Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Are Only Christians Moral?

It's a common accusation by the Christian Right that non-Christians have no sense of morality because morality doesn't exist outside the Bible. All the leaders - the Wildmons, the Dobsons, Pat Robertson, Charles Colson, Bryan Fischer, Cindy Porter, Matt Barber, and especially David Barton - have made this claim in writing and in public speeches and interviews. All of these people are followers of Christian Reconstructionism - and in some cases Seven Mountains Dominionism, the more radical wing of Christian Reconstructionism - an ideology which teaches that evangelical Christianity needs to gain control of government in order to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth.

Obviously not all Christians believe this; but even more interesting, not even all evangelicals believe that there is no morality outside the Bible. The late Michael Spencer, a Southern Baptist pastor and educator who created the InternetMonk.com blog (which is now carried on by like-minded "post-evangelicals" since Spencer's death from brain cancer a year ago), often made the point that evangelical Christianity had no exclusive claim on morality. Most notably, he made the point in the comment thread to his interview with former evangelical and self-described "spiritual nontheist" Dr. Valerie Tarico on July 31. 2009. Here is the dialog with commenter Matt and Michael (iMonk):
Matt says:

I think much of this discussion on both sides focuses on questions of morality. I also think this largely misses the point of what Christianity is really about. Dr. G.E. Veith expressed a great idea (that I need to read more about) that discussions of morality belong in the left-hand kingdom (society and government, in Lutheran parlance) and not in the right-hand kingdom (the church, broadly speaking). I agree with Dr. Tarico that children are born with an innate sense of fairness and morality, but every child begins to violate this “natural law” almost from day one. Christians are in this dilemma every bit as much as any other human. I’m not about to get into the comparative morality of various religions and non-religions because I think that sin (in the Christian language) is universal among humans.

Where we may have common ground is in restoring a common sense of “public virtue” that is largely free of God-talk. There are certain basic public morals that allow us to live together peaceably in a diverse society, and I truly believe that people of all belief systems can live together in harmony by upholding these common values. In my upbringing, the Boy Scouts did a very good job of discussing civic virtues (citizenship, tolerance, care for the environment) in a way that did not depend on religious doctrine or exclude people over religion.

iMonk says:

I agree, and would put the blame for shifting the discussion to morality firmly at the feet of Christians, who have spent centuries saying that no one but themselves could be truly moral. Of course, the Gospel refutes that completely. As a Christian, it is completely a non-issue whether Dr. Tarico is more or less moral than I am. In fact, should it be the case that I am proven to be immoral, it affects absolutely nothing about the Gospel. The issue for the Christian is 1) Is there a God and 2) What do we know about such a God and 3) What is our human connection to/relation to this God? Non-Theists see these questions as anthropology. We see these questions as presuppositional and beyond essential. The issue of morality meets both of us later in our conversation, and if the Christian knows the Gospel, he/she will never engage in a “Who is more moral?” debate. We must, however, talk about the comparative origin and implications of morality. As Ravi says, some people love their neighbor, and some people eat their neighbor. Do you have a preference?
I especially found this statement - "...[I] would put the blame for shifting the discussion to morality firmly at the feet of Christians, who have spent centuries saying that no one but themselves could be truly moral. Of course, the Gospel refutes that completely." - to be fascinating; I left a comment asking Michael if he could show me where this refutation was, and he sent me a private email instructing me to make a study of Paul's letter to the Romans.

How right he was. Paul very succinctly makes the point that morality exists outside the Scriptures and the community of believers. The second chapter is especially on point; in Romans 2:6 - 16:
He will render to each one according to his works:
to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;
but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.
There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek,
but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.
For God shows no partiality.

For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.
For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.
They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them
on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
And in Romans 2:26 - 29
So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?
Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law.
For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical.
But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
Paul very succinctly points out that those outside the Jewish community were capable of being as righteous as practicing Jews. God is not partial, he doesn't take nationality or ethnicity into consideration, doesn't read what books they live by; he judges only by what is in each person's heart and how that person acts on what's in that heart.

Later in the letter Paul talks about the things he sees as manifestations of the righteousness of the believer, first in Romans 12:9 - 21...
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.
Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.
Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.
Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited.
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.
To the contrary, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
... and in Romans 13:8 - 10:
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
The commandments, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet, and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
Well, in Paul's world those virtues existed outside the Jewish and Christians communities. Compare Paul's virtues above with the classical Roman virtues:
Auctoritas — "Spiritual Authority" — The sense of one's social standing, built up through experience, Pietas, and Industria.
Comitas — "Humour" — Ease of manner, courtesy, openness, and friendliness.
Constantia — "Perseverance" — Military stamina, mental and physical endurance.
Clementia — "Mercy" — Mildness and gentleness.
Dignitas — "Dignity" — A sense of self-worth, personal pride.
Disciplina — "Discipline" — Military oath under Roman protective law & citizenship.
Firmitas — "Tenacity" — Strength of mind, the ability to stick to one's purpose.
Frugalitas — "Frugality" — Economy and simplicity of style, without being miserly.
Gravitas — "Gravity" — A sense of the importance of the matter at hand, responsibility and earnestness.
Honestas — "Respectability" — The image that one presents as a respectable member of society.
Humanitas — "Humanity" — Refinement, civilization, learning, and being cultured.
Industria — "Industriousness" — Hard work.
Iustitia — "Justice" — Sense of moral worth to an action.
Pietas — "Dutifulness" — More than religious piety; a respect for the natural order socially, politically, and religiously. Includes the ideas of patriotism and devotion to others.
Prudentia — "Prudence" — Foresight, wisdom, and personal discretion.
Salubritas — "Wholesomeness" — Health and cleanliness.
Severitas — "Sternness" — Gravity, self-control.
Veritas — "Truthfulness" — Honesty in dealing with others.
Virtus - "Manliness" - Valor, excellence, courage, character, and worth. Vir meaning "man".
And the classical Greek virtues:
temperance: σωφροσύνη (sōphrosynē)
prudence: φρόνησις (phronēsis)
fortitude: ανδρεία (andreia)
justice: δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosynē)
They're not word-for-word matches, but they all hold in common the respect for their fellow humans, which Paul calls "love". All define a way to help diverse personalities live together in harmony, or at least with the least interpersonal friction possible. Obviously this sense of morality existed outside the nascent Christian community.

Commenter Matt made a statement that struck a strong chord with me:
Where we may have common ground is in restoring a common sense of “public virtue” that is largely free of God-talk. There are certain basic public morals that allow us to live together peaceably in a diverse society, and I truly believe that people of all belief systems can live together in harmony by upholding these common values.
He then brought up the subject of the Boy Scouts as an example of non-theological morality, and I, being a former Boy Scout myself, thought of the Scout Law:
A Scout is Trustworthy.
A Scout tells the truth. He is honest, and he keeps his promises. People can depend on him.
A Scout is Loyal.
A Scout is true to his family, friends, Scout leaders, school, and nation.
A Scout is Helpful.
A Scout cares about other people. He willingly volunteers to help others without expecting payment or reward.
A Scout is Friendly.
A Scout is a friend to all. He is a brother to other Scouts. He offers his friendship to people of all races and nations, and respects them even if their beliefs and customs are different from his own.
A Scout is Courteous.
A Scout is polite to everyone regardless of age or position. He knows that using good manners makes it easier for people to get along.
A Scout is Kind.
A Scout knows there is strength in being gentle. He treats others as he wants to be treated. Without good reason, he does not harm or kill any living thing.
A Scout is Obedient.
A Scout follows the rules of his family, school, and troop. He obeys the laws of his community and country. If he thinks these rules and laws are unfair, he tries to have them changed in an orderly manner rather than disobeying them.
A Scout is Cheerful.
A Scout looks for the bright side of life. He cheerfully does tasks that come his way. He tries to make others happy.
A Scout is Thrifty.
A Scout works to pay his own way and to help others. He saves for the future. He protects and conserves natural resources. He carefully uses time and property.
A Scout is Brave.
A Scout can face danger although he is afraid. He has the courage to stand for what he thinks is right even if others laugh at him or threaten him.
A Scout is Clean.
A Scout keeps his body and mind fit and clean. He chooses the company of those who live by high standards. He helps keep his home and community clean.
A Scout is Reverent.
A Scout is reverent toward God. He is faithful in his religious duties. He respects the beliefs of others.
This is the perfect example of a code of "civic virtue" based on values common to all theologies and philosophies without being attached to any one in particular. It was conceived of by Robert Baden-Powell, a British man of no particular religious creed who was influenced by the writings of Rudyard Kipling, which were based as much on Indian Hindu and Muslim folktales and religious sagas as on the British Colonial Code. Scout law is followed by Scouts all over the world, of many cultures and religions, with no objection from themselves, their parents, or their religious leaders (the various international iterations of Scout Law can be found here). In fact, many evangelicals are Boy Scouts, and yet none have objected to this secular moral code.

Obviously Paul's statement that righteousness exists outside of the Scriptures and the community of believers receives collaboration both in the classical world and in the contemporary one. David Barton hasn't a leg to stand on.

© 2011 by A. Roy Hilbinger


  1. Brilliant, as usual.

    I think a fine example of exactly what we're talking about is going on in Japan right now, as people who weren't directly affected by the recent disasters make sacrifices without prompting to benefit those that are.

    Not because they have to or fear punishment.

    Because it's the right thing to do.

  2. An incredibly well-reasoned post. No surprise there, of course. As a Christian myself, I cringe at the literally holier-than-thou attitude adopted by so many of "us." (Of course, there's intolerance everywhere, too, but that's almost off-topic as regards this specific post.) I agree completely that "evangelical Christianity [has] no exclusive claim on morality." Any other religion (as well as atheists and agnostics) has countless believers -- or non-believers, for that matter -- who are moral without being Christians. If there is indeed a God -- as I firmly believe there is -- I shudder to think of the afterlife fates of those who persecuted or otherwise looked down upon anyone in His name.

  3. Are only Christians moral? Of course not. And thank God morality doesn't get you to heaven. We'd all be doomed then, wouldn't we?

  4. I'm going to have to go back and read this again.

  5. A new side to the Roy I have come to know from his spectacular photographs and his writings about music. But this side reflects the same elements of insight, intelligence, and reasoning as the others. Well said Roy.

  6. Excellent post, Roy. In fact, the moral code most of the Christians I know personally follow, is completely phony, just for looks.

  7. "It's a common accusation by the Christian Right that non-Christians have no sense of morality because morality doesn't exist outside the Bible."

    I have never heard a Christian make that claim. I think the public just imagines Christians saying that. So I stopped reading.

  8. @ Stephen - all you need to do is Google the names of those I listed at the beginning of the post, and add Sarah Palin to that list - they all make claims that America needs a Bible-based government because there is no morality outside the Bible. And they're proud of that attitude.

  9. Seriously, Stephen, I've read the claim at least a dozen times just this last year, and it's been written into treatise and statements by statesmen and theologians almost as long as we've had them.