From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Commentary: The Return of Right and Wrong

From NewsDesk <NewsDesk@UMCOM.UMC.ORG>
Date 27 Oct 1998 15:04:58

Oct. 27, 1998        Contact: Tim Tanton((615)742-5470(Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE:  A head-and-shoulders photograph of the Rev. Leicester Longden is

A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. Leicester Longden*

One of the surprises of the national discussion about President
Clinton's behavior has been the return of the language of Right and

We thought such language had been banished from the public square. Here
it is again, on the lips of almost everyone. 

I say almost. Some commentators still worry about the implications of a
public morality. They prefer to say that behavior should be described as
"inappropriate" or "addictive" rather than "wrong." But notice the
nagging presence of  "should be" in the previous sentence. Somehow the
ethical word "ought" keeps popping back into public consciousness,
despite our efforts to privatize it. 

Why is the return of moral categories to public discourse surprising?
Because the language of morality is usually confined to the sphere of
private "values."  The public square is considered the place to
negotiate power balances and personal rights. In the global village of
diverse cultures, no one dares to use the language of morality. To
assume a universal morality - even
worse, to make judgments based upon it - is to commit an oppressive act.

The return of Right and Wrong is not necessarily a return to morality or
a political victory for the Religious Right. After all, secularists and
religionists alike are speaking this language. Here, in front of our
eyes every night, we see Jews and secularists and Buddhists and
Christians solemnly making moral judgments in common.
Uncharacteristically, they are making judgments that are usually called
"narrow-minded." Who would ever have expected the news media to  present
nightly evidence of a common moral sense in people of all religions and
of no religion? 

A recent opinion poll asked the question, "Are there absolute standards
for morals and ethics or does everything depend on the situation?" 

"Seventy-nine percent of the respondents in the 18-34 age group said
that standards did not exist and that the situation should always
dictate behavior," reported Marianne Jennings, professor of legal and
ethical studies at Arizona State University. "Three percent said they
were not sure." 

It is not surprising that 82 percent of the students in that survey seem
to think that morality is an outmoded concept and that we make up Right
and Wrong as we go along. After all, the fashionable idea of our
postmodern age is that universal public truth does not exist. There is
only "my" truth and "your" truth; there is no such thing as truth for
everybody. Furthermore, putting
"truth" and "morality" in the same sentence quickly wins the disapproval
of the censors who try to keep such concepts out of the public realm.  

A generation of students has been trained to believe that morality is a
matter of privately chosen preferences. The return of the language of
Right and Wrong may be a teachable moment for them. Here, for all to
see, the public consequences of "private" behaviors bring to light a
moment of moral reflection for a whole nation. Perhaps people will see
that moral realities have been there all along; it was our privatizing
habits that obscured their presence.  

The pressures of habit and ideology will soon force this moment of moral
judgment from our attention. The political agenda of different parties
and interests will remove the question of moral truth from public
consciousness and push it back into the private realm. We will hear
warnings about the dangers of moralism and the threat of legalism. But
the cry to get beyond this and on to the "real" problems of the nation
is an ironic playing out of the whole moral crisis of the American
society. We can only stand the revelation of Wrong - what used to be
called Sin - for a very short time. 

The moral tradition that arises out of the Bible has long understood
this evasive pattern of the human spirit, which finds it hard to stand
in the light for long. The Psalmist was terrified by God's all-seeing
eye. "We are...terrified by your wrath. You set out our iniquities
before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence." (Psalm 90:
7,8) The writer of the fourth gospel sees human behavior bringing
judgment on itself by its very evasiveness: "The light has come into the
world, but people preferred darkness to light because their deeds were
evil." (John 3:19) 

But even outside the Judeo-Christian moral traditions, despite all the
different moralities found in multiple civilizations, certain universal
moral obligations keep appearing, like truth-telling and
promise-keeping. Societies cannot remain stable for long without them.
That's why the return of the language of Right and Wrong, as painful as
it has been, may be a healthy sign for this country right now. 
# # #

*Longden is senior pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Lansing,
Mich. He is a clergy member of the West Michigan Annual Conference of
the United Methodist Church, where he serves on the Conference Board of
Ordained Ministry.

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