The Christian Right Trades Morality for Dogma

Earlier, I wrote that Democrats need to make a moral argument for their positions. There are people more informed than I am about when and why the party stopped doing that. Generally speaking, it is most likely because when we think of morals, we think of religion. And Democrats have been deeply committed to the separation of church and state.

But avoiding the issues of a moral framework for politics has ceded that ground to Republicans. That party decided a while ago to cede their moral framework to the religious right, which means handing it over to white evangelicals. I would suggest that what they provide is not a moral framework, but dogma, which has been further reduced to dogma about sexuality. So when the topic of morals comes up, we primarily think about the rules related to when and with whom we are allowed to have sex.

The focus of so many of our major religions on the topic of who we are/are not allowed to have sex with is a huge topic to explore. For the moment, I’d like to zero in on the substitution of dogma for morals, something that has also become ubiquitous in many of our major religions.

I previously provided this definition of morality: “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.” Let’s contrast that with a definition of dogma: “A principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.”  Do you see the glaring distinction? Morality is about identifying the principles by which we determine what is right and wrong, whereas dogma determines that for us based on some authority. Dogma is about obeying the rules.

One of the people who consistently made the distinction between dogma and morality was Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels. As he traveled with his disciples, he was constantly followed by the Pharisees, who were the dogmatists of his day. They kept trying to catch him breaking the rules.

Their pursuit brought us the story of the good Samaritan. An expert in the law asked Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life. Jesus answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.” That is more a statement of morality than dogma. When pushed to identify who qualifies as a neighbor, Jesus told the story about the good Samaritan, which would be like suggesting to a Republican that a good Democrat is their neighbor (or vice versa).

The Pharisees of our day have nullified that answer from Jesus by making a distinction that refocuses on dogma. They now say, “love the sinner, hate the sin.” With that, they are allowed to demonstrate their hatred of the sin in the political arena by doing things like fighting against equality for homosexuals.

Years ago I came across a story in the gospels where Jesus once again makes the distinction between morality and dogma. I realized that in all my years of going to church at least 3 times a week, I had never heard a sermon on this story. Jesus was traveling with his disciples on the Sabbath and when they said they were hungry, he encouraged them to go into the corn fields to get something to eat. The Pharisees thought they had caught him breaking the rules about not working on the Sabbath. As told by Luke, here’s what Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” In other words, the rules (or dogma) were there to serve a higher purpose.

In one further example, Jesus defined that higher purpose based on morality. Luke tells the story about him making the decision to heal a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. Once again, the Pharisees suggested that he was breaking the rules. This time Jesus said, “I will ask you one thing. Is it lawful on the Sabbath days to do good or to do evil? To save life, or to destroy it?”

What we see is that over and over again, Jesus challenged the dogmatists to get past their rules and contemplate the much more difficult question of morality. In every instance, answering that question required compassion and empathy for those in need. It also ultimately required breaking the rules.

Contrary to what some would have you believe, this is not a recipe for moral relativism. Jesus (and many other wise men) simply said that there are times when we have to go beyond the rules. We will recognize those times when we love our neighbor as ourselves and behave with empathy and compassion.

I use Jesus as the example of a teacher who made the distinction between dogma and morals because his followers are the ones who have been ceded the moral high ground on these discussions in our politics. I’m not sure that most of them have ever really paid attention to what he had to say.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.