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Home > Public Events & Education > Conversations > Conversations 2015 > Moral Foundations of US Society
Nov  2015 03
Five Suggestions: What Should be the Moral Foundations of U.S. Society?

It is tempting to morph the question into a description of what is, rather than imagine what should be.

It is easier to begin with complaints or surrender to the temptation to play the angry prophet who sees so clearly what is wrong and the catastrophe that is coming if we don’t repent.

I’d wager most Americans have a ready list of social ills and the tonics (“just a little change here…”), antibiotics (“we could kill off that scourge once and for all if we…”), or surgeries (“we have to cut out the…”) that will cure what ails us.

But as Harvard professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey see it, every complaint expresses a commitment. So, what should be the moral commitments or foundations of U.S. society?

In what follows, I am doing what religious people within our democracy ought to do: I am bringing moral values derived from my faith into conversation with democracy.

Abraham LincolnIn other words, and in a nod to America’s greatest 19th century theologian, Abraham Lincoln, I am judging what are or could be the “better angels” of U.S. society by looking first to my faith tradition.

I also acknowledge that a large open society, with many options for legal behavior, cannot be bound by a single coherent moral code. So, I’ve tried to reduce the number of true foundations to the fewest in number, those that are sine qua non for a society worth having.

1. Recognize and respect the dignity of every person.

I believe every person is created in the image of God and should be treated as such. Regardless of whether or not the Constitution’s Framers assumed the God of “unalienable rights” from the Declaration, the Framers decided there are rights the government cannot grant or remove but can only recognize and protect, rights that exist prior to and outside of governments.

Democracy in the U.S. does not work without recognizing the dignity of every person and treating everyone, regardless of social status, with respect.

2. Exercise justice as equal opportunity and equal treatment under the law.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that justice is the societal form of love. I would prefer that the U.S. viewed justice as did the classical prophets in the Hebrew Bible, judging the quality of justice by how “the least” are treated.

However, a fulsome practice of justice as equal opportunity and equal treatment under the law are reasonable approximations of the prophetic tradition and can also encompass the inalienable right of the pursuing liberty and happiness.

3. Be compassionate.

A foundational Jewish teaching is that God’s justice is balanced with mercy. The difference between God’s justice and the Satan’s is that Satan wields justice without mercy.

In the Bible, God’s compassion in hearing the suffering of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt is the starting point of the Exodus.

Jesus, looking at the crowds or at the woman thrown to his feet by the stone-heavy crowd and shaking for fear of her life, felt compassion.

Acting compassionately—to be present with those who suffer, to relieve suffering, and to avoid inflicting pain--is the foundation of all morality (here I affirm what Karen Armstrong has written and her work to promote the Charter for Compassion).

4. Exercise mutuality and reciprocity.

Think Golden Rule, and its variations in every major religious tradition: treat others as you want to be treated, avoid doing to others what you don’t want done to yourself.

5. Do good work.

God is the Creator, and human beings are makers.

I affirm the teaching from Judaism and from parts of Christianity that the world is incomplete, that God invites humanity into a partnership for making, healing, and repairing the world.

Making and sustaining a great society takes work.

It takes work to build wealth sufficient for roads and bridges, for education and the arts, for comfortable homes and refreshing leisure, for safety from natural and human-initiated harm, for defense against real enemies, for curing diseases and delighting in health, for caring for those who cannot care for themselves, for securing rights and for safeguarding liberties, and for spiritual growth.

It also takes work to learn to live morally and to build wealth while living in concert with all the moral foundations mentioned above.

Next time I will address the question I posed two entries ago, in regard to the Ten Commandments monument controversy. Where in our society are these moral foundations taught and learned? I will address the question. I’m not sure I can answer it.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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