I started a chain of blog posts on ethics back in 2018 under the continuing theme called “Good People Disagree,” reflecting back on a model of ethics I had developed while formally studying the topic 30 years ago. My assertion has been that the most difficult corners of ethical reasoning and discussion are found in cases where the disagreeing parties come to the table are “good people” and approach the argument in “good faith.” As I wrote back then, “Murder is bad. Got it.” The hard ethical decisions come when, in this example, people of “good faith” disagree as to the degree of the murder and the degree of punishment. That is where, I argue, good people will disagree, and the “moral conversation” gets interesting.
But the last six years have continually challenged my basic assumption here. The country has been riveted by a personality cult around someone who I would unapologetically describe as one of the most intrinsically vile men to ever reach national leadership in America. Some of my good friends, and they are all intelligent, moral folks, have succumbed to the Trump cult, and I perceive how they have been changed.
What happens when people of “bad faith” demand a seat at the negotiating table? Or, in the case of the January 6 Capitol invasion, turn the whole table over?
The decline of ecumenism
I personally run into hard-to-reconcile “bad faith” arguments on both the religious and political landscapes. From the time of my teens in the 1960s through my middle adult years, a debate was waged in many Christian denominations, including in my own, about how “ecumenical” various faith traditions should become. The National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches seemed to be often in the news, presenting a unified “Christian” point of view on topics like racial discrimination and the environment. And that “Christian” view often included outreach to non-Christian faith communities to “invite them to the common table” to add their voice on important social issues. That unified, ecumenical religious voice, I assert, was instrumental in bringing an end to apartheid in South Africa.
But then came the electon of Donald Trump, and later the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis in 2020 spurred the “Black Lives Matter” protests. Pastors around the country often found themselves on opposite sides from their congregations. Or worse, with their congregations asserting that American minorities have gone “too far” in asserting basic human rights.
Add to that dissension the turmoil brought to the Covid vaccine rollout by conspiracy mongers and the forces of pseudoscience and anti-science. The Christian stance on basic public health, an ecumenical consensus since the polio vaccine, got politicized in congregations across the country, including my own. In the process, a large conservative segment of the Christian world has tried to re-claim the exclusivity of the “Christian” label formerly granted by the media to the ecumenists as these newly-minted “dominionists” now openly push to tear down the wall between church and state.
That conservative, mostly evangelical side of Christianity was already “on a roll” from the 2016 election as the Supreme Court became successfully stuffed with doctrinaire, “my beliefs rule,” anti-abortion religious conservatives. A reminder that you will not find longstanding theological consensus on opposition to abortion in conservative Protestant Christianity until the issue was seized on as a cultural “wedge issue” for the Reagan faction of the Republican party leading up to the Presidential election of 1980. As I wrote last year in a couple of posts about “when good Christians disagree,” some arcane 2000-year-old doctrinal arguments have re-surfaced to pretty much put an end to Christian ecumenism, now mostly confined to the aging and declining “old mainstream” churches.
I wrote more recently about how the various strains of religion seem to have a harder time separating their professed ethic, those beliefs about how people ought to live together, from their dogma, their religious tradition’s stance on which fine points of theology, distant-past events, and predicted future events must be taken as literally true. For many Christian denominations, dogma becomes ethic. In other words, if you disagree with them about, say, the six-day creation or the rapture, you are not welcome in their midst as one of their community.
“Bad faith” religion kills the moral conversation most often by injecting proof-texting, which is the selection of short scriptural passages without context as weapons of argument. Holy scriptures in all of the major religious traditions are often written like horoscopes. One can pull out just about any answer from their many pages of text. There is a certain amount of hubris in asserting that you alone have “figured God out” and speak as the final arbiter of a singular moral truth that has eluded “good people who disagree” for thousands of years.
Good politics versus bad politics
A friend who taught political science would start out his classes with a positive definition of politics in order to push against the common derogatory connotations of the word. Politics, in this definition, is how diverse communities pull together to create a functioning society. “Good” politics involves listening to informed advocacy, good-faith negotiation, and the seeking of consensus to arrive at the common set of “rules for playing together in the sandbox” that is human society.
“Bad” politics, on the other hand, relies on brinksmanship, bad-faith negotiation, and autocratic leadership styles to quell the disagreement of minority parties. The continued denial of the 2020 election results remains the height of bad-faith politics in the United States since the Civil War. The current revelations of the “complicated” parental history and abortion stance of Georgia senatorial candidate Herschel Walker is another case in point. Even the most “Christian-on-their-sleeve” Republican leaders have opted for the “winning justifies all” approach to political ethics in their continuing support of Walker.
Political violence, just as happened in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021, is the ultimate shutdown of the moral conversation, Crazy talk and the use of money and political power to buy intimidation have been effective in recent years in killing rational conversation and negotiation between parties with conflicting interests.
Put them together…
Unfortunately, whole segments of Christianity and secular political groups have fallen to “the Big Lie,” persuaded by a life-long irreligious con man whose businesses were often scams and spectacular failures, and who has cried “rigged election” in every tally since he lost multiple times at the Emmy Awards and at the 2016 Iowa caucus. Local religious congregations have often chosen to force members to “take sides” on overtly political questions.
My own model of ethics, discussed in a linked series beginning with “the first ethical dilemma,” requires a bit of rational and scientific understanding of our human brain that strongly suggests at least four different and simultaneous decision-making brain regions are constantly “battling it out” in each of us for determining a choice. The end result is the “moral conversation” within our own head that can be expanded outside it to talk with the “good people who disagree.”
Coming to this “moral conversation” in good faith often requires, especially among religious people, a rational discussion of our own historical conflicts between “following the rules” and basic human empathy. That is, in my view, at the heart of what got Jesus executed. This is also the heart of the immigration dilemma, for instance. Do the rules of national borders dominate, or do we take into consideration the economic and political personal hardships causing those “children of God” standing at our door to risk their lives to escape their failed birthright countries?
You simply cannot conduct that “moral conversation” in an overheated religious and political stew, where television commentators, social media, manipulative politicians, and charismatic church leaders bring their followers to an irrational frenzy based on limited and outright false information.
My friends who have been sucked up into “the angry crowd” are still “good people.” But too many have been “converted” by some “not-so-good people” to a very different “gospel” from the one preached by Jesus 2000 years ago:
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?’ When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:37-40 NIV)