest Republicans have little patience for thought experiments. They are going to rejoin: “I am NEVER going to say those statements, even if I do end up voting for Trump in November.” Like the pastor reading the newspaper headline, they want to be quoted accurately:
- I didn’t want my one vote to go to Trump; I wanted it to go to Rubio, or Carson, or Kasich. But I would rather my one vote go to Trump than to Hillary.
- Yes, Trump is a worthier presidential candidate than Hillary.
- I would rather see Trump be POTUS than Hillary. He’s the lesser of two evils.
- My cherished values have a better chance with Trump than with Hillary.
- Yes, Trump may be racist, sexist, bigoted, xenophobic, greedy, violent and narcissistic BUT. . . editor of The Liberator Today, why aren’t you giving equal time to bad-mouthing Hillary—she’s worse!
Such is the temptation of moral relativism, and such is the power of the antipathy that many Honest Republicans have toward Hillary, that it’s hard to sustain even a simple thought experiment. Many people cannot see Trump alone, in his own right, on his own terms, the emperor with whatever amount of clothes on, because they can only see him “in relation or in proportion to something else,” in this case to Hillary Clinton. In the process, they tragically abandon what moral absolutism might reasonably conclude about Donald Trump. They miss the moment to take an upright stand. Moral relativism provides them a mechanism by which they can vote for Trump and hopefully salve their conscience in the process. They are even reticent about an initiative like Bust the Ballot that offers other alternatives. Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore has declared that he will be voting for neither Trump nor Hillary; he will be writing in Republican senator Ben Sasse. There is something that he sees and admires in Sasse. But many moral relativists are convinced that only a pro-Trump vote is sufficient to register the degree of their anti-Hillary antipathy. Whether Trump is a worthier presidential candidate than Hillary (see the statements above) is moot when the moral absolutist exercises his or her freedom to say, "I admire a politician like Ben Sasse." At that point, and certainly when the Trump lever is pulled, saying "Trump is worthier than Hillary" is no different in effect than saying "I believe Trump is a worthy presidential candidate."
I call this “looking at Trump through Hillary-colored glasses.” When someone wears rose-colored glasses, the original idiom, the glasses play with the hue: all the world seems rosy and naively optimistic. Hillary-colored glasses seem to play with refraction. In other words, an Honest Republican who still hasn’t found the freedom to take off these glasses—or doesn’t know she is even wearing them—might still see Trump somewhat clearly and might know in her conscience that Trump is racist, sexist, bigoted, xenophobic, greedy, violent and narcissistic. But Hillary-colored glasses are refractive. You can look at an object, but depending on the strength of the lenses, the object suddenly appears elsewhere than its true, or absolute, position.
The Liberator Today places Donald Trump out in a field which we would label “demands my active repudiation as a presidential candidate.” But suppose this is only one of four adjacent fields in which an Honest Republican might perceive Trump standing. This voter is wearing her Hillary-colored glasses and the strength of their refraction is enough to see Trump over in field #3. Trump is still perceived of as an unworthy presidential candidate, but here the moral action is passive: “I won’t vote for him.” Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush seem to be in category #4, but their Hillary-colored glasses may be moving them to category #3, where the two Bush presidents appear to be. For other Republicans, the antipathy to Hillary is stronger so that when they look at Trump, they perceive him to be in category #2: now somehow worthy of casting their one vote for him. Strong Hillary-colored glasses took Marco Rubio across this line. Remember the nasty things that Rubio said and seemed to believe about his opponent, the con-man. On April 21 however, Rubio said, “I’ve always said I’m going to support the Republican nominee and that’s especially true now that it’s apparent that Hillary Clinton is going to be the Democratic candidate.” Finally there are those who when they look at Trump, regardless of whatever field he should be in, they can’t help but see him in Category #1: they will actively endorse and defend him, if not downright campaign for him. Some of these people, like Sarah Palin or Jerry Falwell Jr., are wearing pro-Trump contact lenses in addition to the Hillary-colored glasses. They were Trump true believers to begin with. But others, like perhaps Chris Christie or Newt Gingrich, or like some of Trump’s defenders this past week in response to The Liberator Today’s Facebook postings, are Honest-Republicans-Facing-a-Significant-Dilemma who are wearing alarmingly strong anti-Hillary glasses.
Epistemology (the study of how we know what we know) has long observed that our perceptions never quite match up with reality. In other words, we are all wearing glasses of one variety or another, one strength or another. For example, some of my Democrat friends this week believe that I too am wearing anti-Hillary glasses, because they believe that there are also fields #5 and #6 (or more): voting for Clinton as a way of repudiating Trump, or voting for Hillary Clinton in her own right. I wrote to one Trump supporter this week and pleaded: “If you have a beef with Hillary, that's one thing. I don't intend to vote or campaign for her either. BUT PLEASE, separate Hillary from your thinking, and let Trump stand alone before you, Scripture, and the Holy Spirit in full discernment. Please, my brother, repudiate him.” Even then I know that I, and everyone else, reads the Bible and listens to the Holy Spirit through our own habituated filters. Nonetheless if moral absolutism has any viable future, Mr. Ryan, we’ve got to at least try. We have to admit that Hillary-colored glasses effect an unduly powerful distortion. Some perceptions are farther from reality than others. Some misperceptions have more disastrous consequences than others. Isaiah the prophet (5:20-21) writes:
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil,
who put darkness for light and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.
We might think that these woes are reserved for those who consciously call evil good and good evil, but the very next verse allows for the moral actor (the voter, the endorser) who never bothers to question the validity of the glasses he or she is wearing:
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
and clever in their own sight.
Clipart from: classroomclipart.com