Home/Rod Dreher/The Problem Of Moralism

The Problem Of Moralism

The Southern Baptist theologian Albert Mohler takes up the case of a distraught parent who wrote to an advice columnist, saying she doesn’t understand why her teenage daughter is an atheist, given that the girl was raised with “Christian values.” That, says Mohler, is precisely the problem. Excerpt:

Parents who raise their children with nothing more than Christian values should not be surprised when their children abandon those values. If the child or young person does not have a firm commitment to Christ and to the truth of the Christian faith, values will have no binding authority, and we should not expect that they would. Most of our neighbors have some commitment to Christian values, but what they desperately need is salvation from their sins. This does not come by Christian values, no matter how fervently held. Salvation comes only by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Human beings are natural-born moralists, and moralism is the most potent of all the false gospels. The language of “values” is the language of moralism and cultural Protestantism — what the Germans called Kulturprotestantismus. This is the religion that produces cultural Christians, and cultural Christianity soon dissipates into atheism, agnosticism, and other forms of non-belief. Cultural Christianity is the great denomination of moralism, and far too many church folk fail to recognize that their own religion is only cultural Christianity — not the genuine Christian faith.

Here is a passage from Charles Taylor’s “A Secular World” on the decline of religion into moralism, and how it opens the door for unbelief. Here Taylor is talking about the 19th century reaction against Victorian moralism:

But perhaps the most important for our purposes was the protest against a narrowing of the ends of life to a code of conduct: This ethic of discopline, in both believing and unbeleiving variants, was a moralism. It put discipline, self-control, the achieving of a high moral standard as the supreme goal. This tended to be true even of the Evangelical modes, which had after all started in the previous century as a reaction against narrow moralism, for instance in the emotionally liberating preaching of Wesley. Like all moralisms, it could come to seem too thin, too dry, concerned so exclusively with behaviour, discipline, control, that it left no space for some great elan or purpose which would transform our lives and take us out of the narrow focus on control. The obsession with getting myself to act right seems to leave no place for some overwhelmingly important goal or fulfillment, which is the one which gives point to my existence.

This complaint, sometimes interwoven with the “Romantic” one, that modern moral, disciplined life represses feeling, recurs again and again in the last two centuries. It is one of the defining concerns of the modern world. It is related to that other great defining concern, the worry about meaning, that is, about the possible meaninglessness of life. Indeed, these two are closely linked; they come at the same issue from different directions. The attack on our form of life as having left no place for what is the essential purpose of life, can from another angle be taken up as the anguished question whether there is still such an essential purpose, or whether they have not rather been all equally rendered nugatory by our way of life. It is just that, while the reproach against dry-as-dust moralism has analogies in earlier centuries, the anguish about meaning is quintessentially modern.

Taylor goes on to talk about how the traumatic experience of the First World War damaged the credibility of Christian moralism as the foundation of civilization more than anything could have done. The years between the two world wars, Taylor writes, saw “a further retreat from belief because of the implication of Christian faith in the discredited synthesis.” [N.B., this “synthesis,” in Taylor’s telling, is the combination of law, morality, Christianity, civilization, and cultural identity. — RD]

There is, I think, something important to be learned here about why so many young Americans are turning away from religion. There is no one particular reason, of course, but researchers have identified the strong identification of Evangelical Christianity with the Republican Party and its values and goals as a major reason. Whether fair or not, when a religion becomes closely identified with a political agenda, and that agenda comes to be discredited, or at least unpopular, we should not be surprised when people find it harder to credit that religion’s claims. We see this in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century discrediting of the churches that had become too entwined with the ancien regimes of Europe and Russia.

Anyway, moralism. The correct response to moralism masquerading as Christianity is Peggy Lee’s: “Is this all there is?” Kierkegaard said the answer to Peggy Lee’s question is not to be found in a life of Romanticism, hedonism, or aestheticism — Bloom but in true Christianity. But that’s a story for another day.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

leave a comment

Latest Articles