What’s Wrong With the Golden Rule?

· Logos/Ethos

January, 2010


            Just when we thought it was safe to hold another national election, the clamor for candidates to pass a religious preference test rears its ugly head.  Since the appearance of the religious right on the political scene twenty years ago, the GOP, the major benefactor of fundamentalist fervor, has insisted on making this very private matter a very public matter.


            The recent Iowa caucuses pitted the former Republican governor of Arkansas, who advised us to take time out from the campaign to reflect on the birth of Christ, against the former Republican governor of Massachusetts who found it necessary to clarify that he believes that “Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind” and, astonishingly, that “freedom requires religion”.


            It should go without saying that the profoundly secular U.S. Constitution is very clear about this subject. Candidates for public office are not required to pass “a religious test”. Both believers and non-believers are free to seek public office.


            If this is the case, why do we insist on these quadrennial religious wars?  Why has it taken so long for the American people to catch up on a concept that was self-evident to the Founders over 220 years ago?  The answer lies in an assumption held by evangelicals and other fundamentalists, primarily that without belief in God, one cannot live a moral life. And who, we all might rightfully ask, wants an elected official who isn’t morally righteous?


            Theists and non-theists are about as far from agreement on this assumption as one can imagine. Each side finds the opposite position preposterous.  For religious people, divine revelation is the moral foundation of life.  Without its guidance, humans are adrift on a turbulent sea of moral uncertainty.  For irreligious people, reason and ethical impulses are the ultimate guides to human conduct.  For Judeo-Christian and Muslim believers, divine revelation dates back centuries to the Bible and the Qu’uran.  For the irreligious, the belief that pure practical reason and the habits of good character regulate moral choices dates back centuries to Aristotle and the Nicomachean Ethics.


            It is perhaps ironic to point out, that these opposing sides likely share belief in the same fundamental moral principle.  What believers of the world’s most popular religions (21 at last count) call “The Golden Rule”, secularists call the concept of “ethical reciprocity”. We all know it: we ought to treat people the same way as we would like to be treated. It is a notion that is at the heart of all civilized social arrangements – a universal truth if there ever was one.  But apparently their mutual acceptance of that principle is not enough for religious and irreligious folks to trust each other.


            I am the director of the New Enlightenment Institute for the Preservation and Advancement of Civil Democracy, a local educational organization.  We sponsor a lecture series called CapeLyceum which is held on the second Monday of each month at 7 P.M. at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod in South Yarmouth.  The purpose of the series is to provide intelligent, serious, civil discourse for citizens who care about the future of our democracy. On January 14th our topic is “At the Heart of the Culture Wars: Is  Belief in God  Necessary for a Moral Life?”. Our program features two local clergy, Rev. Rob Swanson of MarstonsMillsCommunityChurch and Rev. Erik Wikstrom of FirstParishChurch, Brewster who will examine the question.  It is going to be a lively and stimulating event and we welcome everyone. There is no charge but we gratefully accept donations.


            The NEI was formed as a response to what we consider an endangered democracy.  We are inspired by the great ideas which gave rise to the Age of the Enlightenment and direction to America’s Founders. Our mission is “to strive to reduce ignorance and human conflict through the promotion of civil discourse on the power and necessity of human reason and ethical conduct.”  In the spirit of full disclosure, on the issue of the aforementioned religious/culture war, our organization has a horse in this race.  We at the Institute value reason over faith and individual freedom over authoritarianism.  However, we value critical thinking equally as well and have strived to be totally non-partisan in all of our events. Civil democracy thrives when free, informed citizens think for themselves and this lecture on January 14th should give participants plenty to think about. We hope you can join us.