In his classic work After Virtue, the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argued that while there is plenty of evidence of declining morals in Western society, the more profound challenge is the inability to even frame a moral argument.1 We no longer have sufficient shared assumptions as a culture to reach any kind of consensus on moral questions, whether based on a broad Judeo-Christian ethic found in Holy Scripture, or even Aristotle’s account of virtues and human flourishing in his Nicomachean Ethics. Therefore, with the loss of any foundation for moral argument, the only path for contemporary society is to find new ways to accommodate endless human preferences within an increasingly fractured society. This loss of a proper moral framework means that, despite the ongoing fervent use of moral language in various cultural arguments, there can be no proper moral resolution, or what MacIntyre calls a “terminus” point.2 MacIntyre cited various common moral debates within society, demonstrating that because there is no shared moral framework in these national conversations, they end up not being conversations at all, with pros and cons evaluated based on a shared moral framework. Rather, they end up as staged shouting matches where we just yell at one another. MacIntrye called this descent of ethics into shouting in the twenty-first century Western world “emotivism.” He described emotivism as the point you reach when “all morals are nothing but expressions of [personal] preference” or “expressions of attitudes or feelings.”3 Quite tragically, our deepest moral questions today are resolved not through moral argumentation on either side, or certainly not any appeal to an objective moral standard of truth, but through the exertion of my will over your will by means of power. Certainly, the last four years we have all experienced the rise of shouting at rather than talking with in our public discourse.
As tragic as this season is in our declining cultural climate, it seems that we are now descending below emotivism to something even more tragic. Have you noticed that shouting is now slipping into silencing? This has become known in popular discourse as the “cancel culture.” However, I think there is something deeper going on here that is not about any political party, but a deeper malaise which has descended upon much of the populace as a whole.
There are, of course, examples of this which are noted regularly in the news. One of the more notable recent examples can be seen in the double apology issued on February 10th by Washington Bishop Mariann Budde and Washington National Cathedral Dean Randy Hollerith. Why did they issue a rare, joint apology? Their offense was allowing popular evangelical pastor Max Lucado to preach during the cathedral’s Sunday service. Lucado is, of course, the pastor of a large church and the author of many popular books. The apology was not because of anything said by Lucado during what was purportedly an uplifting and inspiring sermon to all those who heard it. The apology was because of a position Lucado holds concerning homosexual practice and same-sex marriage. Budde and Hollerith both apologized for the pain their decision to even invite Max Lucado had caused to the LGBTQ community. The dean of the cathedral, Randy Hollerith, went on to say, “In my straight privilege I failed to see and fully understand the pain he [Lucado] has caused.” Now, this is an extraordinary statement. Lucado did not cause pain for anything he said at the cathedral, but simply because he holds a traditional view of marriage and he had stated that he believes that homosexual practice is a sin which could lead to the degradation of other social norms in the wider society. Just holding that position (however kindly and politely you hold it) is now inherently a form of “harm speech.” Therefore, all those holding this position may face silencing. Please follow my point here. It is not important I or you or anyone reading this blog necessarily agree with Lucado’s position on same-sex marriage. It is the silencing of Lucado for nothing more than adhering to a position that should concern us all. Bishop Mariann Budde and Cathedral Dean Randy Hollerith should have recognized that the greater harm was in stifling Lucado’s freedom to hold an opinion which has, in fact, been taught historically by the church. Lucado had not been invited to the National Cathedral to address the issue of homosexuality. In fact, all parties agree that he never breathed a word about it. He was invited to expose the National Cathedral to a major evangelical voice in North America today.
Let’s stop and remember how much has changed since 2017. In 2017 Tim Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Church in New York, was chosen to be the recipient of the Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Life. There was a huge outcry at Princeton because Keller belongs to the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), not the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA). The Presbyterian group Keller belongs to does not affirm the ordination of women. Again, it does not matter whether you agree with Keller’s position on women’s ordination or not. I happen to not. But, I still believe that Keller is a vital and important voice today and I would feel genuinely honored if my life could have even 10 percent of the positive impact Keller has had on the gospel in North America and around the world. When it was announced that Keller was to be the recipient of the Abraham Kuyper Prize, a debate broke out at Princeton whether to dis-invite Keller or not. I am, myself, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, so I know enough about the academic culture there to say that it was a far more serious debate than what happens at most universities today when social media drives a dis-invite within forty-eight hours of an invitation, followed by the standard tearful apology of the president of the university. To be fair, the Princeton Seminary debate did eventually erupt into a lot of shouting on social media, confirming MacIntyre’s point about emotivism. But, beneath that there was still a genuine reticence to silence Keller, even though the overwhelming majority of Princeton Seminary students disagree with Keller and the PCA stance regarding women’s ordination. They realized that Keller was not coming to address that issue and the award was about the whole of his life’s positive impact. The compromise finally reached by Princeton Seminary was to allow Keller to speak, but to withhold the Abraham Kuyper award from him. It was, of course, a sad and tragic compromise, since he deserved both the award and the speaking platform, but at least they felt it important that Keller’s voice not be silenced, even though they disagreed with his stance on women’s ordination. I commend them for this.
Let’s stop and remember how much has changed since 1978. That was the year that the ACLU defended a neo-Nazi group that wanted to march through the Chicago suburb of Skokie, where many Holocaust survivors lived. The ACLU determined that free speech was so important that they must stand by the neo-Nazi group even though they were repulsed by the group’s message and everything they stood for. This would be shocking today. But, it was not unusual at the time because it was based on the famous line from the “Friends of Voltaire,” which summarized Voltaire’s view on free speech, saying, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The unexpected support from the ACLU led to an actual conversation about the wisdom of marching in that neighborhood, and the group decided to not march through that neighborhood.
I have bemoaned the emotivism that has allowed social media to be used as a platform for people to shout at one another and the accompanying loss of any moral framework. However, we seem to be entering a more dangerous phase where we are robbing people of their free speech. Despite some of the negative chatter around free speech today, it remains one of the cherished gems of our democracy that empowers us all. It is no mistake that “freedom of speech” is enshrined as the first amendment to the Constitution and the first of the enumerated Bill of Rights. Even though there are deep divisions in the church and the wider culture on a range of issues which may place me in disagreement with a range of people and positions, I want to defend the right of those who disagree to make their case without fear of harm. So, even if someone is an atheist, or wealthy, or chooses to change their gender, or kneels or refuses to kneel at a football game, and the list could go on and on, they are still persons created in the image of God who must never be dehumanized, flattened, or silenced. Indeed, civil discourse is a Christian virtue (e.g. Acts 17:17; 19:9). Our society, and even the church, is allowing people like Keller and Lucado, who are both nuanced, three-dimensional people with deep reflections on ten thousand issues, to be reduced to a single issue which happens to disagree with the current climate of cultural consciousness. This should be a concern for every American, regardless of your generation, your political party, or your religious affiliation.
1. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd edition (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 2007).
2. Ibid., 6.
3. Ibid., 12. The early chapters of MacIntyre’s book is dedicated to demonstrating the flaws in emotivism as a philosophical theory to provide moral guidance in a society. For example, in the early twentieth century many people felt that racism was morally justified and it required a proper moral argument to convince the wider society that it was “right” to at least begin to dismantle the moral scourge of racism. The resurgence of racism in our own time reveals the deeper tragedy that the moral argument upon which the fight against racism was waged has become eroded and there is no longer a sufficient moral framework for addressing an issue as important as racism.