A Moral Minority
I hold lots of unpopular opinions on important topics. I think we ought to abolish capital punishment. I think abortion is morally wrong in almost every case. I think we ought to pursue peace by peaceful means, not by killing enemies. I think women should marry only men, and only one at a time. I think it’s always wrong to break a marriage, but sometimes after a marriage has died the best option is legal divorce.
These opinions vary in their degree of unpopularity. The very earliest Christians were pacifists, but for a long time now the vast majority of Christians have adhered to the “just war” theory. (Most non-Christians, in this country and worldwide, also approve of war.) On the matter of peace and war, I’m in a small minority.
On the question of abortion, my position isn’t quite so unpopular, but only because all the opinions are minority views. Public opinion about abortion is deeply divided between multiple positions. Some say abortion is always wrong and should be prohibited, some say abortion may be wrong but only the mother involved should have any say in the matter, others say abortion is sometimes wrong because it is the killing of an innocent person so society as a whole (the state) should prevent those abortions, others say abortion is never wrong unless it is forced upon a woman who doesn’t want it—and there are many variations on these positions.
Public opinion about capital punishment varies from time to time and country to country. In some places and times my abolitionist view would actually be a very popular one, but in other times or in other places my view would be excoriated. I could make similar observations regarding gay marriage, plural marriage, and divorce. Public opinion shifts over time and varies between cultures; my views are guaranteed to be unpopular somewhere sometime.
There is nothing surprising or wrong about this. I live in a moral minority. Most likely, you do too. The moral beliefs of people in the United States are influenced by culture, religion, education, personal experience, family migrant experience (except for pure-blood native Americans, the immigration experience shaped every family tree in this country), relative wealth, and other factors. On this or that important moral question, you may find yourself in the minority.
When I say there is nothing wrong about this situation, I do not imply any kind of moral relativism; that all views are equally true, right, or “valid.” (As a teacher of logic, this last locution is especially irritating. No opinions whatsoever are “valid.” Validity is a feature of arguments, not propositions.) If my unpopular views about abortion or war are right, then contradictory views are wrong. But in a country whose people’s thinking is influenced by differing religious doctrines (including anti-religious doctrines), multiple cultural backgrounds, and a myriad other differing factors, we should not be surprised by deep difference.
How should we think about and live with deep difference? One option is to ignore its existence. Those of us who have inherited privilege (for example, by being white, male, and Protestant in my case) may be tempted to think that most people are really like us. That is, we may believe that behind all the headlines, we are the “moral majority.” Demographical changes have exploded that self-deception. There is no majority ethnic, cultural, or religious group in America (unless by “Christian” we adopt a very inclusive definition, lumping all Christian sects together whether or not the individuals participate much).
More realistically, we could seek to think and live as pluralists. Here I am drawing on the excellent work of Matthew Kaemingk, Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear. Christian pluralism should not be taken as a belief that all religions are equally true, Kaemingk argues. Sometimes in philosophy of religion we do use “pluralism” that way, but Kaemingk is a theologian, using the word to describe a position rooted in Dutch Calvinism.
Abraham Kuyper and other pluralists started with a basic Christian belief: Jesus is King. But they drew an interesting and important implication from that belief: If Jesus is King, we are not, not even if we are doing our best to follow Jesus. It is clear that Jesus, as Sovereign King, has allowed many human cultures to flourish. No human culture (not even Dutch culture!) is the “right” culture; rather, God wishes to bless all cultures.
Jesus is King and Messiah, so Christianity really is the right religion. But in 19th century Holland, did that mean Calvinists or Catholics or agnostic liberals? Kuyper was a convinced Calvinist, but he said that every religious persuasion must be encourage to participate in the larger society. If Calvinists wanted their freedom to worship as they thought right, Kuyper said, they must support the freedom of Catholics to worship in their way and liberals to neglect worship in whatever way they thought they could. (In truth, Kuyper thought, everyone worships something, and the agnostic deceives himself if he thinks he doesn’t.)
The pluralism of 21st century America is much greater than 19th century Holland. We have Catholics, many kinds of Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, a great many “nones,” and lots of smaller religious groups. Kaemingk argues that Christians, because we are Christians, ought to support and welcome the arguments of all groups. If we don’t want “them” to impose their will on us, neither must we impose our will on them.
Because Jesus is King (and we aren’t), we should not be afraid to live as moral minorities. We should vigorously participate in public debates on important moral topics, but we should not presume to think we are “claiming America for Christ.” Even if on some particular issue my opinion should carry the day (e.g. if capital punishment were abolished in this country), that day will only last for a time. Jesus is King, and when he returns his reign will be made evident. Until then, his followers should speak up and encourage others to do so as well.