Moral Convictions Must Emerge Out in the Open
Some honest, thought provoking reflections from R. R. Reno on the pressure we face to deal politely with the erosion of moral truth:
A friend confides to me that he’s having an adulterous affair. I sigh inwardly over our sin-saturated condition as I remind him that the Ten Commandments are pretty clear about adultery. I counsel, but perhaps too sympathetically. I exhort, though often too gently. And even though he responds with self-justifying sophistries, it doesn’t affect our friendship very much. We go on as before, though maybe with a little more distance between us.
I have to a certain extent soft-pedaled moral truth because I’m weak and want to get along. Swimming against the current is exhausting and can be lonely. I reassure myself that at least I haven’t really condoned his transgression, haven’t affirmed as right that which is wrong. It’s an easy, thin, cowardly consolation, yes, but it’s also a crucial line of defense against the debilitating interior corruption of willingly and self-consciously betraying the truth.
Most of us who dissent from the sexual revolution do something similar, not just with friends but with society as a whole. We go to work socialize, and share public space with many people who reject the moral law’s authority over their lives, people who regard abortion as a fundamental right or who think sexual liberation an imperative. We do so in large part with civility and an appreciation for their good qualities. We accommodate ourselves to the moral realities of our time but don’t condone them. We do this because we can look away, not fixing on what is wrong because we are not forced to do so.
We can’t so easily accommodate when circumstances force the issue. If my married friend were to insist on bring his mistress to a dinner party, I’d be under tremendous social pressure to smile, shake her hand, and make her welcome, all of which would erode my defense against betraying the moral truth. I’ve done just that, or something similar. They are painful occasions. I feel myself bearing false witness, all but affirming out loud what I know to be wrong. As I struggle for moral survival, I try to reserve some moral space, deep within the privacy of my consciousness, where I’m saying “no” even as I’m socially saying “yes.”
In this and moments like it, I find myself wishing I prized politeness less and had the interior freedom to kick out my friend and his mistress—or in some way to give the moral truth that has been jammed into a far corner of my conscience some purchase on reality, some public expression. For a purely internal commitment, a moral conviction that never emerges out in the open when confronted by its negation, can easily, perhaps inevitably, become spectral, inconsequential, and eventually lifeless. (“Marriage Matters” in First Things, November 2013, p. 4)