Theocrats, Moral Relativism & the Myth of Religious Tolerance, Part IV: Moral Recovery via Rediscovering the Meaning of Words

The comments sections of
Part I: The Difference Between Religious Freedom and Religious Tolerance
Part II: Are We Hostile Toward or Encouraging Religious Belief?
Part III: Consequences of Excluding Religion from the Public Square
of this Theocrats, Moral Relativism & the Myth of Religious Tolerance series, plus Justin’s Favoring the Non-Participatory posting, offer up many statements which present a largely incoherent vision for how our society will develop, share, and sustain a set of core values necessary for it to exist in a cohesive manner.
Distilled to their essence, the comments highlighted four major issues:

1. Do moral truths (discovered via either faith or reason) exist and belong in the public square – and how should they affect our public life?
2. How do we define reason and religious freedom?
3. What does religious freedom – as defined in the 1st Amendment – mean and how has jurisprudence and societal practices changed our interpretation of religious freedom over the years?
4. What role and importance did the Founding Fathers assign to religion in our society and why?

This posting focuses on the first part of question #1 and subsequent postings in this series will address the remaining issues.
To provide a context before tackling question #1, here are some of the statements from the comments sections:

At no time do I want to interfere with your right or anyone else’s right to practice [religion] as you choose…It is impossible for the state to speak on religion without giving the impression that one has been preferred. As you increase “liberty” for one, you decrease it for others. The Founders wanted balance for all…The Government does not have the right to allow one advocacy over another even if we can’t figure out what the other is…We can never figure out what “all” advocacy is…Since the “all” universe cannot be determined, the only way to keep balance is the “no” universe…The Government cannot allow the advocacy of religion on public grounds because it limits the freedoms of others to express their religious views when they are not advocated. The non-advocated position has been de-established by the Government�How do you know with certainty that every religion has been asked to participate? You assume so because as a mainstream sect, you were. However, the guy who worships Kelly Clarkson as a demi-goddess was not…he was left out, his religion is valid, and therefore demeaned…Since everyone will not choose to participate…you cannot allow some belief system to obtain an advantage because they choose to participate. Therefore, no one gets to participate.

There are two striking features to these comments: First, they avoid any discussion of substantive issues such as freedom, justice, rights, and moral common sense. Instead, they devolve into ideas emphasizing how our government should restrict the freedom of citizens to express their beliefs in any public forum.
And when we equate the suggested religion of Kelly-Clarkson-as-a-demi-goddess with either the Jewish or Christian tradition, have not we just endorsed an unserious moral relativism which denies there are any moral truths discoverable by faith or reason? If there are no moral truths, have not then words like freedom and justice lost all meaning?
Reflections on Pope John Paul II’s role in the demise of Communism – as highlighted in an article in the extended entry below – offers some guidance about where to begin:

Language, then, and the restoration of its relationship with reality were critical to the Communist collapse. This was no small feat since, for many in the West, words had lost their meaning. A recovery of meaning was essential before a real challenge could be presented…You cannot use “evil” as an adjective until you know it as a noun…the new struggle [today] is over the meaning of freedom…In Veritatis Splendor, the pope warned of “the risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism, which would remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life, and on a deeper level make the acknowledgment of truth impossible.” If truth is impossible, so are the “self-evident truths” upon which free government depends. Then, one can understand everything in terms of power and its manipulation…[John Paul II] raised the hope that moral recovery is possible by calling for it.

That loss of meaning means we – at least implicitly – deny the existence of moral truths and, by default, fail to address the societal consequences of the moral relativism now dominating the public square, as described by these words from Pope Benedict XVI:

No great, inspiring culture of the future can be built upon the moral principle of relativism. For at its bottom such a culture holds that nothing is better than anything else, and that all things are in themselves equally meaningless…
The culture of relativism invites its own destruction…by its own internal incoherence…

Yet, acknowledging the existence of moral truths is part of both our American and Western Civilization heritages. As Lee Harris writes, our heritage is a rich one:

Christian Europe, after all, was a fusion of diverse elements: the Hebrew tradition, the experience of the early Christian community, the Roman genius for law, order, and hierarchy, the Germanic barbarians’ love of freedom, among many others. In this cultural amalgam, Greek philosophy certain played a role. St. Clement argued that Greek philosophy had been given by God to mankind as a second source of truth, comparable to the Hebrew revelation. Benedict argues that the “inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history.”

Our heritage not only acknowledges the existence of moral truths but argues that these truths can be discovered by either faith or reason – thereby confirming what has been true for centuries: This public conversation about the role of moral truths in the public square does not require everyone to hold identical religious beliefs. It does require us to be morally serious and to firmly place moral relativism in the dustbin of history.
Moral truths belong in the public square to avoid the societal consequences of moral relativism. Only with a belief in moral truths can words become meaningful again and enable us to begin a public conversation about principles such as freedom and – from there – to discuss proper ways to introduce their meaning back into the public square.
As a first step toward the recovery of meaning, let’s next ask ourselves whether we truly understand the meaning of freedom – including religious freedom – and reason as we explore how best to live our American experiment in ordered liberty.


Robert Reilly wrote these words in Fearless: How John Paul II Changed the Political World:

John Paul II was a shaker of world events. He regraded the political landscape of the 20th century and was counted among the few who were responsible for the relatively peaceful demise of the Evil Empire…
Language, then, and the restoration of its relationship with reality were critical to the Communist collapse. This was no small feat since, for many in the West, words had lost their meaning. A recovery of meaning was essential before a real challenge could be presented to the East. No single individual did more for this restoration than John Paul II, who insisted upon calling things by their proper names…You cannot use “evil” as an adjective until you know it as a noun…
Everyone now celebrates “our” victory over Communism, conveniently forgetting that the struggle was not only with Communism but within the West as to what Communism meant. The anti�anti-Communists in the West were frightened by the vocabulary of the pope and President Ronald Reagan for the Soviet Union because they feared it might lead to war, but also because the use of the word “evil” had implications for themselves with which they were extremely uncomfortable. As English writer Christopher Derrick once said, the only real Iron Curtain runs through the soul of each one of us. If we can know what evil is, how then does that apply to our own lives? Rather than answer that question, many preferred to attack the people using it and to explain the Cold War away as just another variation of power politics and realpolitik. Communism was simply a mask for traditional Russian imperial expansionism and could be dealt with similarly. Power dealing with power can reach an understanding.
So long as this view was regnant in the West, Communism was a form of absolutism fighting a form of relativism. As such, Communism had the clear advantage and gained it on the field with stunning geographic advances�in Central Asia, Africa, and Central America�and strategic advances in both conventional and non-conventional weaponry. So great was the progress of the Soviet Union in the 1970s that anyone looking at these factors alone would have expected it to win. Those expectations were defeated by a factor outside of these calculations…
Reagan was the first political leader to use the moral vocabulary of “evil” to describe the Soviet empire in the recent era. The reaction was hysterical. How reckless could Reagan be? Yet the president calmly responded that he wanted them, the Soviets, to know that he knew. This acknowledgment inspired great hope behind the Iron Curtain. Then, finally, the Soviets used the term themselves. Once the proper vocabulary was employed, it was over. Semantic unanimity brought the end not in the much-feared bang, but a whimper. Truth�the splendor of truth�turned out to be the most effective weapon in the Cold War. The bearer of that truth in it fullest splendor was John Paul II…
Radek Sikorski, the former deputy foreign minister of a free Poland, wrote in a tribute to John Paul II that, “Before people demand democracy and social rights, they have to gain faith in their own human dignity.” That was the prerequisite for liberation: You must know you should be free before you can be free. This is what the pope restored to them. “Be not afraid” were his first words as pope. You need not be afraid because of the truth. Know that truth, and it will set you free.
One needs not only physical courage to be free but, above all, courage of the mind in identifying and speaking the truth. Living in the spirit of the truth is what banishes fear…It is difficult for people in the West to appreciate how galvanizing the Truth is when it is spoken publicly in a society oppressed by a lie�an institutionalized lie about man that is enforced by state power.
The pope�s “politics” were really quite simple, as they derived from his conviction that God is sovereign and man�s human dignity and rights are endowed by Him. Without God, they have no origin. He stressed the irreducible fact that the source of man�s dignity is in his Creator…
The political implications of this are clear: If you wish to save man, first restore God to His rightful place. Then, “If you want peace, remember man”�that is, man made in His image, blessed with reason and free will. Therefore, the political arrangement of man�s life should comport with his nature as a free and reasoning creature, ordered to a transcendent good…
Then what about the rest? What about John Paul II�s excoriating critique of the West after the Cold War, and the puzzlement with which it was greeted? Why did he interrupt our victory celebrations? Those who had reduced the pope�s role to the political results of his actions missed, perhaps deliberately, the transcendent moral standards that animated his actions. The same people who failed to grasp the true nature of the Cold War also failed to appreciate the pope�s critique of the West. Those who did not understand what was morally wrong with Communist ideology also do not understand what is wrong with us.
While the struggle within the West during the Cold War was over the meaning of Communism, the new struggle is over the meaning of freedom…In other words, it is not putting yourself into relationship with what is that frees you, but making up what you wish. This became the empty credo of modernity.
The same moral relativism that weakened the West during the Cold War remained after the war ended…The pope�s critique of Communism is important to understand because its principles apply to his critique of the West after the Cold War. It is, in fact, the same critique of modernity, albeit modernity in a different manifestation. Apparently, getting to make up reality for ourselves is not a harmless endeavor. In fact, John Paul II used the same terrible word to describe it: totalitarian.
In this case, however, the pope startlingly juxtaposed the words “totalitarian” and “democracy” and warned of “totalitarian democracy” as the new danger, even in America. A “totalitarian democracy” may seem a contradiction in terms. However, when its context in the “laws of nature and of nature’s God” is removed, democracy loses its authority in higher law and becomes simply another vehicle for the expression of the primacy of the will. This is the basis of totalitarianism. What one wills, not what one reasons, is paramount. Force, not free will, is the means. Whether it is the force of the majority or of the minority matters not…
In his brilliant [Crisis Magazine] article, “Why the Pope Loves America” (February 1997), Dennis Teti pointed to the source of John Paul II�s affection for the United States in the natural law grounding of its founding documents. The pope consistently spoke of “the paramount value of the natural law.” That love for America was clearly still intact when he addressed President Bush during a 2001 meeting:

Your nation�s founders…were guided by a profound sense of responsibility towards the common good to be pursued in respect for the God-given dignity and inalienable rights of all. America continues to measure herself by the nobility of her founding vision in building this society of liberty, equality, and justice under the law…

…In Veritatis Splendor, the pope warned of “the risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism, which would remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life, and on a deeper level make the acknowledgment of truth impossible.”
If truth is impossible, so are the “self-evident truths” upon which free government depends. Then, one can understand everything in terms of power and its manipulation. The concern is not simply with evil but with its institutionalization…
John Paul II continued to call things by their true names. As he had refused to comply with the old lie of slavery, he would not bend to the new lie of false freedom. He preserved the integrity of words because of his fidelity to the Word. People celebrate him because of the victory over Communism but not for the deeper reasons behind that victory, because they do not like being told that they are abusing their freedom. However, he raised the hope that moral recovery is possible by calling for it

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W. Allen
W. Allen
14 years ago

This is a well-formed and clear argument, which underscores how important it is for all to think very seriously about the fundamental issues of constitutional order and not submit to the penchant to imagine that a mere assertion of preferences is the foundation of our common life. The notion that everyone’s “views” deserve resepct merely by being held is so incredibly indefensible, that it needs to be a source of more than mere wonder that it is so widespread in our time. You may be interest in a rough excerpt of the discussion I am working through in my commentary on Montesquieu’s “Spirit of the Laws” and which I have been going over just today: “In further summarizing this and again still focusing on the difference between Christians and Mohammedans and their kinds of quarrels, he says, ‘in ordinary disputes each person knows he can be wrong, and hence is not extremely opinionated or obstinate. But in our disputes over religion, by the nature of the thing, each person is sure his opinion is true, and we are indignant with those who obstinately insist on making us change instead of changing themselves.’ “Now this is a necessary characteristic of religion, which one probably comes to appreciate best when one reads the early discussions of toleration in people like Milton (or even John Locke, whom we wouldn’t identify as especially pious, whereas we would see Milton is pious). But in both cases one thing is very clear when they write about toleration. They understand it as a principle which is only established in the context of the recognition of error. One tolerates errors, not rival truths. That’s what the definition of toleration originally is based upon. And so the reason of the argument for toleration within certain sects of Christianity is… Read more »

Joe Mahn
Joe Mahn
14 years ago

There are many facets here. My opinions are my own and I would never think of forcing or coercing anyone to agree, follow, believe, perform, or choose the way I do. Our great country provides this freedom for all with the balancing limitations so written in the constitution and laws of the land. We can all freely exercise our beliefs within these limits.
Truth on the other hand is a higher quest than personal freedom of choice since it provides no room for opposing positions, though many exist. Truth excludes all competing claims by its very nature whereas personal volition and the resulting choices so made can run the spectrum with only the extremes perhaps running foul of the law.
J Mahn

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