For decades now, Christians have warned about the consequences of moral relativism. The notions that all moral ideas are equal or that no one has the right to judge anything anyone else does were rightly seen as problematic for Christians who believe in a moral universe established by God.
As the culture wars unfolded in the 1990s, Christians on the conservative side of the aisle often invoked relativism as the source of all evils, the prime mover that made abortion and stem-cell research legal and ushered in a wave of drugs and sexual immorality. Referencing important verses in the Book of Judges (“In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Judges 17:6, 21:25), conservative Christians frequently preached against relativism and warned that if everyone does as they see fit, the world will quickly plunge into moral bankruptcy and the social order we know will collapse. Armed with C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man and the apologetic manifestos of Francis Schaeffer, conservative Christians became cultural watchdogs for the ultimate sin of moral relativism.
Progressives, for their own part, pushed back on the conservative agenda, arguing that traditional moral systems were shot through with misogyny, racism, and inequalities of various sorts. While relativism wasn’t exactly to blame, at least from the progressive perspective, certain aspects of the WASPy moral framework were, and the culture wars raged on.
Today, these tensions are playing out in different ways. Conservatives who were taught to be on guard for anything that smacked of moral relativism are having a hard time explaining the American fever pitch over transgender bathrooms and the consistent moral outrage over Donald Trump’s daily remarks. If relativism is the defining characteristic of our day, then why are there so many campus protests? When do you ever hear anyone say, “You can’t judge me” or, “To each his own…” with seriousness anymore?
While the culture wars thesis still helps make sense of many of our current social problems, it is becoming more and more difficult for conservatives to equate the enemy at the gates with the threat of moral relativism. Several commentators have recently pointed this out, including Andy Crouch’s declaration of the emerging “Shame Culture,” David Brooks in his New York Times article, “Inside Student Radicalism,” and Jonathan Merritt’s essay, “The Death of Moral Relativism,” published in The Atlantic in March 2016. As Merritt observes,
the prevailing thought of the second decade of the 21st century is not like the mid-to late-20th century. Law, virtue, and a shame culture have risen to prominence in recent years, signaling that moral relativism may be going the way of the buggy whip…. A culture of shame cannot be a culture of total relativism. One must have some moral criteria for which to decide if someone is worth shaming.
With these cultural sociologies in view, Christians who want to preserve the moral dictates of Scripture, whether from the right or the left, should know that the ethical landscape has changed. This is reflected, says Merritt, not only in the culture wars over bathrooms or abortion rights, but in the artistic, cinematic, and comedic impulses of our day.
What this means for Christians worried about the onslaught of moral relativism is that these fears may be misplaced. To be sure, there are major issues and injustices that Christians can and should address, and relativism, when taken to its furthest conclusion, can be both nihilistic and insidious. Fortunately, though, despite the well known, late 20th century proclamations regarding its ascendancy, relativism is old news. Instead, moral judgment, public shaming, and self-righteousness are the new issues at the gate.