The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 3 (Fall 2014)

Wanted: Public Theology

Post-Ethical Society: The Iraq War, Abu Ghraib, and the Moral Failure of the Secular

Douglas V. Porpora, Alexander G. Nikolaev, Julia Hagemann May, and Alexander Jenkins

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.3 (Fall 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2014

(Volume 16 | Issue 3)

What role did moral arguments play in public debate before the Iraq War and after Abu Ghraib? The answer, say Douglas Porpora and his three Drexel University coauthors, depends a lot on what part of the public square you happened to be standing in. If you were close to the center, near the secular elites, you probably didn’t hear many moral arguments. And if you did, they were mostly sotto voce. But if you were close to the exits, you might have overheard some of the religious folk who were milling around on the periphery. They were much more likely to make moral arguments. So if we want moral reflection to play a larger role in public debate, say Porpora and colleagues, then maybe we should readmit religious arguments to the public square.

How do the authors reach this conclusion? Being social scientists, they start by collecting and analyzing a lot of data. Since they are communications scholars, their data is drawn from the media and consists mainly of op-eds in major newspapers, news segments on national television, and the text of congressional debates. These data also include discussion threads on various websites. The authors then boil all that research down into some telling examples and statistical tables, which give us a sense of what kinds of arguments people were making, who was making them, and how frequently they were advanced.

The main conclusion is that secular media engage in a great deal of “moral muting.” By this, the authors mean the use of “prudential,” “instrumental,” or “utilitarian” arguments in lieu of explicitly moral ones. For example, instead of reflecting on whether the Iraq War met the criteria of a just war, a columnist in the New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal would have been much more likely to weigh how such a war might affect America’s reputation, whether a policy of “containment” might ultimately be more effective, or what the risks of inaction might be.

What about religious media? The authors find that they do not engage in nearly as much moral muting. The writer of an op-ed in Tikkun, The Christian Science Monitor, or Commonweal was far more likely to evaluate the war from an unabashedly moral perspective and to do so in a complex way that mobilized and weighed various arguments.

A related finding—a bit more tenuously supported by the evidence—is that public discourse in the United States suffers from a “macromoral disconnect.” Americans may have clear moral principles when it comes to their personal lives, Porpora and colleagues argue, but they often have trouble connecting these principles to “macro” questions about, say, foreign policy. This may be one reason why the secular media were much more likely to use moral arguments about the Abu Ghraib scandal than about the Iraq War. Compared with the war, Abu Ghraib was much more “micro.” It involved interactions between particular people—American soldiers and Iraqi prisoners—often mentioned by name. And those interactions were sanctioned by higher-ups, also explicitly named, such as Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez. For Americans, arguments for human rights are apparently easier to understand than arguments about just war.

So how did we get here? The authors blame secularism, specifically the “doctrine of religious restraint,” which prohibits appeals to religious reasons in public debate. This doctrine has been advocated by leading liberals such as Ronald Dworkin and John Rawls, and it appears to have some traction with the secular media. Critics friendlier to religion such as Nicholas Wolterstorff and Christopher Eberle object that such a prohibition puts an undue burden on religious citizens.

Porpora and his colleagues argue that religious restraint also decreases moral debate within the public sphere, reasoning that morality can be securely grounded only in religion. Consequently, the privatization of religion goes hand in hand with the privatization of morality. Or so the authors argue.

Are they right? Consider a few possible counterarguments. The first touches on the religion-morality link. Perhaps it is not as tight as the authors suggest. Utilitarianism is not the only version of secular ethics, after all. There is Kantianism, for example, which is quite capable of producing the sorts of universalistic and inviolable principles of morality the authors are looking for. Indeed, it is the very model of morality as they understand it. And one need not be a Christian to be a Kantian. Nor are religious ethics necessarily dependent on divine revelation. In the natural law tradition, for instance, everyone has a basic knowledge of right and wrong. So the exclusion of religion from the public square does not necessarily entail the evacuation of morality from public debate. There must be more to the story.

Market forces might be one factor. In the United States, newspapers and television news operations can’t afford to lose market share, so they often soft-pedal controversial subjects. The same thing happens in American politics. Candidates can’t afford to alienate their voter base or their big donors. So they, too, have a material incentive to engage in “moral muting.”

But did they really do so during the Iraq War? It is true that the secular media were pretty quiet. But not the politicians. They did a lot of talking about good and evil, right and wrong, darkness and light. Sometimes, they even alluded to Scripture. The most prominent example was probably President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” speech, with its extraordinary, biblically evocative promise to “rid the world of evil” by force of arms. I expect that the authors regard such talk as hubristic and even heretical. (I do.) But it is neither amoral nor secular. The problem is not so much the absence of moral argument per se as the absence of a certain kind of moral argument.

What kind? Reinhold Niebuhr’s name springs to mind. It also comes up in the book several times. What is wanting, then, is someone who can do public theology in a prophetic voice. Not the hellfire and doomsday kind (there are plenty of those), but, rather, the “let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream” kind.

To say that the authors’ argument is incomplete is not to say that it is wrong. On the contrary, there is something very right about it. On elite college campuses—the most secular spaces in American public life, and the ones where I have spent most of my life—people often shift to another register when discussing disagreements over moral questions. Sometimes, it’s an aesthetic register: “That was in poor taste.” Sometimes, it’s an emotional one: “It was kind of icky.” In such contexts, forbearance evidently trumps all other virtues. That is surely an improvement over denunciation. But it falls far short of genuine conviction.

Philip Gorski, professor of sociology at Yale University, is the author of The Disciplinary Revolution: Calvinism and the Rise of the State in Early Modern Europe, among other books.

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