Tuesday, May 23, 2023
It's Tuesday, May 23rd 2023.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Are Morals Just Values? Does Moral Truth Change by Consensus? Confronting the Political and Moral Challenge of Communitarianism
I want us to take on one of the biggest questions in terms of Christian worldview thinking today, and we need to do this, it's timely because of so many issues in the headlines and direct moral arguments about how to make moral arguments and how we know moral truth or whether we can know moral truth.
I want us to take a look first at a column that ran in recent days in the Wall Street Journal. Again, very important, very influential newspaper. The space in that newspaper comes at a premium. They do not run frivolous articles. This is a very serious article. It's an opinion article by William A. Galston at the Brookings Institution, and the headline in the article is this, "GOP said his Republican Presidential Candidate Must Find America's Moral Center". The subhead on the article is this, "The one that means the candidate with more moderate views will find himself at the front of the pack."
Now, I want to start out by saying, I don't think this is good advice to Republicans, but nonetheless, there's a serious moral argument that is being made here. It's also a serious argument about political strategy.
So who is William Galston? Well, he holds an esteemed chair at the Brookings Institution, one of the most important think tanks in the United States and thus in the world. He holds a PhD from the University of Chicago. He is an expert in governance and political science. He has served on the faculties of the University of Maryland and the University of Texas at Austin. He has been extremely influential in American political circles and in particular in democratic circles. He served in Democratic administrations. He was a senior domestic policy official in the administration of President Bill Clinton. He has made very serious arguments in the course of a very serious career. If there is one word that I would use to describe the position articulated by William Galston, it would be communitarianism.
Now that's a very important concept and there would be various forms of communitarianism, but the most important aspect of communitarianism for our concern today is basically that instead of talking about morality, you talk about values. And you talk about values not just in terms of individuals and interest groups, but of the entire community. This is not a perspective coming from the far left, this is coming from what politically is defined as the center left, which will mean something like the older Democratic Party, before the Democratic Party shifted from the center left to the far left.
But nonetheless, we're looking at a center left argument. That argument comes down to communitarianism, and the argument when it comes to morality is that the functional importance of morality is represented in the values held within a community, the dominant values. And communitarianism insists first of all in taking the community as the most important unit here, rather than just say a radical individualism or just an emphasis upon special interest groups. This is not compatible with the current versions of identity politics.
Again, this is the center left rather than the far more radical left. But nonetheless, it reflects a huge shift in the modern age away from morality is something objectively true that can be objectively known, to something that is merely a form of moral expression. Instead of morality, you have values. Instead of moral laws, you have values. Instead of just individual values, one of the arguments of communitarianism is that certain kinds of values must be in place to form a healthy community.
Now as we move forward, especially into the new presidential election cycle, a lot of these issues are going to demand our attention and we're going to be looking even more comprehensively at some of the arguments made by William Galston, but right now, in a friendly but very critical way, I want to understand the argument he's making in this article.
First of all, it is a political strategy argument. He argues that a candidate running for the Republican presidential nomination should run to the moral center, not to whatever he might describe as an extreme. But he does warn that Republicans are in the position of being considered by many Americans to be moral extremists or to be holding to extreme moral positions. He says that's a switch, because back in the 1960s it was the Democrats who "found themselves mostly playing defense on cultural issues." He goes on, "In recent years that's changed as Republicans have shifted to the right on some of these issues. The country's moral center characterized by moderation, decency, and respect for others has asserted itself against the GOP's excesses."
So he's really loaded the dice there, and he's done so in a way you would expect, so in making a communitarian argument to load the argument, he says basically the GOP's out of the center. The Republicans are out on the moral periphery because they have asserted moral positions that are outside the country's moral center. But that's another reflection of how this particular worldview represented by communitarianism works. It suggests that the community at any given time operates on the basis of a certain moral consensus. That moral consensus right now he said includes most of the Democrats in and increasingly the Republicans out, because the Republicans have been now holding to some extreme positions.
Now, the point to be made here is that if you move backwards in time, and if you're just thinking about a moral consensus, that moral consensus was a lot more conservative, a lot less specifically LGBTQ loaded, if you were to go back just a matter of say a decade, two decades, three decades. What he doesn't acknowledge is that the Democratic Party's been moving far to the left, but it has rather successfully pulled a lot of the country with it.
Taking just the issue of say, same-sex marriage, the legalization of same-sex marriage, he says, look, you look at a certain point in history, 70% of Americans were against it, 30% for. It in a fairly short amount of time, 70% were for it, 30% were against it. That shows how the community has seen a transformed moral understanding. There's a new moral consensus or a new set of community values, and that means those who are pushing for the legalization of same-sex marriage are now pretty much right there in the center. Those who do not believe that a government should rightly define and acknowledge same-sex marriage, we are now on the outside of that consensus.
Galston looks at the Supreme Court's reversal of the Roe v. Wade decision last year and says, look, that has really exposed Republicans because Republicans are "finding out the hard way that Roe's", that means Roe v. Wade's, trimester formula, in his words, "blended permission and restraint in a manner that more than 60% of Americans could accept, whatever their misgivings."
So there you note a certain form of moral reasoning. Let's look at it really carefully and let's make certain we don't move too fast away from it. This suggests that the most important moral issue at any time is what a majority of Americans think about the issue at any given time. Now, I'm not going to accept the 60% figure by any means that Galston offers here for America's support for Roe v. Wade, but the point is he thinks this is the way you make the argument, and he's a serious man. He's making this argument seriously. 60% of Americans, he said, have the moral insight to understand that Roe is an appropriate trade-off.
But you'll notice what's missing here. What's missing here is any argument about whether or not abortion is morally right or morally wrong. Not only morally right or morally wrong, but morally right or horrifying as a moral wrong. Now, let's just remind ourselves, William Galston is making this serious argument and he's basically making it to the readers of the Wall Street Journal, but it's addressed to potential candidates for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. His advice, run to the center.
His argument really comes down to one very important sentence, and this basically encapsulates the entire issue. He writes, "US voters are looking for candidates willing to defend what most see as moral common sense and recognize that complex cultural issues can't be reduced to a binary choice." There's a lot there. It's all important. This is what a lot of Americans and a lot of America's policy makers actually think. This is what a lot of people in American academia think, and the frightening thing is these are those who are more or less in the center or on the right in American academia.
First of all, he tells us that U.S. voters again, "are looking for candidates willing to defend what see as moral common sense". Now, moral common sense is not an irrational, it's not a meaningless concept, but we don't do morality by just taking a poll to find out what the moral common sense of the American people, for example, might be on any given issue at any given moment. This isn't how we know moral truth. It might tell us something about morality, but in this case, what the poll or survey or study, or for that matter mindreading program would tell us, is the moral condition of Americans, not the moral truth that Americans are being measured about.
But you'll notice he also says that these American voters are looking for candidates, willing to look for a candidate who supports moral common sense and, "recognize that complex cultural issues can't be reduced to a binary choice." That's also central to communitarianism. Communitarianism says, look, there is a conservative argument, there's a liberal argument, there's an argument from the right, there's an argument from the left. The left isn't going to get its way. The right isn't going to get its way. The right way to develop policy for a community is to find some consensus, something in the middle. So just take a hundred percent of the American electorate, say the 20% on the left, they're not going to get what they want, 20% on the far right, they're not going to get what they want. That leaves 80% in the middle, lots of room for negotiation.
But I have to counter, America doesn't even look like that anymore. You are looking at a deep worldview divide that does indeed make very clear that, even at the level of say, just the common understanding of moral issues, there is indeed a binary choice that presents us on so many issues. If anything, looking at America today, just even in practical terms, and remember he thinks he's giving practical political advice, there just isn't much of a center on a lot of these issues.
For instance, on abortion, you can say the polling says that Americans believe this, a majority believe this, but the moment you ask a question differently or you throw in conditions or you ask about a hard circumstance or you direct attention to the unborn child, then all of a sudden the answers go all over the place. There might be some kind of consensus, but whatever it is going to be such a lowest common denominator, it's not going to be translatable into any public policy.
And my point is this is political advice. Any politician who takes this advice I think is going to be doomed. I don't think Bill Galston is actually talking about any Republican Party that looks anything in reality like this Republican Party. And if anything shows itself to be true, it is that when Joe Biden was nominated by the Democratic Party in 2020, he only gained that nomination by basically running to the left and adopting the policies of those in the left wing of the Democratic Party. There is no governing from the center in the Biden administration. There will be no governing from the center in whatever Republican administration might get elected. Why? Because there is no energy in the center.
So why is that true? It's because we are looking at this deep divide at the very level of worldview in the United States. People don't think that persons who hold the opposite position are just somewhat perhaps marginally wrong, they see people on the other side of so many of these issues as a threat to the moral good, a threat to the civic peace. But I'm going to argue that the even deeper issue is whether or not you can talk about moral values without talking about moral truth. I believe the Christian worldview says, no, you cannot. I believe the biblical worldview says, you must not. We're not just talking on the big controversial issues of the day, and in this case, I'm not talking about the debt ceiling so much as I'm talking about matters of life and death. Think about assisted suicide. Even more pressingly, think about abortion policy. Think about something as basic as the family.
Think about whether or not same sex marriage should be legalized. Even the conservative justices on the Supreme Court in 2015 when the Obergefell decision was handed down legalizing same sex marriage, made very clear that the losers in that situation, that means those who do not believe that same sex marriage should be legal, would be eventually marginalized within the society.
But I want to be clear, my response to this very serious argument made by William Galston is not to say merely that I think it's practically wrong or wrong in practical terms. It is that I believe it is wrong in how the issue of morality is framed. Christians operating out of a biblical worldview have no option to put morality in a different field of knowledge than say mathematics.
Let's just look at it that simply. Two plus two equals four. It is wrong to kill. Those are two statements Christians believe that they are similarly, objectively true. We also believe that they are similarly, objectively knowable. We don't believe that math is a special category so that over here you have two chickens plus two chickens equals four chickens, but over here, killing an innocent human being may or may not be morally right, it's just a matter of values. We don't believe that. We don't believe that morality is even primarily a form of our own self-expression.
Christians are the people who just are the people who believe in the sanctity of unborn human life. We're the people who believe that unborn human life actually is made in God's image, possesses dignity, demands sanctity, and thus is to be protected. It's not about us, it's about the moral truth.
And this is where we just have to concede the great secular Christian divide comes into clearest focus, because we do not believe that these moral truths simply exist lost in the cosmos, we believe that they are given to us by the creator, who indeed made the cosmos and all things within it, including ourselves.
Well, we are in deep water in terms of you might say moral theory, but I'm thinking that's why people listen to The Briefing. You want to think about how Christians ought to think about these issues. We need to detect when an argument is made and thus look at it and say it's not just that this is an argument with a practical question whether or not a Republican candidate should run to the so-called moral center, this raises the question of how we know what's morally true in the first place.
By the way, that raises another point, and that is that we either accept these moral truths or we rebel against them. There's no neutral ground here. Now, that is not to say that Christians don't in, we don't transgress the law. The reality is we do. That's why we're called to confess our sins and to repent of our sins. It's not because the sins are merely a matter of our self-expression, but because they are objectively, morally wrong sins against God. When we confess our sins, we don't go before God to confess feeling badly about feeling badly about what we do. We go to God to confess our sins because we have broken his law.
So the most important issue for today, and again, we'll be looking at this in greater depth because these issues are going to be coming at us with such high velocity with the presidential election upcoming, I want us to take a look at this particular piece of advice given by somebody in fairly friendly terms to potential Republican candidates, run to the center, there is going to be victory in the center.
Number one, I don't believe that's true, but I also don't believe that there is any such thing as a center when it comes to moral truth. That is a compromise when it comes to moral truth. When it comes to just moral values, expressing what people believe, well those can be all over the place, maybe you can strike some kind of middle position. But my point is, the time has really run out in our society on the most important issues for anyone plausibly to argue, even in just practical terms, apart from objective truth, to argue that we can somehow negotiate this issue away.
So think about that argument that victory is in the moral center, and then think about my criticism and response that actually on these issues, there is no compromise position. There is no communitarian option. We're talking in moral terms about winners and losers, we're talking about two diametrically opposed arguments, and sometimes we just need to look at these issues and understand, they're just telling us there is no possibility of a compromised position here.
Now, let's be clear, I'm not arguing that we should seek a compromise position. I'm just arguing that there isn't one, and when someone tells you that we're missing the opportunity to seize one, I'm just arguing with you with you, when it comes to the most important moral issues, there actually is no middle ground.
Let’s Test the Theory of the Middle Ground: Case Study Number One, Bud Light
So let's test the theory. Example number one, Bud Light. Yes, we are back to Anheuser-Busch's legacy brand, Bud Light, which has been the biggest selling single label of beer in America in recent years. But here's the big story. The brand has been failing as it comes to building new markets and reaching out to younger consumers. The average drinker of Bud Light, we are told, would come down to men of a certain age, and that certain age is getting older.
The brand has had trouble reaching downward in terms of the age brackets. So it's important that yesterday the Wall Street Journal ran a very extensive investigative report, it began on the front page of the newspaper, about how Bud Light's brand was so badly bruised. The headline in the article, "Bud Light Blundered in Response to Backlash," the subhead, "Handling a fallout from transgender promotion created more anger." Jennifer Maloney is the reporter.
But what I want us to note is that the trouble here that is addressed in this front page article is not so much the trouble that Anheuser-Busch, as the company historically has been known, made in terms of connecting the transgender issue with a major brand. No, they're suggesting the problem is how the company handled the backlash to that issue.
Okay, things are getting interesting now. So the article tells us even on the front page of the print edition that Alyssa Hershey was hired as the first woman in Bud Light's four decade history to run its marketing division, and she'd come up with a strategy to try to reach out to people other than say, middle-aged and aging white males as she was trying to build the brand. And remember, the brand is Bud Light.
But this evidently hit a snag, even as her idea, backed up by the company's management, was to try to reach out to other constituencies and to try to reach out to younger age cohorts. One of those ways was by, of course, trying to come up with a promotion with a transgender influencer. That's the way the deal is described here.
And yet setting up in social media using that so-called transgender influencer, Dylan Mulvaney, it prompted a backlash and it showed up very fast in plunging sales for Bud Light. Not only did this strategy not successfully reach out to new consumers, it rather effectively alienated the existing consumers of the brand.
It's also really interesting to note that in the midst of so much intentional gender confusion in our society, one sentence in this article says, "Bud Light's market share is particularly high in rural and conservative parts of the country, and its drinkers are predominantly," here's the big word, hold for it, "male" In other words, this article and Anheuser-Busch seem to know what male means until all of a sudden they don't.
Now, this article continues in what's almost an entire print page in yesterday's edition of the Wall Street Journal. We are told that the backlash against the controversy and against the company responding to the controversy meant that younger constituencies, potential markets for Bud Light, and most strategically, some of the younger employees at Bud Light, some of the more LGBTQ-friendly employees at Bud Light, they were offended by the company appearing to back off of the deal with the so-called transgender influencer.
And so Anheuser-Busch finds itself right now basically loathed by many, if not by everyone when it comes to this issue. Those who are moral conservatives were outraged at the social media deal with the transgender influencer. Those on the left, including evidently a good number of the people who work at Anheuser-Busch, they were offended that the company was giving any credence to those who were morally offended.
Now, we talked about this issue before, Anheuser-Busch sending a personalized can to this transgender influencer who then posted it on social media, the backlash then followed. The company put out a statement which makes I guess about as much sense as the executives of a beer company in this situation can be expected to make. Here's the statement, "While beer will always be at the table when important topics are debated, the beer itself should not be the focus of the debate." Well, okay, that statement really doesn't tell us anything, which is probably what was intended.
We're also told that the company tried to deal with this internally by sending wholesalers a letter that stated that the entire controversy about the personalized can was about, "one single can given to one social media influencer." Well, yeah, it was just one, but it turns out in this case, one's the magic number.
This Wall Street Journal article also points out criticism coming from an LGBTQ activist, "The Human Rights Campaign," an LGBT Rights Organization said, Anheuser-Busch have shown, "a profound lack of fortitude and should have stood by the so-called transgender influencer."
And that just points to an article that ran yesterday at USA Today. Here's the headline, basically the headline tells the whole story, "Bud Light Loses LGBTQ+ Rating for Caving." So the company's supposedly caved, but the company hasn't actually caved. It's not pulling back on its pride events. It's not pulling back on its pride advertising. Indeed, it's trying to communicate to the people in the LGBTQ activist community, and in its own employee corps, it's trying to say, look, this is no big deal. It is simply a tempest in the teapot. Let's get through this.
So you ask, why are we talking about this today? Well, it's because this report that was released yesterday demands a lot of worldview attention. Just look at the material that's in it. But it also just points to the issue with which we began today, and that is, you simply can't point to any middle ground here. What's the middle ground between, you should use a so-called transgender influencer trying to reach out to new constituents, or no, you shouldn't. And here again, where's the moral point? Is this just a matter of beer sales? Is this just a matter of communitarian values? Is there any possibility that we're really talking about right and wrong here?
Well, here's what I want you to note. The people who are involved in the so-called backlash to the company, they're coming from the left, they're making a very serious moral argument. They're saying that the company was morally wrong in stepping back from that transgender promotion or even seeking to apologize for it. Instead, the company should have shown fortitude. Those are moral terms. So when someone comes up and says, look, conservatives keep showing up, making moral arguments, just look honestly. The left is making incredibly clear moral arguments. They're just diametrically opposite moral arguments, diametrically opposite understandings of the human good, of what human flourishing would look like. And for that matter, what is morally right and morally wrong.
Let’s Test the Theory of the Middle Ground: Case Study Number Two, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in Dodger Stadium
And I know we're at the limit today, but you know where this is going, if you follow this kind of issue in Major League Baseball, we've got to go to Los Angeles, we have to go to the Dodgers, and we have to go to the controversy over the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. And so we're told that the Dodgers, which is avidly pro-LGBTQ in terms of its corporate policies, that it plans a 10th annual Pride night as a matter of Pride Month, and it's going to be held at a Dodgers game and at that game, there are to be presented some awards, and that includes the Community Heroes Award. And that award had been proposed to have been given to the group known as the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, who are described ascribed as "California's most recognizable drag outfit," and among the state's "oldest queer service groups."
So here's how all this came about. The Dodgers announced they were going to present this award to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Again, what could go wrong here? And what went wrong, of course, was that many people were offended. About a third of the population there in Los Angeles is made up of Roman Catholics. This group is flagrantly offensive in terms of trashing or blaspheming Catholic nuns, or for that matter, Catholic doctrine, even Catholic language. Conservative Catholics pushed back.
The Dodgers appeared to say they were going to withhold the award this year to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, but the backlash coming from the left was so overwhelming that the Dodgers organization has completely capitulated, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are back in, conservative Catholics have been shown the door and the company is falling all over itself with what one author called years ago, "The Art of the Public Grovel." The Dodgers are now groveling. What were they thinking? They've now not only put the gift back in play, they have openly publicly apologized to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
The New York Times ran an article, the headline, "Dodgers Reverse Course and Reinvite Group to Pride Night." The headline in the Los Angeles Times, the Hometown newspaper, was this, "Dodgers Apologize and Invite Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to Pride Night." And even as the Major League baseball team was groveling at the fact that they had ever had any hesitation about this, they released a statement saying, "We've asked the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to take their place on the field at our 10th annual LGBTQ+ pride night. We are pleased to share that they are agreed to share the gratitude of our collective communities for the lifesaving work they have done tirelessly for decades."
By the way, the Senior Vice President for Marketing Communications and Broadcasting at the Dodgers is Erik Braverman, described by the LA Times as "gay and a respected voice in championing LGBTQ+ acceptance throughout baseball."
LZ Granderson, an opinion columnist for the LA Times, ran a piece almost immediately headlined, "The Dodgers faltered by disinviting the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence but came to their senses." So they faltered, but then they came to their senses.
We're running out of time, but we can't miss citing the most ridiculous portion of the news report in the Los Angeles Times in which one of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, again, a drag queen, said, "We are not anti-Catholic. Being anti-Catholic would be anti-people, and that's not what we do." Rather we're told, and the LA Times says this straightforwardly, "The order draws inspiration from Catholic nuns. Alongside religious sisters of many other faiths, serving the needy who are neglected by others because of their sexuality or gender expression, according to the sisters and scholars and acolytes of the group."
Melissa M. Wilcox, she's seriously known as the author of the book, Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody, said, "Many sisters feel there's a difference between what they're doing and what drag performers do. The sisters are actually emulating nuns. They'll say, we're nuns because we do the work that nuns do."
Oh yeah, the newspaper also acknowledges that many of the names of the so-called Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence include provocative monikers, such as, just to give one example, and this is the only example I'm going to use, Sister Porn Again. Oh yeah, now who would think that that's anti-Catholic? But the point is the Dodgers are now quite ready to be anti-Catholic and pro drag queen, even blasphemous drag queens.
And again, I just ask you, where in all of that are you supposed to find middle ground? It doesn't exist.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.