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January 27, 2014
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Guest column: Without religious ideas, how do we define morality?

Jeff Ackerman’s recent column addressing the controversy surrounding the remarks of Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” highlighted the current cultural tension between religious expression and its interface with societal morality. I agree the efforts to repress and intimidate that speech are unfortunate. The very passion unleashed speaks both to the important questions many of us struggle to clarify in our own minds and the need to have more conversation, not less.

When does speech become so offensive it cannot be allowed in public discourse; so vile it must be punished? How do we decide? Who decides? Does this not require an objective standard of ethics upon which all society can agree? Otherwise, one man’s evil may be another man’s justice. When the vulgarity in images and language so prevalent in current media is considered, that bar for objection must be set very high.

Should privately held religious convictions be barred from public discourse involving moral issues, discouraged from undue influence on social norms and behavior? How does this inform individuals, who make up the church, in their response to controversial topics in rapid flux including homosexuality? Those who denounce religious input in this particular may cheer the Pope’s recent remarks of concern regarding income inequality and consequences of unfettered capitalism adverse to the poor. Is God only welcome when we can use Him for our purpose?

Phil Robertson is known to be a plain-spoken man of deeply held Christian faith. The comments of controversy were not part of his show, rather on private time. The opinions were offered in response to specific questions asked of him in an interview.

A&E has the same right to fire Mr. Robertson for his off-duty remarks that your or my employer has with us. But to ignore the chilling effect on free expression of this practice is unwise. And your response should not depend on whether you agree with his comments.

It seems disingenuous to ask a man whom you know to be a devout Christian to give his opinion on a subject that you know violates his faith-based convictions, and then be outraged when you hear his response. Much disagreement is manufactured. Any evening on cable networks, you can hear people shouting past one another in sound bites and slogans with little intent of communication. It is much easier to vilify one another, creating a straw man stuffed full of our hyperbole of another’s position which we then self-righteously pummel. If we outlaw a form of speech, it should be this.

I once heard a rabbi say that in the Judeo-Christian tradition, before debate could begin, one person had to restate his opponent’s position until that second person said, “yes, this is what I believe.” And then the second individual had to do the same for the first. Only then could they ethically begin to debate. Because only then do they understand what truly divides them such that they do not waste time deepening the divide, vilifying one another over false representations of the other’s convictions.

In that vein, let me respond to the interviewer’s questions of what constitutes sin for the Christian. Too often, Christian morality has been presented as a collection of rules for living. It isn’t. Morality for the Christian is emergent from the very nature of God. It is not transcendent over him. It is not subservient to him. It is intrinsic to him. His character defines it.

And love is the supreme ethic: Love first of God and then our neighbor. Love in its highest manifestation will always have to be chosen. The Christian doctrine then is that we were born with both the capacity and choice for intimacy with God. Our morality flows from this relationship. Scripture simply informs it.

What is clear at this time is that religious ideas are ceasing to underpin general morality. Because these ideas have prevailed for so long, people tend to assume the morality that goes with them is somehow obvious and commonsensical and will continue. This is a terrible error. We have entered a period in which this is no longer so and we are beginning to see the results. What is lost is how we decide what is right and wrong.

And what is ironic is that this function of defining ethics has fallen to the political realm. We politicize morality and we moralize about politics. Incredible. The one major life discipline that lays no claim to a moral function, defines and enforces which behavior is acceptable in the form of political correctness. Everything is left or right. We omit what is up and down because we no longer can agree on the terms.

It’s worth discussing.

Tim Powell is a physician and the president of Evergreen Family Medicine. He has lived and practiced in Roseburg since 1980, an endeavor that has taught him that understanding begins with asking the right questions with a fair and open mind. He can be reached at timandkathypowell@gmail.com.

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The News-Review Updated Jan 27, 2014 06:20PM Published Jan 27, 2014 06:20PM Copyright 2014 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.