Members Only | July 12, 2019 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Don’t Buy It. The Religious Right Isn’t Moral

Morality motivates the religious left. Power motivates the religious right.

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I claimed yesterday that the religious left is just as religious as the religious right. I also claimed the religious left is more moral. Today, I want to illustrate what I mean while adding the religious right isn’t only amoral and immoral. It is actively anti-moral.


It’s important to discuss all this, because the religious right is not only an authoritarian religious movement. It is an authoritarian political movement gripping the country. It rationalizes and legitimates myriad evils, whether that’s confiscating kids at the border or forcing women to let other people use their bodies. It provides a veneer of moral cover for things that are, at root, rapacious, pernicious and wrong.

America was not founded explicitly as a Christian nation, but it was indeed founded on a Christian ideal, which is equality of “all men” before God. The religious right wants us to ignore that nationalist principle. It’s up to the religious left to never let it be forgotten. As I said, one kind of nationalism is evil, but it can only be defeated by advancing a good kind. Power motivates the religious right. Morality motivates the religious left. The former is, however and for the most part, allowed to claim morality.

Let’s end that. How?

Let’s end that. How? Focus on abortion.

Focus on abortion. That’s an issue that everyone, even abortion’s defenders, says is a moral issue for the religious right. Every life is sacred, they say; everyone has the right to life, they say. Abortion is therefore murder, they say. Murder is illegal. Abortion should be, too, they say. If you think about it, however, the religious right’s position on abortion isn’t moral. It amoral, and abortion’s defenders should say that loudly. 

If life itself is the ultimate good, then other things are secondary, such as how to live your life, what to commit yourself to, what to struggle for. In this way, the religious right has much in common with the cosmopolitanism it says is destroying America.

Here is what Steven B. Smith said about “the cosmopolitan state.” If life itself is the ultimate good, the philosopher said in one of his famed lectures at Yale University, such an ideal “can lead only to moral decay, an inability or unwillingness to dedicate one’s life to ideals, to the relatively few things that matter and that give life wholeness and meaning. The cosmopolitan state would be a world in which nothing really matters, where there is nothing left worth struggling for” (all the italics are mine). 

Bear this in mind as you read about the 68 percent of white evangelicals who believe the US government does not have a moral responsibility to take in refugees. The plight of the unborn is singular to the religious right. The plight of the born, and their willingness to dedicate themselves to wholeness and meaning? Not so much.

The religious right is not only amoral. It’s immoral.

First, it refuses to make a decision when faced with a moral dilemma, which is what an unwanted pregnancy is. Instead of choosing—which is faith in action—the religious right stands against choosing, an outcome I’d say of Professor Smith’s “moral decay.”

This stands in contrast to what black evangelicals do.

While they too believe every life is sacred, black evangelicals think through and weigh the morality of a government telling black women what to do with their bodies against their feelings on abortion. Given our nation’s history of white supremacy, which is a history of telling black people what to do with their bodies, black evangelical leaders have chosen to value a black women’s rights above the “rights of the unborn.” This is surely a wrenching moral decision, but no truly moral decision has ever been easy. 

The second reason the religious right’s position on abortion is immoral is this.

In standing against abortion, it stands for a person’s “right” to use another person’s body. Even if we presume a fetus is a person, and presume that that person has a right to life, we should not presume it’s OK for that person to use another person’s body. To accept that is to accept an immorality with grotesque implications. The religious right would rather ignore that, yet it’s by and large allowed to claim morality’s mantle.

Finally, the religious right is anti-moral. With every legal victory in its long journey toward outlawing abortion, the religious right has created political conditions in which it’s impossible to have a moral debate about abortion. Even its defenders concede there’s room for meaningful debate with respect to when it’s acceptable to have an abortion, or even if a fetus is a person or when. But in being intractably amoral and immoral over time, the religious right has sabotaged moral debate.

It is, therefore, anti-moral.

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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