After another brutally contentious presidential election, once again, friends, family, and neighbors struggle to understand how it is possible that their loved one could be so benighted as to vote for, and perhaps even offer active support, for one candidate or the other. Most of us have seen more than an article or two offering wisdom for how to have that difficult political conversation with your family when you gather together for the holidays. The problem here is not simply a matter of disagreements over policies and legislations; rather, we easily divide people into groups such as good and evil, intelligent and stupid, anti-racists and racists, and those with a commitment to the collective good and the selfish. Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind offers a welcome analysis of why we divide one another into these categories especially with respect to politics and religion. As such, Haidt says that moral psychology can and should change how all of us—“liberal and conservative, secular and religious—think about morality, politics, religion, and each other” (p. 59).

The Dangers of Moral Monism

Vintage, 2012

One of the great culprits that leads to division, says Haidt, is moral monism. To understand the problem of moral monism, we need to first note that moral judgments are perceptions about the world. And all humans have multiple moral “taste receptors.” Six primary moral receptors, in fact: Care / Harm, Fairness / Cheating, Loyalty / Betrayal, Authority / Subversion, Sanctity / Degradation, and Liberty / Oppression (p. 146). There are a variety of different moral matrices that cross cultures and nations, but all of them have these six moral taste receptors. The problem is that many of us operate with one moral framework or matrix that neither utilizes nor understands all six taste receptors.

I find Haidt a bit tricky here. On the one hand, he argues that he, as a moral psychologist, is not offering moral prescriptions for how we should live. The goal of psychology is only descriptive and his agenda is to find out “how the moral mind actually works, not how it ought to work, and that . . . can be done only by observation, and observation is usually keener when informed by empathy” (p. 141). But, on the other hand, I think most readers will find that he offers up some serious moral prescription. He admonishes Democrats for their failure to understand the appeal of conservative Republicans as consisting, in part, in their appeal to the moral receptors of loyalty, sanctity, and authority. Democrats, and all of us, do well to understand that morality is not only about care and fairness (pp. 189–94). Thus, we can cultivate, understand, and appeal to as many of the six “moral taste receptors” as possible.

But the most obvious moral prescription Haidt offers is the plea to reject “moral monism” since “the attempt to ground all of morality on a single principle…leads to societies that are unsatisfying to most people and at high risk of becoming inhumane because they ignore so many other moral principles” (p. 132). In fact, Haidt exhorts his readers to be “suspicious of moral monists” and to “Beware of anyone who insists that there is one true morality for all people, times, and places—particularly if that morality is founded upon one single moral foundation” (p. 368). Again, “anyone who tells you that all societies, in all eras, should be using one particular moral matrix, resting on one particular configuration of moral foundations, is a fundamentalist of one sort or another” (p. 368).

I think it’s fair to say that Haidt even has his own conversion story away from moral monism where he tells us how moral psychology changed his life! His conversion took place when he travelled to India and encountered new moral matrices (with different taste receptors) that enabled him, as an Ivy League educated researcher committed to liberalism, to see that many of the differences between liberals and conservatives were “manifestations of deeply conflicting but equally heartfelt visions of the good society” (p. 127). Haidt’s transformation enables him to see reality anew: “I was no longer committed to reaching the conclusion that righteous anger demands: we are right, they are wrong. I was able to explore new moral matrices, each one supported by its own intellectual traditions. It felt like a kind of awakening” (p. 128).

Christianity and the Peaceful Pursuit of Societal Flourishing

But, as a Christian with a very definite moral system, can I sign on in agreement with Haidt’s project? Or, using his criteria, would I be classified as a moral monist and thereby part of the problem for why people divide over religion politics?

I’d like to suggest, rather, that the Christian narrative appropriately understood albeit in multiple historical and cultural configurations—yes, a version of moral monism—offers a robust account and mandate, for those who believe and inhabit this narrative, to pursue a pluralistic vision of society’s flourishing and one that makes room for all people.On Christianity as taking diverse expressions within its host culture, see Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: the Missionary Impact on Culture (2nd ed.; Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2009); John G. Flett, Apostolicity: The Ecumenical Question in World Christian Perspective (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016). With Haidt, I too could point to past personal experiences where new encounters and relationships with persons of cultures, religions, or backgrounds different than my own opened my eyes to see that my way of seeing the world was limited and insufficient. As a result, I know that my own “moral taste buds” do help me make moral judgments, but I also know that I might be wrong or, at least, not have the full corner on what is good and bad, true and false.

Allow me to gesture as to why I think this is not only a possibility but that it is a theological entailment of the Christian faith. As Haidt experienced an “awakening” during his time in India, so those of us who are Christians need a moral awakening with respect to our role to pursue peace with all people and the larger flourishing of our society.

As a Christian with a very definite moral system, can I sign on in agreement with Haidt’s project?

First, intrinsic to Christianity is the local expression of many and diverse cultures. The earliest Christians did not spread the gospel message through diffusion or cultural adoption, but rather through translation.Sanneh, Translating the Message, 33–34. The contents of the Christian proclamation, then, were “received and framed in the terms of its host culture; by feeding off the diverse cultural streams it encountered, the religion became multicultural. The local idiom became the chosen vessel.”Lamin Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations, Oxford Studies in World Christianity, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 26. The history of Christian mission manifests not only how peoples have been encountered by the gospel but how people have appropriated and translated the gospel into their local cultural idioms.

Second, humility is an indispensable virtue within the Christian tradition and necessitates people who are committed to a posture of openness to others. I take Haidt’s argument as a powerful plea to cultivate the virtue of humility, and Moral Psychology has, in fact, recently turned its attention to study humility and argues that it entails: a) an accurate assessment of one’s self; b) an ability to pay attention to others; and c) an openness and teachable disposition to new ideas, cultures, and persons.June Price Tangney, “Humility,” in The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, 483-490, here, 485. On measuring humility, see Peterson and Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues, 464-466. See also the summary by Mark R. McMinn, The Science of Virtue: Why Positive Psychology Matters to the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2017), 101. There is much for Christians to celebrate here. In fact, the scientific research sounds a lot like what any Christian should already know. For example, the Apostle Paul states: “I exhort every one of you not to think of yourself more highly than it is appropriate to think. But instead, to think sensibly with sound judgment” (Rom 12:3). The New Testament consistently emphasizes humility as both derivative from the person of Jesus and as resulting in openness to the corporate community. No concept of the individual “autonomous self” will be found here.See here especially the argument of Grant Macaskill, The New Testament and Intellectual Humility (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018). Thus, those who have “the mind of Christ” have every reason to be people of humility, that is, those who are open to learning from others, recognize their moral and intellectual limitations, and are pursuing truth, peace, and goodness together with others.

Third, while Christians believe that communion with Christ is necessary for salvation and flourishing, our very commitment to Christ should result in people committed to the peace, protection, dignity, and freedom of worship for all people. I take this as a central implication of Jesus’s teaching to his followers to not only reject all forms of violence but to also positively love and pursue the good of those with whom one disagrees (Matt 5:43–48; Luke 10:25–37). Thus, Christians must be singularly devoted to the worship of Christ and also committed to a pluralistic flourishing society. The Christian commitment to hospitality, that is, the intentional making space for The Christian commitment to hospitality, that is, the intentional making space for ‘the other,’ can function as the primary practice Christians draw upon to understand their role in public society. ‘the other,’ can function as the primary practice Christians draw upon to understand their role in public society.See Matthew Kaemingk, Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018). A frequent refrain in the New Testament is the exhortation to do good to outsiders, to pursue peace, to refrain from retaliation, and to have a good reputation before all people.See here Luke 6:27–36; Rom 12:14–13:7; 1 Cor 10:32; Gal 6:10; 1 Thess 3:12; 5:15; 1 Pet 2:12; 3:13–17. Christians have an abundance of examples of those who have practiced hospitality by sharing God’s gifts with the world.I talk about this more in Joshua W. Jipp, Saved by Faith and Hospitality (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 118–22. In the past, this has taken the form of providing health care and building hospitals, attending to those with mental health challenges, and providing materially and spiritually for the incarcerated.See Gary B. Ferngren, Medicine and Health Care in Early Christianity (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009); Amanda Porterfield, Healing in the History of Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Heather Vacek, Madness: American Protestant Responses to Mental Illness (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2015). The same impulse to extend hospitality to outsiders on a material and spiritual level should stand behind the Christian’s commitment to work together in peace for the common good both of those individuals with whom one disagrees and with society at large. There is an abundance of theological resources, in other words, that would provide Christians with a way to maintain their deepest “monistic” convictions about Christ and work together with “friends,” “strangers,” and even possible “enemies” for the collective flourishing of our world.

Moral Judgments and Meaning-Making Narratives

Finally, I do not think that Christians, Jonathan Haidt, or anyone else has any choice but to situate our pursuits of the common good within some type of narrative and tradition.Many have made this claim, but see here especially Christian Smith, Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 63–94. The problem, in other words, is not moral monism per se; rather, the problem is that some traditions allow for the collective pursuit of the common good while others do not. Now I understand that a potentially devastating rejoinder to my argument would be one that said: “Open your eyes and tell me how well ‘Christianity’ is doing currently in the pursuit of the common good?” And: “Isn’t it obvious that “moral monism” and exclusive religious claims will inevitably lead to tribalism and potential violence?”But see here the response of William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). It is indeed a sad reality that there are too many examples of Christian individuals, movements, and societies that have failed to understand their vocation to pursue the protection, dignity, and good of others.See Martin E. Marty, When Faiths Collide (Blackwell Manifestoes; Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005). The most recent version of this is the Christian Nationalism which emphasizes conquests in the name of America, establishes clear hierarchies and boundaries, justifies authoritarian leadership, and excuses violence against criminals, immigrants, and persons of color.I am summarizing the important work of Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 152. I understand, albeit with great sadness, why many would look at these realities and laugh at my claims that Christians must be those who embody humility and emphasize hospitality as the framework for public engagement. But Christian Nationalism (at least the sort that fits this definition) is an inexcusable betrayal of the Christian Scriptures which church bodies should condemn and reject.

Christian Nationalism does, however, employ some of Haidt’s “moral taste receptors” remarkably well! In fact, the presidency of Donald Trump used the taste receptors of “authority” and “loyalty” to great effect. And yet I trust that Haidt and I agree that the ends to which these moral receptors have been employed these past few years are dangerous and destructive. Thus, I suggest that Haidt’s moral receptors only mean what they do—and can be evaluated—within specific narratives or traditions. Haidt’s work helps us better understand how people make moral judgments, but in the end one can only see and evaluate moral judgments from within a specific and particular tradition. Christians do well to understand the moral impulses of authority and loyalty that are on display in Christian Nationalism in order to critique and reject not the receptors themselves but the larger framework they are situated within. Moral psychology, as used by Jonathan Haidt, shines important light upon our moral judgments and can enable us to better understand one another. But we need something more if we would progress both in our knowledge of why people make the moral judgments they do and how to evaluate moral judgments. And this requires a recognition that moral judgments (the moral “taste receptors”) make the sense they do within meaning-making narratives and frameworks.