The Big Mo: Moral Relativism and the Morality of Relatives


Judge Moore’s original plaques.

In the late 1990s, an Alabama man went into his wood shop to work on his latest craft project. He had two wooden plaques, and he had decided to engrave them with the text of the Ten Commandments.

If Roy Moore had not been appointed a county judge, the plaques might still be hanging in his living room. Instead, as he was decorating his new courtroom, he decided to mount them behind his bench.

It was not lost on him that if you want to annoy a liberal, one of the surest ways to do it is to display the Ten Commandments on public property. In short order, Judge Moore was sued by the ACLU and became a fundamentalist folk hero. He rode the wave all the way to the state Supreme Court, where he erected another graven image, carved into a two-ton chunk of granite.

His purpose, he announced, was to bring back morality to a corrupt nation. “May this day,” he said, “mark the restoration of the moral foundation of law to our people and the return to the knowledge of God in our land.”

Both Moore and his tablets were eventually removed, after he defied orders from two federal courts. But holy wars over the Ten Commandments rage on.

Of course, they’re not just about the Commandments. In the symbolism of the Culture Wars, the Ten Commandments are shorthand for morality in general, for faith in moral absolutes. For culture warriors, the stone tablets stand firm against a demonic force that threatens the fabric of American society: Moral relativism.

Moral relativism? It’s curious that such a mouthful of words should cause so many to froth at the mouth. To quote Judge Moore himself, “We are cast upon the shifting sands of moral relativism in which anything goes, including lying, cheating and stealing.”

Writes Mormon blogger Connor Boyack: “Looking for the quickest way to destroy a society? Want to bring back Sodom and Gomorrah? Try moral relativism!”

A more philosophical critic was Pope Benedict XVI. “We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism,” he said, “which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”

The core of their argument is that without a stern supernatural father setting limits, all Hell breaks loose. As Dostoevsky famously asked: “How is man going to be good without God?” Religious conservatives have blamed moral relativism for everything from riots and drug addiction to serial killers and pedophile priests.

Bring back the Ten Commandments, they say, and we’ll start to bring back moral behavior.

Here’s what I find ironic in this debate. One day, as I was rereading the Ten Commandments, it struck me that they’re actually a textbook case of moral relativism. You can decide for yourself, as I indulge in a bit of forensic theology. Call it CSI: Exodus.

Along the way, we might get some insights into the shadow side of morality. We might unravel how a person can believe “Thou Shalt not Kill” while supporting both war and capital punishment.

We might even find ways to take morality back from self-proclaimed Moral Majorities, so that religious liberals don’t have to squirm whenever we hear the M word.


When I read back over the Ten Commandments, my first impression is how reasonable they sound. Apart from the God language, nothing conflicts with the seven Unitarian Universalist principles. Stripped of burning bushes and parted waters, they’re a commonsense set of basic rules for civilization.

Don’t kill. That’s a good start. Don’t lie and don’t steal. Don’t break your vows to the person you married. Honor the ones who raised you.

These Commandments are addressed to a people that’s fresh out of slavery, learning for the first time how to live together and govern themselves. At heart, they’re simple rules for relationships, with God and with each other.

It also strikes me that the list of antisocial behaviors is refreshingly short. Apart from adultery, they include no sexual taboos. The Bible doesn’t start to micromanage human behavior until the following book.

Perhaps the problem is not with the Ten Commandments. It’s with the people who preach them.

Look at religions based on the Ten Commandments, and it’s hard to argue that God makes humans good. From the Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition, from burning witches to holding slaves, true believers have racked up many of the most atrocious acts on human record.

The contradictions go back to the Old Testament itself. Within a few chapters of hearing the Ten Commandments, the Hebrew children are pillaging and plundering their way through the land of Canaan.

“And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword…And they burnt the city with fire, and all that was therein. Only the silver, and the gold, and the vessels of brass and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the Lord.”

What’s going on here? Are the Hebrew children simply ignoring the Commandments? Or do they interpret them in a different way from you and me?

I find a clue from Moses, in a pep talk that he delivers on the east bank of the River Jordan. He has just recapped the Ten Commandments, as he prepares the Israelites to enter the Promised Land. There is an obstacle. Seven nations already live there. But Moses reassures them, saying, “When the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them.”

There’s no way to pretty up this story. Moses is counseling his followers to commit genocide. But he has a ready justification.

“For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God. The Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth.”

In other words, the Ten Commandments were never meant to be universal laws. They’re intended for the chosen people, and for no one else. Thou shalt not kill…each other. Thou shalt not steal…from one another.

For dealing with people of other races and other gods, the commandments are utterly different. It’s okay to steal, kill and show no mercy – unless they surrender ahead of time, in which case, you can take them as slaves.

Here we get to the heart of Old Testament morality – and the riddle of how people who swear by moral absolutes can do so many immoral things. For the people of Exodus, morality is not an absolute set of rules. It’s actually two sets of rules: one for Us and one for Them.

That’s the secret of the Ten Commandments. They use the language of moral absolutes, but in practice, they’re as relative as any atheist.

They’re relative in another sense, too: they apply only to people who are relatives. The Hebrew children trace their common ancestry to twelve legendary brothers, who sired twelve tribes. A tribe is an extended family and a nation is an extended tribe. Kindness is simply the way we treat our own kind.

Once we identify this kind of split moral reasoning, we can recognize it again and again. It’s part of every so-called holy war, whether it’s Christians against Muslims, Catholics against Protestants or Cowboys against Indians. It goes by names like “the white man’s burden” and “Manifest Destiny.” It rationalized slavery and justified the Trail of Tears.

When God is on your side, anything goes. You can take out on strangers the things you wouldn’t do to your own kind. It’s the Golden Rule in reverse.


Perhaps what separates one morality from another is not what we eat, who we sleep with, or even how we treat our neighbors. Perhaps the central moral question is the one that was put directly to Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?” How do we define Us and how do we define Them?

In Jesus’ response to that question, we find a very different answer from that of his predecessors. His answer is to tell a story.

A traveler from Jerusalem is beaten by robbers and left for dead by the side of the road. Two priests from his own country pass him by. Finally, he is aided by a foreigner, from the land of Samaria.

For Jesus’ listeners, that’s a startling detail. There have been centuries of ethnic hatred between Samaritans and Jews. When he makes his hero a Samaritan, it’s like telling modern Americans that his hero is a communist or a terrorist.

At the end of the story, he turns the question back on the person who asked it: “Which now of these three…was neighbor unto him that fell among the thieves?”

If that’s not clear enough, Jesus spends much of the Sermon on the Mount explicitly deconstructing the Ten Commandments. His message is to follow them but go beyond them, to love outside the box.

“It hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”

The morality of Jesus has been called “radical inclusion.” He builds his ministry around outlaws and outcasts. “When thou makest a feast,” he advises, “call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And thou shalt be blessed.”

What separates Jesus from the morality of Moses and Joshua is that there’s no Us and no Them, at least, not here on earth. Every human being is his neighbor, regardless of where they live or what they do.

Or as we put it in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, “We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”


But why should morality be limited to human beings? In the moral system of the Lakota nation of the Great Plains, the core principle is the same one we’ve heard all along: Treat your relations with respect. What’s different is the meaning of the word “relations.”

“All my relations,” is the translation of the common Lakota prayer, Mitakuye Oyasin. But the expression takes in more than just human beings. More, even, than the plant kingdom, the four-leggeds and the creepy-crawlies. “All my relations” includes the rocks and the winds. It extends to the four directions and the heavenly bodies, such as Grandfather Sun and Grandmother Moon.

“Hear me, four quarters of the world,” calls out the medicine man Black Elk. “A relative I am! Give me the strength to walk the soft earth, a relative to all that is!”

Black Elk approaches animals, plants and pebbles with the same reverence as flesh-and-blood brothers and sisters. When he takes a resource, like a willow sapling or a buffalo, he asks permission, and he gives a token in return, like an offering of the sacred herb tobacco. You can view such rituals as animist superstition. Or you can view them as acting out the interdependent web of existence.

Then again, you can view them as seeds of an environmental ethics that’s blossomed around the world over the past 50 years. Animal welfare challenges us to consider higher animals as neighbors. Deep ecology dares us to treat the entire biosphere as family.

Conservationist Aldo Leopold translated the morals of Black Elk into the language of science. “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land,” he wrote. “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”


In this pocket history, we’ve covered three moral systems from three millennia. What can they tell religious liberals about morality in general, and about the eternal conflict between the absolute and the relative? How can they help me talk about morality without feeling that Jerry Falwell is looking over my shoulder?

The first thing they tell me is that I don’t have to believe in absolutes to believe in morality. Morality is inherently relative, because morality changes over time. The Latin root for “morals” means “customs, habits, traditions,” and traditions grow and evolve along with civilizations.

Along the way, we keep some rules, and we discard others. The Ten Commandments remain useful principles to live by. On the other hand, few Americans follow the laws of Leviticus. We don’t put people to death for cussing, adultery or homosexuality. We don’t sacrifice a sheep after touching a woman during her period. Our community standards have changed.

Two hundred years ago, most white Americans considered slavery to be moral, and quoted the Bible to prove it. One hundred years ago, most white Southerners felt the same about segregation. The day may come when most Americans decide war is immoral – but we’re still working on that one. In each case, moral relativism marks the advance of civilization, not the decline of civilization.

In each case, the moral arc of history has stretched itself in the same way: by expanding our definition of “neighbor,” of who’s deserving of equal treatment. In 1776, it was confined to white property owners. In our lifetimes, Americans have opened the circle to include minorities and women, gays and lesbians. That’s a lot of what the Culture Wars are about.

In each case, over decades of struggle, communities changed rules that seemed to be written in stone. It wasn’t because God had spoken from above. If God was speaking at all, it was through the human heart.

Which ultimately, is the source of morality and the place where all moral progress is made. Moral relativism is not a ‘Sixties caricature. It doesn’t mean, “If it feels good, do it.” It’s an intensely personal path of searching for right and wrong, both in dialogue with others and within the tabernacles of our own hearts.

If you think carefully about the Golden Rule, it makes each of us our own rulemakers. It calls each of us to consider the codes of our own cultures and test them against our own conscience.

In the winter of 2011, a Yale student named Will Portman was struggling over whether to tell his parents he was gay. “The thought of telling people I was gay was pretty terrifying,” he writes, “but I was beginning to realize that coming out, however difficult it seemed, was a lot better than the alternative: staying in, all alone.”

He was gratefully surprised at the support he got from his parents. It was a bigger surprise, two years later, when his dad became an advocate for gay marriage. It surprised the whole nation, because Rob Portman was a Republican senator from Ohio.

The senator describes his moral conversion, “I wrestled with how to reconcile my Christian faith with my desire for Will to have the same opportunities to pursue happiness and fulfillment as his brother and sister. Ultimately, it came down to the Bible’s overarching themes of love and compassion and my belief that we are all children of God.”

It’s in moments like these that genuine morality is forged. There’s plenty of value in learning rules like the Ten Commandments. But ultimately, like all spiritual rules, they’re means to an end, not the end itself.

The end is my moral relationship with my higher power, as I strain in times of crisis to hear what a still, small voice is telling me. That relationship is my ultimate judge of what’s right and what’s wrong. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil doesn’t grow and flower in some far-off garden. It’s planted in the soil of our own souls.

Thank God, for moral relativism.


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