A Bad Rap

In this past presidential campaign, evangelicals took a bad rap—and it's time to set the record straight. I heard it when a friend told me, "I hope Bill Clinton wins. Then you people in the Religious Right will get what's coming to you, for trying to impose your values on everyone else!" We heard the same sneering tone every time the media made bogeymen out of Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan. They've captured the Republican party for the religious right, we were told. George Bush was just a puppet of Christian fundamentalists, we were warned. The media was playing on a well-established fear in America. A Gallup poll found that 50 percent of Americans are worried about fundamentalism. What worries them is that fundamentalists actually believe in moral absolutes. Why does that send a chill down people's backs? Because they have confused belief in absolutes with absolutism—a rigid mentality that is inflexible, irrational, and hostile. But there's a world of difference between absolutes and absolutism. This is a critical point for us to grasp. You see, every time you tack "ism" onto a term, you change its meaning. Think of the word individual—a good word, suggesting individual dignity and worth. But individualism denotes something altogether different—an egoistic mentality that puts individual interests above everything else. Think of some other examples: There's a huge difference between material and materialism; between human and humanism, between feminine and feminism. So Christians ought to boldly maintain the reality of absolutes. But that doesn't mean we are absolutist in our mentality. A belief in absolutes simply means we believe there is a created order. That there are virtues—like courage, fortitude, and patience—which are morally obligatory. That there are normative patterns for marriage, business, and government. In short, that there are laws for human behavior just as there are laws for the physical world. Believing these things doesn't make you an absolutist any more than believing in gravity does. And if I try to persuade you of a moral law, I'm not "imposing my views" any more than if I teach you the effects of gravity. Because people fail to understand these things, Christians are given a bad rap in today's political climate. Every time we raise a moral issue in the public arena, we are slapped down, scolded for being bigots, and accused of imposing our values. Maybe it's time to take our neighbors one by one and explain what values are in the first place. Values aren't based on private convictions, which we try to impose on our fellow citizens. Values are based on objective truths about the created order, and we search them out the same way we search out scientific laws. So next time someone accuses you of being an absolutist, explain the difference between absolutes and absolutism. You may even want to call in for a transcript of this commentary to help you make your case. If you demonstrate a loving and patient attitude while you're talking, you will prove by your own action that believing in absolutes doesn't make you an absolutist.  


Chuck Colson


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