What the Church Says to Terrible People

‘Welcome to the club.’

When asked why it was important to him to have a cabinet that was 50 percent female, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau coolly responded, “Because it’s 2015.” In other words, “It should just be obvious to any decent, thinking person.”

In 2017, this sort of rhetorical flourish is even more common. Online discourse is littered with listicles like “9 Steps to Becoming a Decent Human Being.” A quick Google search for the phrase “being a decent person doesn’t cost you anything” yields dozens of unique memes.

How did the charge to be a “decent human being” become so persuasive?

In his book A Secular Age, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor suggests we are making up for the motivation gap in what he calls the “modern moral order.” At its heart is a sort of “secularized agape,” a universal benevolence and moral burden towards all people. This burden is rooted not necessarily in God or the divine but in our shared sense of dignity. Recognizing the universal dignity of all becomes essential to affirming our own.

The shared acknowledgement of mutual human dignity is an undeniably positive development. It has motivated and reinforced international humanitarian efforts, anti-racism initiatives, and other beneficial movements.

But Taylor questions whether this source of moral energy is really enough to sustain our universal “benevolence.” After all, Taylor notes, “never before have people been asked to stretch out so far . . . as a matter of course, to the stranger outside the gates.” In the long term, without the fundamental energy of the gospel, what would broadly fuel these measures?

The answer is shame.

One way to gin …

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