Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Societies' Changing Moral Minds, Changing Societies' Moral Minds: Reflections on the Eve of a New Year

I ended yesterday’s posting with a comment about the changing moral mind of our society—about our culture’s developing moral consensus that gay human beings are fully human and deserve all rights accorded to any other human being. Today, on this eve of a new year, it strikes me as important to talk further about the idea of the moral mind of a society, and how that moral mind changes.

The concept of society’s moral mind is a key theme in social gospel theology—a theological movement linking action for progressive social change to Christian theology, which had strong influence on American religion and culture in the latter part of the 19th and the first part of the 20th century. The influence of the social gospel has continued in American Christianity up to the present, even though the movement itself fell into decline after World War I.

For instance, there are strong social gospel motifs in the thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr. King’s education in both Atlanta and Boston brought him into contact with scholars steeped in social gospel theology. His own powerful theology constantly echoes social gospel themes. King’s oft-quoted statement—highlighted in the graphic accompanying yesterday’s posting—that the moral arc of the universe is long, but bends towards justice, is a social gospel insight, one that captures the responsibility of people of faith to discern the trend of justice in their society and move their churches towards that trend.

The theology that developed around the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s incorporated key social gospel themes, including the insistence that societies can sin and that social groups can develop a new moral awareness. Social gospel theology insists that people of faith have an obligation to pay attention to the developing consensus of the social groups to which they belong, since that consensus often challenges churches and demands that they undergo conversion of taken-for-granted assumptions that have begun to appear as immoral, in light of shifts in the moral awareness of society at large.

Influential social gospel theologians, including Walter Rauschenbusch and Shailer Mathews, the subject of my doctoral dissertation and of a book based on that dissertation, note that the trend of societal moral development is ineluctably towards greater and greater recognition of the personhood of those previously depersonalized. American slavery rested on the assumption—it justified itself by assuming—that slaves are 3/5 of a person. Women were depersonalized for generations because the legal systems of many societies enshrined beliefs that women require male control and supervision, since they are less able than men to govern themselves—less fully personal than men.

As social groups become aware that these depersonalizing assumptions, applied to one group and then another, are immoral, since the humanity of all human beings is equal, movements to change the moral consensus of society around these assumptions begins. Those movements gradually shift the thinking of the culture at large, and eventually that of churches, as well—culture first and churches second in many instances, because churches all too frequently prove to be the bastion of resistance to progressive social change.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., put the point, churches too often form the taillight to progressive social movements, rather than their headlight. Here, too, King was echoing social gospel thinking, which sees the development of new moral awareness in social groups as a process that goes far beyond the boundaries of churches, and which often requires churches to address their own complicity in sinful social practices such as racism and misogyny.

It has now become commonplace to analyze what has happened in Western cultures with racial and gender prejudice as a breakthrough of moral awareness, based on a growing consensus that it is immoral to treat people as less than human because of pigmentation or gender. Once that breakthrough of awareness has happened, we cannot go back: we cannot choose again to countenance slavery or outright, legally protected misogyny without undermining our claim to be a society built on moral principles, a democracy built on the key insight that all people are created equal and should have access to the same set of human rights.

Many citizens of Western societies, however, continue to resist the breakthrough of a similar moral awareness regarding the humanity of gay persons. And much of that resistance is fueled today—as it was in the movements for rights for both people of color and women—by the churches.

Viewed from an historical perspective, many Western cultures are today where they were in the past, at that threshold moment when the social consensus re: people of color and women was just about to shift decisively: on the cusp of a new moral mind regarding the place of gay human beings in society—regarding the humanity, the full humanity and access to the full gamut of human rights—of gay human beings. We are there because we have reached a point of moral awareness from which there is no retreat.

Once increasing numbers of people in democratic societies begin to recognize that prejudice based on innate characteristics such as race, gender, or sexual orientation, cannot be justified, because there can be no justification for using innate characteristics to dehumanize and depersonalize any group of citizens in a truly democratic society, change has to happen. It has to take one of two forms: either the society has to reject the claims of the group now demanding attention as a dehumanized group, or it has to eradicate all barriers to that group’s access to human rights.

At the breakthrough moment, society has to act. It has to make choices. People have to make choices and take stands. We have to make choices and take stands.

There is no morally justifiable intermediate stage in the process of developing moral awareness after that process has reached the moment of breakthrough insight. Once that stage has been achieved, there can no longer be weighing of claims or moral calculation, with the attendant assumption of such weighing and calculation that prejudice remains legitimate, simply one acceptable opinion among others in a pluralistic society.

Once society has come to the moment of breakthrough awareness of its complicity in historic injustice towards a dehumanized group of people, the time for compromise, for bringing everyone on board before we make up our cultural mind, for permitting prejudice masked as religious belief to impede democracy, is over. Breakthrough awareness introduces a time for change: a time when decision is demanded.

I have explored these themes in published works that track my own response to racism—to my racism—in my life journey. These autobiographical theological reflections examine the moments in which I became critically aware that I had taken for granted attitudes and assumptions from my formative years which were racist.

As the reflections note, once I saw these attitudes and assumptions for what they were—social constructions of reality rather than accurate readings of social reality; prejudice imposed on me by the culture in which I grew up—there was no going back. Once my eyes were opened to the racism in the society around me and in myself, I had no choice except to make a choice: to confront my own prejudice and to deal with it, in every way I could discover it in my attitudes and decisions. That is, I had no choice if I wished to continue claiming an interest in being a moral agent, someone who took the moral claims of others seriously.

My articles reflecting on my own struggle to deal with my breakthrough awareness of the racism of my culture of origin, and my own racism, use that reflection as a prism to look at the struggle of social groups to deal with such breakthrough awareness. As I reflect on how social groups incorporate new breakthrough moral awareness and change their moral minds, it has become clear to me that the urge to shift moral thinking about human rights issues does not come from the center.

It comes, instead, from prophetic and progressive movements within faith communities and in society at large. It comes from those who explore the growing edge of moral awareness in their own social and faith groups—those who are willing to move away from the warm, safe embrace of the center to the margins, where the beliefs of the center are tested and proven true or false.

This movement from the margins to the center, this challenge of the prophetic minority to the center, has been going on for some time now in Western cultures, vis-à-vis gay human beings and gay human rights. We are now at a moment of breakthrough awareness in which what prophetic and progressive movements in our culture have seen for some time—that gay human beings are as fully human as other human beings, and deserve the same human rights as other human beings have—is beginning to impinge on the consciousness of the culture at large.

As that breakthrough awareness is communicated from the prophetic, progressive margins to the center, it becomes impossible for those who claim to lead from the center to ignore the growing moral consensus of their society. Certainly many church groups that have much invested, historically, in marginalizing and condemning gay human beings, will continue to resist the breakthrough of moral awareness and the new moral consensus that this breakthrough implies.

Leaders that concede moral ground to these resistant religious groups will fail, however, in one of their chief tasks as leaders in a democratic society, if they allow these groups the right to determine the direction of their society, vis-à-vis the question of human rights for gay persons. While religious groups have and should have, in a pluralistic democratic society, the right to hold their unique beliefs, they do not have and should not have the right to determine the moral consensus of society about the human rights of marginalized groups about whose humanity the society is slowly shifting its awareness.

There are religious groups that continue to imagine women as inferior creatures, and which build their church polity and dogmatic systems around that fantasy. There are religious groups that continue to denigrate people of color by overtly racist teachings and by church-political decisions that contribute to the marginalization of people of color.

We no longer permit these groups to determine the social consensus—the moral mind of our society—about people of color and women, however. We do not do so because, at the moment of breakthrough awareness in these areas, we decided once and for all that our future as a democratic society required us to make a choice. We chose to underscore the humanity of women and people of color—despite what many believers and many churches continued to teach.

The role of national leaders like Lincoln (or, later, Roosevelt or Lyndon B. Johnson) was crucial in the process by which the center affirmed the growing moral consensus of its day, re: issues of race or women's rights. We have successfully negotiated the difficult passage to new moral consensus regarding racial and gender issues because we have had leaders willing to stand at the center in order to redefined the center, morally speaking.

Lincoln exemplifies the process I am sketching here. Lincoln deliberately claimed his role as a moral leader at a time of shifting moral consensus. He did not flench from the moral obligation his presidential office imposed on him, at a time of shifting national moral consensus about slavery.

When Lincoln took office, the nation was deeply divided over the issue of slavery. In assuming office, Lincoln stood at the center and sought to hold the nation together. At the same time, he refused to yield to arguments that holding the nation together and representing the center required him to concede anything at all to those people of faith and those churches that supported slavery and the continued dehumanization of African Americans.

As president, as the moral leader at the center of a nation that purported to value democracy while practicing slavery, Lincoln recognized the inescapable force of a new moral consensus regarding slavery, which had slowly developed on the margins, in prophetic movements of abolition with both secular and religious roots. Lincoln saw that the center had no choice except to endorse that moral consensus, if the American people wished to be faithful to the ideals with which their democratic experiment began.

Sound leadership in a democratic society has an important and inescapable moral dimension. It does so because questions of human rights are always moral questions, and democracy is centered on assumptions about human rights. At historical moments in which the moral mind of a society has begun to coalesce around growing awareness that a social group has been dehumanized and denied human rights for insupportable reasons, the only possible option for a leader who wishes to lead with moral authority is to recognize and deal with the growing new moral consensus in her or his society.

And to lead the nation towards that consensus, when it extends human rights to a group previously marginalized. Even when that leadership requires the leader to stand up to the moral authority of religious groups who wish illicitly to impose their peculiar, anti-democratic presuppositions about the marginalized group in question on society at large.

This is where we find ourselves today, as a people, I believe: this is where we are on the eve of 2009. This place in which we find ourselves calls for exceptionally strong leadership that does not eschew moral responsibility. I pray that the new president will be capable of providing that leadership. And I promise continued discussions of these important issues (important to me, if to no one else) in the new year.