After Charlottesville, still looking for the moral center

In a New York Times editorial, Erick Woods Erickson wrote,

This president is our president. He is the president of the United States. But as we become less united as a nation, he seems unwilling or unable to speak with conviction and moral clarity. We will all be worse off for it.

Among the few bright lights in this weekend’s darkness has been the moral clarity of our church leaders to stand against this evil. In the absence of a moral, capable leader, it is up to them to reclaim the moral center. As long as they continue to take that stand, there will be hope.

One notable thing is that Erickson, a political conservative, acknowledges that we cannot expect moral leadership from Trump, which is obvious because Trump has always been amoral.  But people like Erickson keep returning, without any benefit, to religion in search of moral leadership. There is no society-wide leadership in a de-centered society. When leadership exists, it can only be local, as in organizations, but even that leadership will always be contested.

Luhmann wrote about morality being released from the custody of religion in the 17th century. Morality came to be seen as a two-sided form, or as arising from the distinction between right and wrong (or respected and disrespected) actions attributed to individual persons. There can be no moral or ethical right if there is no wrong. Evil was no longer seen as a thing-in-itself; that is to say, it was de-ontologized. Religion had seen evil as an essence, something that could be defeated or completely eliminated from the world. But this is no longer the case when morality is seen as arising from a distinction, or an observation. Immorality is not something that simply exists independent of, or prior to, the distinction.

The main point, though, is that in a functionally differentiated society, there is no moral center; it is a not a center/periphery society or a top-down, stratified society.  While center/periphery and high/low distinctions still operate, they are overruled by functional differentiation. This means that where the older distinctions come into conflict with functional differentiation, functional differentiation gets to decide what happens.

In this kind of society, religion cannot do anything about issues like white supremacy and terrorism. In this case the only truly relevant function system is the law. All religion can do is reaffirm traditional moral principles; it can’t put white supremacist terrorists in prison.


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