Some years ago I wrote an editorial column for a local newspaper, which explained the harmful effect of moral relativism on our culture. Moral relativism is the popular notion that there is no such thing as absolute truth. Instead, all moral values are merely personal opinions, and no one opinion should be judged as better or worse than another. I wrote that this mindset is the true source of the violence and chaos and polarization we see in our society nowadays.
That column generated a fair amount of feedback, and many of the email notes I received can be summarized as follows: You claim we need firm values, Mr. Dunn, but WHOSE values? Will it be your right-wing conservative Catholic values? No Thanks. Fanatical Jesus freaks like you just want to impose a theocracy on the country.
First of all, Christians in America, at least the ones I’ve met and prayed with, do not want a theocracy. The genius of the Founding Fathers was their ability to keep specific religious doctrines and dogmas separated from the governing of the country. But many people do not realize our nation was built on a firm foundation of traditional Judeo-Christian values and virtues. There was a clear moral consensus throughout the country. Regardless of a person’s particular religious affiliation, or no religion at all, the citizenry acknowledged a basic moral code.
Honesty, hard work, discipline, and courage were good. Deception, laziness, promiscuity, and cowardice were bad. Everybody agreed. When the U.S. Constitution was ratified, John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Most conservative Christians or traditional Catholics, such as myself, understand the wisdom and common sense of Adams’ words, and for the sake of the nation we simply want to return to a clear moral consensus. However, my email friends raised a very valid point: WHOSE values? WHICH moral code will the citizenry acknowledge and follow?
The late Arthur Leff, a Yale law professor, coined the phrase, “The grand sez who.” Leff realized that moral relativism has a fatal flaw. If there are no absolute truths, if all moral values are merely personal opinions, then there is no transcendent authority as the source of values. Every single claim about specific morality or virtue can be answered with an indignant, “Sez who?!”
Without a transcendent authority as the source of morality and values, there never will be a societal consensus. In cultures without a moral consensus there are only two possible outcomes: either a chaotic mish-mash of competing personal opinions, which is our situation today; or totalitarian oppression imposed by a ruling elite to bring order to the chaos, the scenario I fear will happen in America within a decade or so. Either way, true freedom and liberty are lost.
Thomas Jefferson identified the transcendent authority for morality and values. Jefferson, no friend of organized religion, cited in the Declaration of Independence that this source is the “Law of Nature and Nature’s God.” He knew the source was far weightier than mere human opinions.
The fact that people nowadays are indignantly demanding, “Whose values?!” and “Sez who?!” shows how much trouble we are in. If we as a society do not find a moral consensus—and fast—we will continue down the path of greater and greater cultural chaos.
At some point soon, frightened citizens will demand the government “do something!” to restore order. You don’t want to be around when that happens. Just ask people who lived behind the Iron Curtain, or who live in North Korea today—if they haven’t already starved to death.
The only way for America to avoid the inevitable chaos-then-crackdown fate is to reject moral relativism. This is in no way a desire to impose a theocracy. It is a desire to see our nation survive.