Letter from America

Morality Writ Small

I SHOULD WAIT a month or two to summarize the Episcopal responses to Lambeth, but I will say that our liberals are in a bigger snit than even I expected. They have reduced themselves to paranoid fantasies of rich right-wing American bishops buying the votes of impoverished African bishops who, presumably, would otherwise have voted for the homosexualist party. So claims, for example, the Bishop of Rhode Island, Geralyn Wolf.

Just imagine now furiously indignant they would be had someone of our integrity suggested that American money secured the ordination of women in African dioceses.

 

Morality writ small

A few months ago, a very interesting study of middle class morality appeared, claiming that middle-class Americans, generally thought to be prudish and puritanical, in fact do not like to “?impose their values on others” and “are committed to tolerance to such an extent that they have either given up finding timeless morality or would be unwilling to bring its principles down to earth if, by chance, they came across it.”

In One Nation, After All a sociologist from Boston University, Alan Wolfe, noted that “Whatever middle class morality is these days, it is neither puritanical nor judgmental; modest virtues do not allow much room for finger- pointing.”

He thought “The idea of the ‘Ten Suggestions’ rather than the ‘Ten Commandments’ is exactly the tone in which most middle-class Americans believe we ought to establish moral rules.” This genial lack of interest in first principles makes the country “one nation, after all.”

You may find this hard to believe, given the stereotypes, but Americans like to be in the centre. Most Americans consider themselves middle-class, which Prof. Wolfe described as “people who are “not too poor to be considered dependent on others but not too rich” either. In no study between 1972 and 1994 “did more than 10 percent of the population . . . classify themselves as either lower class or upper class.”

They are also ardently centrist in morals. They “distrust ideological thinking,”? by which Prof. Wolfe seemed to mean articulating your first principles and thinking through their consequences, which may lead to “extremism.”

Thus their moral standard is “morality writ small.” They both profess “loyalty to the essential truths of transcendental moral principles” while making “determined revisions . . . to account for contemporary circumstances.”

 

Too much credit

I think, from my own observation, that Prof. Wolfe gave middle class Americans more credit than they are due. He seemed to think that they are merely trying to apply abstract principles wisely and mercifully to the circumstances of the moment, but I think he is wrong. Middle class morality is not casuitical, it is convenient.

If, say, at a suburban dinner party you assert, without any reference to a particular case, that a truth is a transcendent truth you will likely be told that you are “imposing your values on others” (this generally from people who don’t like the truth you have just asserted) or that you do not understand that “there are different strokes for different folks” (this generally from people who don’t reject the truth asserted but carefully and instinctively protect the principle of relativism lest they need it).

The result of this “morality writ small” is a pharisaical morality, in which the only actions you recognize as truly sins are the ones you don’t commit. Racism in South Africa or the deep South is wicked, but the segregation of your own neighbourhood is the result of impersonal market forces or the desire of black people to live in black neighbourhoods. Genocide in Rwanda is horrifying, but abortion is sometimes a necessity and certainly not a matter over which anyone should impose his views on another.

But Prof. Wolfe did find one exception. The only moral question on which middle class Americans held a firm view was: homosexuality. They do not like it, at all.

 

The Episcopal situation

This explains a lot about Episcopal conservatism. As I have written here and elsewhere, most conservative Episcopalians accept the ordination of women despite the biblical evidence against it, but declare homosexuality completely and absolutely wrong and not to be tolerated.

Here they articulate, in a religious form, the morals of the middle class and the mind of the suburbs. Rejection of homosexuality sells, and the thought and actions of conservative Episcopalians have been distorted by the ease with which people are rallied by invoking it as a danger.

One activist organization has raised millions of dollars with hysterical mass mailings against the homosexual threat, which will only be averted by generous contributions sent back -- now! before it’s too late! -- in the convenient return envelope. Even the Episcopal Synod of America, founded in response to the divisive innovation of the ordination of women, made the acceptance of homosexuality its first reason for breaking communion with anyone.

That said, most of us who believe the Christian teaching on the matter clear would not have said anything about it had not the homosexualist party openly attacked that teaching and tried to change the Church’s practice and law. They presented a challenge which had to be met.

But not, perhaps, met quite as it has been. “Don’t ask, don’t tell”? seems to me a reasonable pastoral principle, if coupled with the willingness to act against anyone in “grave and open sin without repentance,” as the preface to the Communion service in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer puts it.

 

And if the sins so noticed include the sins of economic oppression and exploitation against which Jesus and the prophets spoke so insistently, and which are committed without rebuke by leading laymen in many parishes. It is wrong to drive the quiet homosexual couple from the door while putting the robber baron on the vestry.

 

David Mills is director of publishing at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry and the editor of The Pilgrim’s Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness (Eerdmans). He is at work on a companion volume, Worth Doing Badly: G. K. Chesterton and the Art of Witness.

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