Moral certainty is not always moral or certain

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January 12, 2007

 

My eleventh grade English teacher introduced the class to H. L. Mencken, the iconoclastic reporter on the east coast in the middle of the twentieth century. Mencken’s writing was thought provoking and deserved discussion. My teacher didn’t necessarily agree with im.

            One of the views of Mencken was: “Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and wrong. All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who doubted current moral values, not of men who tried to enforce them. The truly civilized  man is always skeptical and tolerant. “

            Several easy examples supporting Mencken’s opinion quickly come to mind. Two hundred years ago. proponents used the bible to justify slavery. Abolitionists questioned that moral certainty.

            Another good example are those who campaigned for women’s rights in a man’s world. The first right gained was the right to vote.  The prevailing moral certainty was that a “woman’s place was in the home.”Suffragists worked against that moral certainty.

            A third example is the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. marched  in a peaceful demonstration in Selma. Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus in Atlanta. King and Parks opposed the moral certainty of segregation.

Religious certainty

            A close relative of moral certainty is religious certainty. Those who expound moral or religious certainty without compassion for others are at the basis of the division and polarization in this country. We see it in politics, civic life, and church life.

            Rebecca Chapa spoke to this “problem” in a column in the Detroit Free Press (“Religious  certainty closes too many doors:, 12/15/06).

She wrote about Joel Hunter’s resignation as president-elect of the “powerful Christian Coalition of America”. Hunter wanted the Coalition to deal with “issues that Jesus would want us to care  bout.””These include poverty, AIDS, pollution, and climate changes, Chapa wrote.

            Chapa’s point in writing about Hunter is that the issues he mentioned are real issues that need to be dealt with. The spokesperson of the Coalition said that those issues were not their focus even though the Coalition  deals with gay rights, abortion and stem cell research.  Chapa calls these “inflammatory” issues and tend to cause division rather than solutions. They are inflammatory, in my opinion,  because the Coalition expresses its position on these issues with moral and religious certainty, leaving no room for discussion, debate, or compromise.

            Nothing gives more certainty to someone than the voice of God. Two prominent people in our country have told us that God has spoken to them. President George Bush said that God wanted him to be President. God also told him to attack Iraq.

            Pat Robertson, founder of the Coalition mentioned above, in early January said God told him that there would be a major terrorist attack on the United States after September this year that would affect millions of people. God didn’t say whether it would be nuclear but Robertson thinks it will be.

            Putting the voice of God on their side makes it difficult to oppose them, but they still need to be held accountable for what they say and do.  Would you listen to me more seriously or less seriously if I said that God told me to write this column? I am sure you would take me less seriously and probably write me off as some kook. Why don’t people have the same reaction to Bush and Robertson?

Reality check

            As the years pass, it is easier to see the rightness of the abolitionists, suffragists, and civil rights advocates.    When we are in the midst of everyday living, it is much more difficult to see the rightness of some causes because all of us want to hold on to the moral certainty of our faith and beliefs.

            I am not opposed to moral and religious certainty, but I am opposed to people who want to impose their certainty on others without respect for the others’ views.

            I suggest that understanding, compassion, and dialogue are far more important qualities that we need to make part of our lives rather than holding onto a moral certainty that comes across as self-righteous bigotry with no hope for human interaction, much less arrival at solutions to problems that face our families, community, country, and world.

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