The woman looked older but was not wiser than her actual age. She loved to preach to the church goers around her at noon after the late service at the Methodist church. She rarely spoke gently and kindly, her monologues were generally steeped in moral indignation. The woman’s old fashioned opinions were underlined by the fragrance of baby powder and the fox stole she draped across her shoulders every Sunday.
It was the taxidermied fox head that both fascinated and repelled me, especially when she sat in the pew ahead of the one I occupied. Rightly or wrongly, I associated the woman with anger and unhappiness. I knew that pity is a negative emotion, but feeling sorry for her seemed like the proper way to feel. It seemed like she needed to wear the dead fox as a shield to ward off perceived evil.
It has been many decades since these childhood observations and ponderings about the woman who dressed in her musty, drab fashions from the 1940s and the fox stole. Sometimes she comes to mind when I hear the pronouncements of a radical politician or a fanatical cleric. Their moralism is violent and hateful, yet a small voice inside me feels sorry for them. Where is the boundary between feeling sad for them and my own moral indignation?
The United States once witnessed the marriage of Evangelical Christianity with a political movement called “The Moral Majority”. The specific political group is no more, but has morphed into other special interest organizations that have similar “missions”. Every single one of them has scapegoated the LGBT community with heavy doses of wrath. It’s difficult for fair-minded individuals to feel good about the moralists.
As a religion adopts and becomes identified with a political agenda, the religion is seen to be tainted and becomes discredited. The boundary between zeal and theocracy become blurred. To the outsider, the “values” that are preached sound more like oppression. The religion loses its spirituality and becomes a negative cultural phenomenon. The fear of imposed religiosity via an officially proscribed creed is generated in the minds of those who do not hold those particular opinions.
The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Fanatic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but in doubt. It is when we are not sure that we are doubly sure.” There is a lot of wisdom to unpack in that quote. Niebuhr might be alluding to the tendency we humans have to moralize. It makes moralism one of the most potent of the “false gospels”. Moralism turns a spiritual life upside down from a basis in love over to a
basis in fear. Fearful moralism repels fair-minded people.
In my opinion, moralism is the cause of today’s culture wars and social disunity. This is because fear is the most powerful motivator of beliefs and actions. The language of moralism and “values” is used by those who seek power and social advantage. The strategy seems to work very well, until someone else comes along with a different moralistic message.
How can we resist the pull of moralistic social movements? We can inoculate ourselves by remembering the old adage, “Those who present themselves as saints, seldom are.”