Tuesday, October 11, 2005

On being good

In the newspaper over the weekend, I read another powerful evangelical politician state that only a literal reading of the Bible -- God's revealed word -- stands between us and moral chaos, not unlike the creationist posters I quoted here last week.

I am reminded of the response of the 19th-century newspaper The Times of London when Darwin's theory was vigorously defended by Thomas Huxley against Bishop Wilberforce at the Oxford debate. The editors wrote: "If our humanity be merely the natural product of the modified faculties of the brutes, most earnest-minded men will be compelled to give up those motives by which they have attempted to live noble and virtuous lives, as founded on a mistake."

The Times, of course, was dead wrong to believe that only Bible-reading Christians might choose to lead noble and virtuous lives. It was Bible-reading Christians, after all, who initiated and sustained the African slave trade, the greatest moral abomination of the century. Darwin and Huxley were agnostic, yet both men found ample reasons to live virtuous lives, and both were firmly on the side of progressive social and political change.

It was progressive social and political change that the Times of London feared most. The mid-19th century was a time of social upheaval throughout the European continent. Old class structures were being dismantled, inherited privilege wrested away, the power of monarchies and churches challenged. In England, the established powers felt under siege. The new working class, crowded into factory towns, seethed with unrest. The Anglican Church, that great prop of crown and privilege, understood well enough that once the divine origin of the existing order was questioned the whole house of cards would come tumbling down.

Our new Biblical moralists are not the old guard establishment, but the increasingly numerous and powerful architects of an American theocracy, once again playing the moral-chaos card to further their political agenda.