Magazines 2020 Jul - Aug The new moralism

The new moralism

10 August 2020 By John G. Stackhouse

Tackling a passel of pressing problems

Remember when worried preachers used to rail against the moral relativism of our time? Remember when they warned us about the "do your own thing" attitude and "I’m OK – You’re OK"?

That might have been last week. I keep hearing it. But it’s decidedly yesterday’s news.

A recent installment of the ongoing National Study of Youth and Religion, published with the clever title Back-Pocket God: Religion and Spirituality in the Lives of Emerging Adults (M. Denton and R. Flory, Oxford, 2020), claims young Americans nowadays still pride themselves on an easygoing acceptance of others. But they are, in fact, deeply and even fiercely moralistic.

So is everybody else, it seems.

See how people disagree with each other on social media or talk shows. How long does it take for an argument to cease and mutual excommunication to occur?

"I’m right, you’re wrong, go to hell." And that last phrase is not gratuitous swearing. Unfriending and blocking are our little ways of consigning our opponents to perdition.

There is more than bad manners at work here. It is what I call the New Moralism, a widely and deeply felt conviction that right and wrong are self-evident. And the corollary is that those who do not agree with me must perforce be wicked.

Well, sure, they might just be dumb and need us to explain our position slowly, as to a willfully stupid child. But once we’ve done that and they don’t come around? Off with their heads.

How we got here is a complicated story. Philosopher Charles Taylor has devoted two giant books to the narrative and some of us feel he still hasn’t covered it all. For a start, though, let’s notice three hugely important cultural facts.

First, postmodernism, which seemed trendy 30 years ago and boring ten years ago, is now interesting because it’s everywhere. We have assumed the basic postmodern stance, which is a pervasive doubt of everyone in authority.

None of us believe someone just because he is a clergyman, government official, lawyer, judge, journalist, military officer, police officer or even scientist. We’re all cynics now.

This is an absolutely unprecedented situation. We have one main conduit of knowledge – the internet. And yet no sensible person trusts the internet.

And since no one can live in a state of perpetual doubt, we have fallen back on what philosophers call intuition, social scientists call an internal locus of authority and the rest of us call whatever seems to me to be true and right.

Second, consumerism has trained us to think this way. Each of us is a little monarch, entitled to decide everything for himself or herself entirely according to our wants and needs, our preferences and tastes, our hopes and dreams. From Disney to Apple to McDonald’s, major corporations with their slick advertising departments have been repeating this message to us daily all our lives.

Third, no generation in history has been catered to like the Baby Boomers, and we still run the cultural show. All our lives we have been told we are wonderful, and right and good. It must be annoying to hear us put down millennials as snowflakes when we have been pampered and pandered to from the time we could start watching TV.

As our culture continues to depart from its Christian heritage for a liberal secularism – lightly infused, to be sure, with a vague spirituality conformable to each person’s preferences – Christian ideas, values and practices will not be disputed, but merely dismissed as patently wrong. Christian institutions will not be respectfully acknowledged, but simply disregarded as obviously outdated at best and harmful at worst.

And the Christian gospel will not be argued with. It will be ignored as saying too many things that everyone can just plainly see aren’t true and good. Apologetics can’t even get started in such a milieu. Personal evangelism will seem offensive. We Christians are now not just different, but weird – and weird isn’t good.

In columns to come I will try to help us respond to this New Moralism. For today, it’s perhaps enough to recognize that nowadays in Canada, "I’m OK and … we’ll just see if you are."

John Stackhouse is professor of religious studies at Crandall University. Find more of these columns at