On Public Morals – Two Sources

What kind of moral values are acceptable in the public square?

It’s an important question in the current political climate, already rife with discord between liberals and conservatives, and now thrown into a kind of perpetual chaos by an unpredictable president.

On the one hand President Trump seems willing to flout traditional public morality and moral norms in both behavior and speech, and on the other he derives power from a Christian evangelical base that would like to see their version of morality imposed upon the culture at large (and who see liberals as trying to do the same.)

So whose version of morality wins? By what standard are we going to determine which morals are acceptable in public life, i.e. as grounds for policy and legislation and the formation of a public shared understanding of our civic responsibility? Is there a way to talk about all of these values in a way that a majority of people (and not just a bare 51%) would support?

In conversations with conservative friends, I have had the strange sensation of ships passing in the night. We try to talk about the same subject but drift off into separate spheres quickly, because our value narratives are so different as to be almost alien.

For example, one person recently said the “values of human dignity found in the Bible” supported a capitalist, market-driven economy in the exchange of goods and fair accrual of money according to one’s work. I reacted with some sense of befuddlement, and only later realized why: I was confused because I see the value of “human dignity” as a universal value, not a capitalist, sectarian or an exclusively Christian one.

What my friend said in support of a Bible-based society, in other words, was actually not a statement about the Bible. It was a statement of ethics, a concept of Good. My friend spoke as though belief in the Bible entailed belief in an ethical concept of Good. 

The Bible does not always articulate a coherent moral philosophy, not does it always treat all people with inherent worth and dignity (I’m thinking in particular of the victims of genocide at the hands of God’s people in Joshua, the lack of condemnation of slavery in both Old and New Testament, and the language about unbelievers going to eternal suffering and damnation spoken by Jesus, to name three examples). But assuming “human dignity” is a value indeed found in the Bible, does that mean that our source concept “human dignity” is exclusively biblical or Christian?

I don’t think so. To the extent that we follow rules of fairness and dignity as a capitalist society it is not because those values are found in the Bible, but rather because they resonate as universal values that are accessible by everyone.

Such conversations with conservatives about values led me to compose the following premise, in an effort to clarify where some common ground might lie between liberals and conservatives:

PREMISE: Public moral values, i.e. values that can transcend the personal, private sphere and become an acceptable source of common discourse in the public square, must be a) secular, based on non-religious reasoning, or b) universalist, based on what is accepted by all religions.

In some cases such public values will overlap with both a) and b).

This premise, if accepted, would accomplish at least three things:

  1. Establishment of common ground on which to build arguments that can be heard by all sides, because they are based in values and language universally recognized.
  2. Prevention of publicly sectarian, divisive language that only seeks to judge those outside on the basis of narrow morals
  3. A re-alignment toward a vision of Good that includes a diversified religious and non-religious ethical and moral philosophy, one that is unified around common values.

Seeking consensus on secular and universalist values is not only a necessary step to any lasting and meaningful dialogue, it is a way to re-assert a rational process into a highly charged political environment and bring it to a healthier place. 

We need a more robust, universalist philosophy in the public square. It may be the only thing left standing as a bridge, after the devaluing of public morals takes its course. 


If you found this post helpful, please like, comment, and share; help someone else have a goodminute today.


Grace, Wellspring and Compass

‘Tis grace shall bring me home.         –Amazing Grace, Spiritual 

My Lutheran heritage brought me in contact with a theological tradition that talks about grace. We defined it as undeserved love. It was one of the things that demarcated Protestant faith—no penance, praying rosaries, no elaborate ecclesiastical hierarchy. Just grace, plain and simple, accessible to all, given to all, accepted by faith.

But it went deeper than that. It was a whole outlook on life, a way of being that gave forgiveness and compassion because you yourself were forgiven and deeply loved. I felt this from my parents. I was taught to look for it in scripture. I sang about it in church, and later, taught it from the pulpit.

Grace is a powerful thing. As a concept, its theological roots run deep, and it can be found across religions. As a practice, it is a both a spiritual wellspring from which to draw and a moral compass for how to treat others.

Christians anchor God’s grace in the person and work of Jesus. The importance of the crucifixion story, as I now understand it, is as an expression of a universal consciousness of grace as lived out in a singular life, in a particular place and time, and how that life and that time can be in a way redemptive for us all.

There is much to be gleaned from the Bible when it is read from the lens of grace. If by meditating on the Word we find grace, we are the better for it. When the Bible is not read from a place of grace, and for a message of grace, it is easily subsumed by fundamentalism and fearful, protectionist dogma.

But more than that: it needs to be said that the Bible and the story of Jesus are not the only narratives of grace. In a time that seems to be ruled by the grace-less (in every possible sense of the word), we need as many narratives of grace as we can find. I’m looking for them, from all sources of religious thought, as well as from atheist and non-believers.


What are your stories of grace? Take a moment and share one here. Especially if it involves a character from a non-Christian background or source, I’m deeply interested in hearing that story now.


The Certainty Fortress: How To Dialogue With The Aggressive Right

As I’ve been in discussion with people who disagree with me, I’ve been looking for ways to deal with these conversations.

They often do not go well, especially if the person is ideologically to the right. A combination of cocksure attitude and combative stance, with lack of genuine interest in listening to another view, can make these attempts at conversation turn negative quickly.

I’ve realized we need some good conversation “markers” and “exit ramps” so that we can protect the relationship and still assert a different viewpoint.

I don’t see it that way, but I’m curious to find out more about why you see it the way you do.

This is one way to interrupt the argumentative pattern. Curiosity is gentler, and changes the dynamic from a contest to a more appreciative inquiry.

It is not always necessary to say “I don’t see it that way.” But sometimes we need to do that in order to arrest the aggressive talk. Saying “I don’t see it that way” is less inflammatory than “you’re wrong” and it provides a way to remind the other person that there is another view they haven’t accounted for.

Following up with a curious question, and then another, and another, is a way again to stop the flow of aggressive talk and require the other person to reflect.

Can you tell me what you mean by ______________?

This is another way to stop a running flow of Fox News talking points. Pick a word or phrase and ask them to unpack it. This accomplishes two things: 1) It forces them away from pre-packaged doctrinal views they’ve picked up from media, and 2) It establishes a human bond by opening space for them to talk about their own experience.

I feel like we are talking about two different things.

A good middle-conversation marker, if there is repeated lack of listening and lack of attention being paid to opposing views. Often I have to insert this statement multiple times before the other person realizes they aren’t getting anywhere.

Let’s stay in dialogue.

It’s OK to say you need to stop. (With a really aggressive person, say “I’m going to stop you there” while holding up your palm to them. This is remarkably effective.) We need to have an exit ramp from the conversation, especially if it is during the holiday and we have precious little time with family and don’t want to spend the whole time arguing about politics or other controversial subjects.

Emphasizing the desire to stay in dialogue leaves the door open. It says you care about what they have to say. It says you value the relationship above the ideas being discussed.

Remember, It’s A Process

We need to have these dialogues in order to be heard, and to help move our family, friends and country forward toward more open-minded views. But we can only plant seeds.

Know that by the very process of asking curious questions, being gently assertive, and having an exit strategy, we open cracks in the hard certainty of the other viewpoint. We can always follow up with a good factual article or reference by email, but the important thing is not to get caught up in the heat of the moment, and attempt to “win” at an argument.

Let’s pledge to find ways to sneak inside the “certainty fortress” of right-leaning family and friends this holiday and beyond.

Open Letter to the NJ Governor

Dear Governor Christie:

I am writing as a father, concerned citizen, and representative member of the Unitarian Universalist faith tradition, which upholds the dignity and worth of every human being, and wishes to see social justice in action in our state.

I also represent the Gun Violence Prevention task force of the UULMNJ – Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of New Jersey.

Our goal on the GVP task force is not to “control” guns or take them away from law-abiding citizens, but rather to work to prevent gun violence, a very different aim.

The New Jersey Assembly passed A. 4126 (keeping firearms away from those convicted of domestic violence) by an overwhelming bipartisan majority last week (60-2). The companion bill previously passed the Senate unanimously.

Please sign A. 4126, denying firearms to those who commit domestic violence. This is one way to make progress on an issue that is admittedly fraught with controversy, but that needs the attention of our public servants and state leaders in order to move forward.

Lives that will be lost if perpetrators of domestic violence are permitted to have firearms.

You have promised to sign this compromise bill. Now I call upon you to keep your promise and sign A. 4126, which will protect the lives of the many women and children who are victims of domestic abuse.

These women and children have no say in what their physically powerful male abusers can and will do to them, especially after they try to report behavior. When an individual is acting in anger and with physical force, he will often punish even those he claims to love, if they talk to anyone or go to the police.

Mandatory firearm removal from these individuals is one more common sense step to take in protecting those who find themselves trapped in this frightening and life-threatening situation.

I ask you again to please sign A. 4126 into law to reduce gun violence and protect the citizens of our state.

Stop Voting For The Capitalists: They Hurt The Working Class

People sometimes (often?) vote against their own best interests.

Capitalism is designed to accrue wealth to the owners of production. That doesn’t include you and me. It doesn’t include white working class voters. It doesn’t include most blacks, women, or Muslims either. It does include Donald Trump.

Capitalism caused this mess. The anger and “I’ve lost my f***ing mind” attitude in the poor rural counties is the result of poor conditions created in the working class by the very capitalists who got their votes, the very capitalists who promised jobs and then took them overseas, the very capitalists who trumpet “energy jobs” and encourage whole communities to put all their eggs in that basket only to have it go bust after those same capitalists decide to relocate or run out of resources to mine or drill out.

Capitalists promise the world to the working class. They promise us that if we elect them, they will help us all prosper and strive and work for a better life. But in reality they practice trickle-up economics. All of our work and striving benefits them. Everything trickles up to the .01% of the super-wealthy. That means away from your community, your family, your local government, your schools, your roads, your hospitals, your lives.

Capitalists do not have the interests of the common person in mind. Capitalists do not have white Trump voters in mind. Capitalists do not have black Clinton voters in mind.

Capitalists do not have anyone in mind but themselves. This is a natural human tendency and not surprising, but it becomes dangerous when carried out by people with immense power, status, and wealth, since their actions have a disproportionate affect on everyone else.

stop-capitalism-300x225The capitalists want to protect themselves at all (human) costs, grow themselves and their empires at all (human) costs, and preserve the (human) resources needed to produce the goods and services that made them wealthy at all (human) costs.

We have not yet done a good enough job of dialogue about why this is important, why it affects ALL of us when powerful white capitalists put people down.

It serves the interests of the Capitalists to divide us and keep us from talking to each other. Meek people who stay in their place, stay in their cubicles, and regard each other as a threat, become better workers for those who own the means of production.

White working class people, please understand: Capitalists are not on your team.*+ The only reason they trumpet your values is because you are tools to them, to their success, to their fame, to their lifestyle.

If you are angry about this (as I am), if you feel like “the elites” don’t care about you (you’re right, they don’t), if you feel like you have had the shit beaten out of you and you would like more support (you’re not alone), realize what is causing all of this to happen.

This will continue until we work across the aisle, Democrats and Republicans, to stop it.

If you have had it up to here and you can’t stand anymore, STOP VOTING FOR THE CAPITALISTS.

*Disclaimer 1: Clinton and the Democrats have not always been on your team either. I am not saying they have done a better job. Many rich Democrats are just as guilty of this sort of Capitalist 1% behavior.
+Disclaimer 2: I realize I am lumping people together here. I do so for the sake of making a clear statement. I recognize that people who practice within the capitalist system are not all bad. Bill Gates is a good person. Warren Buffett is a good person. I own my own (very small) business, and value entrepreneurship. There are many businesses and corporations that practice good and fair treatment of people and funnel money to good causes. However, even Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, when they get a tax break for their charitable contributions, for example, funnel money away from local governments who can do the most good fixing roads and providing help to working people in the form of job services, health care, child care, and so on. This is precisely the point: Capitalism is designed to funnel money to the top, and even the benevolent people like Gates and Buffett end up reinforcing it despite their best intentions.


Should We Protest The Inauguration?

I’m torn.

Part of me agrees with Clinton that we need to let Trump now assume office and give him an open mind and heart. I do believe he needs a chance to govern.

The other part of me wants to protest at the inauguration.

If I do, it will not be to say “he’s not the president.” Some protesters already have said that, or made signs to that effect. That’s not helpful.

Rather I want to say, we aren’t going to lie down and let him mistreat people, let an election platform strewn with overt sexism and racism stand without challenge.


An Appeal To Unity

On November 9:

  • We must come together
  • We must see ourselves as one
  • We must find Unity

On November 9:

  • We must separate our dearly held beliefs from our basic humanity
  • We must separate our dearly held values from our sense of self
  • We must separate our political ideals from our connection to each other

On November 9:

  • We must stop the hunt for revenge
  • We must stop criminalizing opposing views
  • We must stop intellectual imperialism (the view that says if someone’s view is different than mine it is either because they are either ignorant, or sinister)
  • We must stop letting fear govern

On November 9:

  • We must start listening
  • We must start learning
  • We must start taking more interest in each other
  • We must trust, in the wheel of life, in the universe, in God

We must do this regardless of who wins.

So that we can heal as a nation, and stop hurtling toward the chasm of radical divide that is opening farther and farther each day around us all.