Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Simplest Ethic: The Golden Rule

Barack Obama’s Religiousness

I’m fascinated by a particular aspect of Barack Obama—his religious nature, which I find authentic and well developed. In this regard, I see parallels with Mr. Obama’s presidential role model Abraham Lincoln, whose home grown religion is famous.

Similarly, in rhetoric and now in action, Mr. Obama reveals his religiousness. I’ve been monitoring Mr. Obama for more than a year and a half. I have a few strong impressions.

First strong impression: I think more thoughtful attention should have been given to Mr. Obama’s association with an important Chicago Black Church and, specifically, its Black Liberation Theology. (His minister at Trinity United Church of Christ, Jeremiah Wright, was no cultural bogeyman, rather a scholar/practitioner of Black Liberation Theology who built a congregation from a remnant 250 in 1972 to a vigorous 8,500 in 2008 when he retired.) Mr. Obama recently recalled, “I didn't become a Christian until … I moved to the South Side of Chicago after college. It happened not because of indoctrination or a sudden revelation, but because I spent month after month working with church folks who simply wanted to help neighbors who were down on their luck – no matter what they looked like, or where they came from, or who they prayed to. It was on those streets, in those neighborhoods, that I first heard God's spirit beckon me. It was there that I felt called to a higher purpose – His purpose.” (Here there is resonance to this age’s most influential Christian book, Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, in which personal purpose is synonymous with God’s purpose.) Mr. Obama clearly declares that he does God’s work.

I’ve been maintaining for months that Mr. Obama is cast in the Prophetic Tradition of Old Testament Christianity, but with a thoroughly 21st century American perspective. Mr. Obama merges Martin Luther King, Jr’s faith rhetoric with the civic religion of Abraham Lincoln.

Second strong impression: I’ve argued that Mr. Obama, months before declaring for the presidency, made the most important contemporary speech regarding the role of faith and politics. The setting was the Call to Renewal convention, June 2006. Mr. Obama declared secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King— indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history — were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause.” Yet Mr. Obama also argued that those motivated by faith must seek universal values (to persuade even non-believers) when seeking to implement their faith based objectives in the political arena. It is not sufficient to simply argue from one’s own faith tradition’s theology. (Implicit here is conjecture that Mr. Obama can “universalize” his religious values and recast those values as public policy.)

Throughout his campaigning, and including the early days of his presidency, Mr. Obama has heartily supported faith based/ federally funded initiatives to serve society’s needs.

Third strong impression: Mr. Obama is indeed a unifier, who sees commonality in the midst of religious diversity. I’m remembering here the national prayer breakfast on the Thursday following his triumphant inauguration. With former PM of Britain Tony Blair, Mr. Obama gave brief remarks.

Mr. Obama said, “There is no doubt that the very nature of faith means that some of our beliefs will never be the same. We read from different texts. We follow different edicts. We subscribe to different accounts of how we came to be here and where we're going next – and some subscribe to no faith at all.

“But no matter what we choose to believe, let us remember that there is no religion whose central tenet is hate. There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being. This much we know.

“We know too that whatever our differences, there is one law that binds all great religions together. Jesus told us to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’ The Torah commands, ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.’ In Islam, there is a hadith that reads ‘None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself’.’ And the same is true for Buddhists and Hindus; for followers of Confucius and for humanists. It is, of course, the Golden Rule – the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth.

“It is an ancient rule; a simple rule; but also one of the most challenging. For it asks each of us to take some measure of responsibility for the well-being of people we may not know or worship with or agree with on every issue. Sometimes, it asks us to reconcile with bitter enemies or resolve ancient hatreds. And that requires a living, breathing, active faith. It requires us not only to believe, but to do – to give something of ourselves for the benefit of others and the betterment of our world.

“In this way, the particular faith that motivates each of us can promote a greater good for all of us. Instead of driving us apart, our varied beliefs can bring us together to feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted; to make peace where there is strife and rebuild what has broken; to lift up those who have fallen on hard times.”

I’ll continue to monitor Mr. Obama in regards to his religiousness; and there’ll be pulpit updates now and again. This morning I’m focusing on Mr. Obama’s eloquent invocation of the Golden Rule in the passage I’ve just read. To my sensibilities the Golden Rule hasn’t been much of a standard of personal and public life for many years.

The Golden Rule

To check this out I did a data base search of the New York Times using Golden Rule as my search phrase. There weren’t many contemporary articles, but there were a myriad of articles from the late 1800s through the 1930s, referencing ministers, industrialists, and politicians who promoted the Golden Rule as a means of addressing social dislocations.

One article reported on a 1920 Christmastime Bible Class held at the Fifth Avenue Baptist Church led by John D. Rockefeller. He declared the Golden Rule to be “the Divine law governing human relationships,” citing it as the only inflexible, workable law. He added that successful businesses were operating on the principle, particularly as the Golden Rule could be applied to labor relations. I found it interesting/odd and, yes, hypocritical that one of the great robber barons of American industry should declare the Golden Rule as his business standard.

Similar pronouncements by twentieth century captains of industry caused me to search out the history of the Golden Rule.

It appears that the World Parliament of Religions of 1893, an adjunct to the Columbian Exposition/Worlds Fair of 1892 held in Chicago, was the pivot of popularization of the Golden Rule. Cultural historians maintain that the 19th century was marked by a growing humanitarianism often expressed by the simple phrase, “The Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man.” This notion of a common humanity under one God seemed to be verified by the universality of the Golden Rule, when that simple moral rubric was “discovered” at the Parliament of World Religions.

And the general mood of the day, particularly in America provided a congenial environment as one of the historians of the Golden Rule noted: “The emerging movement of the golden rule was nourished by a romantic and democratic mood. Despite its capacity for purely nationalistic applications, the new mood did exalt the common man and the worthy sentiments of the human heart. Nineteenth-century America showed widespread tendencies toward belief in equality, an impatience with traditional social authority and with confining rules and regulations, confidence about the place of man within a vast universe, optimism about the human capacity for moral growth, a distaste for sophisticated theories, and a readiness of Everyman to be his own philosopher. Appropriately, the golden-rule champions of this era do not come from the ranks of philosophers and theologians; they are ministers, politicians, and businessmen.”

So the Golden Rule was a simple, popular, homespun ethic suited to an optimistic era. Its popularity also points to a surge in what we now call globalization—a world grown smaller with an awareness, if not appreciation, of cultural diversity.

The Ethic of Reciprocity and Our Better Angels

The Golden Rule is also known as the ethic of reciprocity. I’ve long been fascinated by reciprocity as a psychological principle, that is, a response that appears to be hardwired in our human psyche. (I was introduced to reciprocity as a compliance technique with the classic illustration being the once common practice in airports of a rose given by a Hare Krishna before asking for a contribution. It’s harder to refuse such a request after being given a gift. Frequently the gifted rose would be immediately dumped in a nearby trash can. The Hare Krishna would fish it out and regift it.) Evolutionary biology (socio-biology) explains reciprocity as important social glue.

I look at Golden Rule/the ethic of reciprocity from yet another perspective of evolutionary biology. Psychologists have identified recently an innate, universal moral sense of five dimensions. One of those dimensions is fairness.

The Golden Rule, whether expressed positively or negatively, is essentially about fairness. It also touches upon empathy or seeing the other person similar to one’s own self and projecting one’s own feelings/experiences onto the other. Self-reflection and awareness is combined with projection/understanding of the other, to walk for a moment in the other person’s shoes. This process involves relatively high level relational skills that use the brain’s incredible ability to imagine, especially to humanize another. (Here is the beginning of another of the five innate moral senses, community or shared society/humanity.)

The universality of the Golden Rule across world religions supports the findings of evolutionary biology regarding an innate moral sense. (It also has something to say about the evolutionary source of religion, both biologically and socially, but that’s a subject for another sermon.)

Now, I recommend the Golden Rule as an essential personal ethic. I prefer the positive statement of the Golden Rule, which implicitly involves love: self-love first than love of the other like oneself. “Do unto others as you would have done to self.” This is a sure means of using the spiritual power of love to transform the world. If you are acting to an other from/with love, through the human and ethical principle of reciprocity, that person responds with love. In this regard in every human interaction or relationship there are streaming possibilities to act out the Golden Rule and thereby create a world of proactive love.

Some moral and ethical philosophers see the Golden Rule as naïve and even self-deceptive. They ask how can a person, without great self-examination, trust her or his own motives or desires, let alone know another person’s mind—what she or he really wants, rather than what another thinks she or he wants? This argument has merit in a merely logical moral scheme. However, I find that evolutionary biology and the notion of an innate moral sense recommend that from person to person there is a resounding resonance. The Golden Rule is not naïve but profound and even radical, in sense that radical means root. It is at the psychological root of the human condition which is relational and social.

I challenge you to put the Golden Rule to the test during the next several days. Keep it in the forefront of your thoughts and let it guide your actions with all whom you meet, Consider the results of being proactive and positive. How does treating others as you want to be treated sit with you, and how do your appropriate actions transform you and your world? Try it out. Put it to the test. Measure/consider the results.

Does the Golden Rule extend beyond the personal, say into the realm of business? There were those in the early 20th century who fervently believed so, such as J.C. Penney who founded the merchandising giant Penney’s, a chain that began with a modest few stores called, yes, the Golden Rule Stores. For Mr. Penney the Golden Rule wasn’t advertising or merchandising gimmick but a heartfelt economic philosophy: decent goods for a good price with a lot of service. He argued, "By our service to our customers we would create in them that spring of sparkling good will which would prompt them to want to help us to serve them.”

Contemporary business/economics have followed, not the benign ethic of the Golden Rule, rather a Machiavellian ethic of Greed. Remember the mantra of the 1980s that played in the film Wallstreet? An iconic character with the lizard name of Gordon Gekko intoned “Greed is Good”

Similarly in the realm of international relations, we’ve embraced (that is, our nation has not just pronounced but acted out) a preemptive, look-out-for-number one posture grounded in the cynicism of realpoltiks of a co-called neo-conservative mindset.

So what was Mr. Obama getting at with his remarks quoted earlier regarding the Golden Rule? What do we make of his call "to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth."

I have an intuition: I think Mr. Obama, as Mr. Lincoln did before him, was invoking the better angels of our nature. And that’s a good thing, a very, very good thing. In this era of crisis perhaps only the better angels of our nature can save us.

February 29, 2009

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