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Social Reform and Modern Secularism

A few weeks ago, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an honest and needed piece entitled, “The Cost of Relativism.” Referencing a recent book by Robert Putnam, Brooks began by outlining some of the bleakest realities of social life in lower class America—family breakdown, violence, drug use, and murder. Brooks expressed deep sympathy over the people trapped in these cycles of poverty and familial chaos. He also nodded to the fact that more can be done to help from a policy perspective.

But Brooks smartly recognized that human sympathy and public policy proposals alone will not be enough to quell this full-on social crisis. What we really need, Brooks says, is a revival of moral norms in America, a renewed consensus of what constitutes good and bad behavior. The problem is that we have lost all moral norms. Moral norms, he says, “were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another.” The tragic result has been social anarchy. Brooks suggests that a recovery of moral norms is the prerequisite for establishing better social accountability, which will help repair our social fabric.

The kind of moral revival Brooks calls for is not unprecedented. He actually notes two distinct periods in western history when moral norms had eroded, but then were restored. This gives Brooks hope that positive change can come again—and it should give all of us hope. But Brooks leaves out a key element of past moral revivals that would be crucial to restoring moral norms in our own day: an appeal to moral absolutes rooted in metaphysical reality.

Brooks points specifically to the 1830s in Great Britain, a period in which sweeping moral change took place and slavery was abolished. What he doesn’t note is that the abolition movement in Great Britain—as in the United States—was led by citizens driven by Christian conviction, like William Wilberforce. Those moral convictions were rooted in metaphysical claims about reality, and it was precisely those metaphysical claims that lent moral weight to their cause. Without Christianity as a metaphysical foundation, there simply would have been no abolition movement.

But when it comes to asserting moral norms, Brooks himself is silent on the question of metaphysical foundations. He is absolutely right to recognize the need for moral norms, yet he hints at no “bedrock” source that could provide compelling grounds for those norms. Instead, he resorts to a kind of “get along” moral pragmatism. He says that moral norms are restored “through organic communal effort, with voices from everywhere saying gently: This we praise. This we don’t.”

No doubt, a sympathetic reader must appreciate Brooks’ diagnosis of the problem: moral relativism has wreaked havoc on American social life. And yet, even as he faults moral relativism, I’m not entirely sure Brooks himself has escaped its influence. His pragmatic approach to moral norms is really only one step removed from relativism, and without a sturdy metaphysic like Christianity, there is no logic to keep him from slipping right back into relativism.


Pragmatism is the philosophical parent of relativism. It claimed that “truth” is defined not by some overarching reality outside of us, but rather by a set of ideas that helps us achieve our own goals in life. In essence, a truthful idea is one that delivers cash value in the here and now. As the pragmatist William James would articulate it, there is a great “corridor” with different rooms attached to it. Choosing a “truth” is like choosing to live in one of those rooms. If it works for your purposes, then that room is true for you.

What the pragmatists didn’t foresee was that their idea would necessarily devolve into relativism. Once they had stripped “truth” of its normative properties, there was no longer any valid basis for even choosing a “room.” Instead, one simply had to live in the great corridor of nonjudgmentalism.

[pq]We want the world as God intended it to be, but with God cut out from the picture.[/pq]

One can see how this great “corridor” of nonjudgmentalism produced a kind of social chaos. Since no one can rightly adjudicate between the different “rooms,” it actually becomes wrong to criticize the lifestyle choices that other people make, even if those choices are destructive. Brooks sees that this culture of nonjudgmentalism is the real problem, and his call to restore moral norms is highly admirable. Yet because he doesn’t aim to ground moral norms in anything ultimate or metaphysical, he can’t claim that they are “true” or superior in any objective sense. They can only be “true” in the pragmatic sense—that is, useful for achieving whatever ends we think are worthy. As we’ve seen, though, this pragmatic notion of truth—which is entirely arbitrary and dependent on the human will—can only fall back into relativism.

Reestablishing Social Norms

The truth is that no lasting moral revival can take place without a clearly asserted metaphysic. If moral norms are to be truly binding on us, they have to come from outside of us. Simply enough, we need God.

But God seems to be off-limits in our public discourse.  Nobody wants to appeal to God because he seems archaic, inaccessible, and unbelievable in a modern society like ours. We don’t want God, yet we want the goods that only he can deliver for us—social reform, moral revival, and norms to govern our common life. We want the world restored to the way God intended it to be, yet we’d also rather cut God out from the picture.

The difficult news is that secular society can’t have its cake and eat it too. C.S. Lewis once wrote,

Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth thrown in. Aim at Earth and you will get neither.

We live in God’s world, and if we want it to flourish, we cannot afford to circumvent its Designer.

Moral revival is never an isolated good, but rather the byproduct of a much more fundamental shift of the heart, a shift toward the God who defines the good. In Scripture, we see that our first step in the healing process is to cast down our idols and to seek God for his own sake:

If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14)

To many modern people, this idea of turning to God may seem like a massive leap in the dark. Modernity has managed to stifle many people’s belief in a dynamic Creator who actively engages with his creatures. And yet, difficult circumstances often prove that at root, we are still inherently religious beings. Just look at how our innate sense of God suddenly resurfaces in times of tragedy or great danger; we all huddle together to pray, almost as though we knew all along that secularism was just a dream. Even in our devout secularism, we are still inescapably marked by the image of God. He is not far from any of us (Acts 17:27).

If we want to see social and moral reform take place in America—if we want to see families reestablished, marriage strengthened, and meaningful moral norms restored—then we simply must look beyond ourselves. The good news is that the One who created us stands ready to provide all the moral norms we need—and yet so much more than that.