Sunday, March 30, 2008

Because They Can: Lying Politicians and the Morality of Churches

Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death

I’m thinking these days of morality. A dreary subject, admittedly, but one that has fascinated me from childhood, when (as I have mentioned in a previous blog), my first primers consisted of a peculiar mish-mash of tattered Victorian books culled from the library of the school in which one of my teacher aunts taught.

One of my favorite of these books was Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Tales for Children, with its dire warnings against immoral behavior such as lying:

For every time she shouted "Fire!"
They only answered "Little Liar!"
And therefore when her Aunt returned,
Matilda, and the House, were Burned.

To be specific: I’m thinking these days of the morality of because-I-can, and how it relates to the morality of bending the truth.

Questions about people’s adherence to the truth have run through the U.S. presidential campaign in the past week. I don’t want to turn this blog into a political advertisement for any candidate, though I have probably made it plain which candidate I prefer. I’d like to use the blog, in fact, to probe questions about how we pursue, find, and speak the truth in a world that systematically distorts plain truth, and thwarts the proclamation of truth that makes a difference.

But that’s fodder for a different posting—for many different postings.

Meanwhile, without pointing this posting in any specific political direction (as an endorsement or critique of a particular candidate), I’d like to think further about distortion of the truth, and its relationship to the morality of because-I-can.

The because-I-can morality has been getting under my skin more and more lately. This is a moral position I suspect we all find ourselves in, quite a bit of the time. We do what we can get away with, because nothing makes us aware that we are even doing wrong—that we are trampling on the rights and sensibilities of others, that we are using others as objects to pursue our desired ends, that the Other has a mind, heart, and soul as rich and complex as our own, but we are not even seeing that complexity in our approach to the Other.

Once made aware that we are behaving this way, I would hope that many of us then begin to modify our behavior. This is how, after all, human groups grow in moral awareness, and accord moral status to behaviors that were previously viewed as morally neutral. As many of the social gospel theologians noted, throughout history, the moral awareness of societies shifts—for example, such that slavery, which was once regarded as a morally neutral practice, begins to be seen as immoral—as we gradually accord personal status to what was previously depersonalized. Aldo Leopold argues in his ground-breaking foundational study of the ethics of ecology, Sand County Almanac, that an ecological ethics is founded on precisely this extension of quasi-personal status to the environment itself.

Growth in moral awareness, period, is growth in being able to separate our own individual viewpoint and individual needs from those of others: it is growth in beginning to be aware of the Other as a person. Conscience and consciousness are not merely etymologically related. In many languages, particularly the Romance languages, these are not two separate words: conscience is consciousness. We cannot grow in conscience unless our consciousness grows. If our consciousness of the world around us remains at an infantile level, so will our conscience.

Studies indicate that what provokes the growth of conscience-consciousness is awareness of disjunction between what we have previously thought or taken for granted, and what may actually be the case. Which is to say, anything that makes us imagine the world in terms bigger than those we have previously used to frame reality induces a leap in our conscience. We grow in moral awareness by grappling with moral complexity, by dealing with values conflicts that were not apparent to us previously—in many cases, because we saw our behavior as value-neutral, when nothing in the world in which we lived made us think of our behavior in any other terms.

People could live for centuries with slavery, live comfortably with this social practice, because “the” slave was depersonalized. He/she had no voice, no legal standing except as an object. Since an object cannot speak, cannot argue on his or her behalf any more than a chair can do so, nothing in the world in which slavery was taken for granted forced those who saw slavery as morally neutral to think about this practice from a moral standpoint. Scripture, the Judaeo-Christian scriptures, not only presupposes slavery as an acceptable cultural practice, but actually endorses slavery.

When scripture and tradition underscore our moral blindness, and make it seem consecrated, it becomes even harder to examine our practices in a new light that raises our consciousness and expands our conscience.

I don’t want to turn this into an extended essay about the development of conscience. What I do want to reflect on is the ease with which some of our political leaders who profess strong church ties seem able—still—to bend and distort the truth, even or particularly when doing so allows them to trample on the humanity of others. This is baffling behavior, particularly when those Others have begun to challenge their status as objects, as pieces of furniture, and are developing the ability to speak, in unique voices, to describe the world from the viewpoint of those objectified and reduced to the status of objects.

It was when slaves began to speak that people began to challenge slavery. It was when Sojourner Truth asked ain’t I a woman that people began to think about the fact that slaves were human beings, with complex interior lives, with feelings akin to those of other human beings, with families just like the families of those buying and selling human chattel.

It is when the sons and daughters of somebody’s mother speak back to the Sally Kerns of this world and remind her that they are somebody’s sons and daughters, with complex interior lives, with blood as red as Sally’s, with skin that smarts as much as Sally’s does when the whip lashes it, that we must begin to question the objectification of gay human beings, the reduction of gay human beings to the status of furniture.

This is why, I think, the because-I-can morality, with its attendant ease at lying, is getting under my skin so much these days. It’s not as if, after all, the process of gay people making our humanity apparent to others is just getting underway.

The churches have had ample opportunity to hear our voices for some time now.

How can it be, then, that churches and church institutions continue to permit themselves to act as if what they say about gay people has no real effect on our real lives? How can the churches continue to collude in lies about us that cause real lashings to the real backs of real children of real mothers?

Because they can do so. Because they can do so with impunity. Because they can get away with doing so. Because those who represent the churches pay no price for doing so. Because they would pay a price if they behaved otherwise, if they called on their church communities to begin listening to gay voices and thinking about gay humanity.

In behaving this way, the churches take the path of least resistance, morally. In behaving this way, they behave as pre-moral agents, like children who have not yet become sufficiently mature to distinguish their own self-centered view of the world from the view of others around them.

In behaving this way, the churches really do forfeit their right to address any moral issues effectively.

In behaving this way, the churches operate at the same moral level as do politicians who lie simply because they can do so, with impunity. When churches, and the leaders of churches, and the representatives of church institutions, operate at the same level of morality as do politicians for whom bending the truth is no big deal, I wonder how long it can be before the churches are voted out of office, as it were, just as lying politicians often are repudiated by a disgusted public?

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