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Secular Morality in the Time of Trump

March 01, 2017

Do you believe… that this is about the rule of law, and that if we lose this, we’re going to lose it all.

Now-Chief Strategist to the President Steve Bannon said this on his radio program while talking to now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions about immigration reform. When listening to this portion of The Daily1, I was angry. I thought we were past believing the law determines what is moral? I am shocked that an appeal to the law alone is enough to condemn people, and worse, that educated people could possibly believe that our system of law is at risk if it is not strictly enforced. Yet, I know that the notion of “restoring law and order” appealed to millions of Americans in the last election.

We have turned illegal immigrants into the criminal other, terrorists whose mere existence is a repeated insult to the law and a threat to our nation. By categorically rejecting undocumented immigrants as unlawful, we can reject their humanity. The hard work of justifying expelling children who came here before they could speak and have fully participated in American society is not needed. We don’t have to think about families depending on income from their relatives to eat and have shelter. We don’t have to consider the contributions to American society that the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country make every day to our communities.

This rigid view of the world is attacked and discarded in most freshman political theory classes, yet two men now in charge of how we enforce laws in the United States subscribe to this theory? 2 Abandoning our moral agency to the law is a deep retreat on our humanity. We absolve ourselves. We take away the burden of having to consider our actions.

Isn’t this the defense Nazi’s offered at Nuremberg?

But then I remember we live in a “Christian nation”, where evangelicals were a huge part of the Trump coalition. For so many evangelicals, secular morality does not exist. Atheism is a threat not because it rejects their religion, but because morality cannot exist without its source in religion. And, evangelicals believe that there is a singular, objective, absolute moral truth. So although the law is not the Bible, it is so easy for a religious nationalist to slip the reins of religion and ascribe to the human-generated law the power of singular morality. Of course not following every law to the letter of the law is a threat to our society– is not sin a threat to religion? It fits the same bogus narrative about “sharia law” in America– something which is not only not happening, but which seems both totally believable and existentially threatening to the nationalist Christian right.

My shock has dampened but my horror as not. When I fear the impact of religion, it is for exactly these reasons. America is religion to the nationalist Christian right. The Constitution and our laws are handed down by rarefied gods of democracy. We cannot allow the law to become the Bible. It cannot be the alpha and the omega on what is right and wrong.

We have to fight the against those who see secular morality as shallow or impossible.


  1. Link is timestamped to the portion of the program I’m referring to in this post. [return]
  2. Well probably not. They are both racist hypocrites who I’m certain turn a blind eye to white collar crimes, environmental crimes, and a whole host of others. [return]