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Consistent public ethics for Christian witness

I felt sick as I listened to some Christian leaders minimize sexual assault of women as a moral issue in order to preserve a promise to appoint an anti-abortion judge to the Supreme Court in the United States, in response to the controversy surrounding Donald Trump in October. What kind of ethics leads to elevating and absolutizing one moral issue over all others in a Christian public witness? Surely respect for women is key to ending abortion. Similar ethical questions arose for me earlier in the year when many Christians continued to support a pro-life group that used deception and entrapment to make its case against Planned Parenthood. Does the end justify the means in Christian ethics? 

Other ethical issues are ignored. I had to look for a Christian ethical analysis of Hillary Clinton’s proposal to arm one aggrieved group, the Kurds, to defeat other aggrieved groups, as the best path to peace in the Middle East. What does the ethics of peace with justice, using either a just war or a peacebuilding approach, have to say about that? I found some thoughtful voices, but they lack profile as a Christian public witness. As I reflected on the public witness identified as Christian in North America, it seems that the principles and practice of a consistent public ethics are under-developed.

Mal-function in the public square

Religious voices, including Christians, are expected to offer a vision of what the good life, an ethical life, looks like in society today. In his book A Public Faith, Miroslav Volf suggests that Christian faith malfunctions when it fails in that task. The term “mal-function” helps because it focuses on impact rather than faith itself. In personal experience, I have been called a non-Christian when I dared to raise questions about the ethics of some pro-life groups. Maybe dialogue is possible if I say that, in my view, a high level of mal-function is harming the public witness of Christianity in North America. It matters. Recent surveys show that a growing percentage of people, especially young adults, think Christianity causes more problems than it solves in society. Bragging about how much charity churches do won’t change that assessment unless there is also a consistent ethical framework in view.

Power and coercion

Christian faith mal-functions in society, says Volf, when it becomes too entangled with the drive for political power. Current polarization into camps of Christian Right and Christian Left are evidence of that. Room to discuss other options is closed by pressure to align with either one of two sides on issues that are defined as “culture wars.” The reconciling role of Christians, based on Christ’s reconciling love for the whole world, cannot function well. Another impact is erosion of the credibility of Christian public witness over the longer term.

Christian faith also mal-functions, says Volf, when it tries to use coercive means to force specific moral prescriptions on everyone. While that warrants fuller discussion, it is relevant for understanding the current mal-functioning of Christian public witness today.

A third factor, more strategic than ethical, is the focus on single issues in the last decade. I understand why Christian organizations have chosen to focus on one or two issues, such as immigration reform, abortion, poverty, indigenous justice, climate change or religious persecution. It allows specialization and the perception of greater effectiveness as advocates for change. It allows members of churches to follow their passions and support related groups. Boards are forced to decide on one or two priorities and show progress on those to justify use of donated resources.
What gets lost in this approach, however, is the on-going development of a robust ethical framework that helps people respond to a variety of issues in an integrated way.

Way forward

A mal-function requires corrective action. First, it may be time for Christians and churches to collectively reflect on what harm is being done as well as what is positive for the credibility of our public witness. That will be difficult. Another step is renewing efforts to present a positive and persuasive vision of the good life, rooted in love of God and love for all neighbours – big enough to suggest a way forward for all aspects of a flourishing life in our contemporary context. Finally, this work needs to be done with a clear rejection of coercion and a strong commitment to respect other religious perspectives in a genuinely pluralistic public arena.  

Author

  • Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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