The De-moralized Public Square

Michael Wear

Current Issue

On January 6, 2021, Jacob Chansley, also known as Jake Angeli or the "QAnon Shaman," called for prayer inside the U.S. Capitol building. Just days later, he would be charged for violent entry and disorderly conduct on the grounds of the Capitol, plead guilty, and receive a 41-month prison sentence.

At this moment, however, he was riding high. He was part of a mob that had assaulted law-enforcement officials, invaded the Capitol building, and terrorized public servants. He felt like the Capitol was his. Clad in a headdress with horns, face painted, chest bare, he strode down the aisle of the Senate chamber while others rummaged through lawmakers' desks, hung from the walls, and otherwise sought to defile the meeting place of the world's greatest deliberative body. One man shouted, "Jesus Christ, we invoke your name! Amen!" The New Yorker's Luke Mogelson described what happened next:

In the Senate chamber on January 6th, Jacob Chansley took off his horns and led a group prayer through a megaphone, from behind the Vice-President's desk. The insurrectionists bowed their heads while Chansley thanked the "heavenly Father" for allowing them to enter the Capitol and "send a message" to the "tyrants, the communists, and the globalists." Joshua Black, the Alabaman who had been shot in the face with a rubber bullet, said in his YouTube confession, "I praised the name of Jesus on the Senate floor. That was my goal. I think that was God's goal."

Individuals often appeal to religion in politics and public life to support their actions, as Chansley, Black, and others did on January 6th. It is a kind of vulgarity that invokes the idea of God to justify one's own immorality.

But can we say anything about the morality of what happened on January 6th, or any number of events and circumstances, that is not mere assertion? That is, can we know anything at all about morality? Or is talk of morality just one more tactic in a great struggle for power?

Americans today tend to fear a society that shares a common moral or religious outlook because of its potential to ally with an imposing power that dictates behavior, suffocates thought, and enforces a kind of conformity. These concerns are not without merit.

And yet, we are now confronted with error in the other direction. Perhaps as a society we have successfully warded off the threat of suffocation by a smothering, thick morality, only to find ourselves in an open clearing where the air is too thin to allow us to breathe deeply. There is no moral vision imposed on us from above, but little to stand on below; there are only gasping cries to be seen, to be respected, to have our grievances recognized.

America, of course, remains a profoundly religious country, even as religious affiliation has declined and regular church attendance has plummeted. Affiliation with Christianity continues to unite more Americans than any other identifier, be it race, gender, or political party. Christians, though, are curiously skeptical that their faith offers reliable moral guidance to our political debates.

Some of these Christians observe all the ways Christianity has been misused in our politics and conclude that it would be better to preserve the faith by practicing a secular politics. Others have a predominantly private notion of faith divorced from knowledge and reason — they cannot readily identify what, if any, implications their faith might have for politics. Still others simply prefer to have their own politics unburdened by the real or imagined requirements they believe Christianity would ask of them. And so we end up with either Christian withdrawal from public life or a sloganeering of scripture that is more about expressive affiliation than beliefs or character.

This pervasive doubt surrounding any conception of moral truth poses a problem. Politics involves moral questions and decisions — choices that implicate morality and judgments about what is good and bad. Religious principles have long provided a moral framework for making such choices. But the declining confidence in religion as a moral basis for decision-making — and the failure of any sufficient alternative to emerge — means that many of these questions are deemed outside what can be publicly considered or understood, relegated instead to the category of personal choice and experience. Without reliable moral knowledge that can be used to make decisions, politics is reduced to gamesmanship, marketing schemes, power plays, and even — as January 6th demonstrated — violent confrontation.

Before we can responsibly consider how we might reestablish morality as an important public consideration, we must first consider why morality as a category of knowledge with a basis in reality has vanished from public life and how that development has affected American religion and politics. This analysis will help point the way toward a healthier politics that acknowledges, and is nourished by, its spiritual roots.


America's public square is full of moral assertions. But our moral assertions lack authority. They remain mere claims, not knowledge. This is what the philosopher Dallas Willard referred to in the title of his book The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge.

"Throughout history," Willard wrote, "it has been knowledge — real or presumed — that was invoked to provide a place to stand in opposing, correcting, and refining moral and immoral traditions and practices." He continued:

What characterizes life in so-called Western societies today, however, is the absence, or presumed absence, of knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice: knowledge that might serve as a rational basis for moral decisions, for policy enactments, and for rational critique of established patterns of response to moral issues.

Indeed, the spirit of our age is one that does not consider morality to be a matter of responding to, or corresponding with, reality at all.

Willard identified six causes driving the disappearance of moral knowledge in the West. The first involves the historical tie between religion and morality. According to Willard, as "religion itself eventually came to be relocated from the domain of knowledge to that of 'faith,' morality was assumed to follow." Public discussions about morality thus became more challenging, particularly for nations and communities that were predominantly religious. If religion is not a source of publicly available knowledge, and if most people's views of morality are informed by religion, public discussion and action based on moral concepts become nonsensical. Morality becomes a matter of one's opinion, subject to personal experience, if anything, but certainly not a basis for broadly applicable knowledge that can and should guide human affairs.

Second, Willard attributed the disappearance of moral knowledge to the "disappearance of the human self from acceptable domains of knowledge." Here, Willard pointed to the rise of empiricism and a series of other developments (particularly in the field of psychology) that advanced the view that the "self" is governed not by will, but by "unconscious and irrational forces," and thus cannot be subject to moral knowledge.

When the existence of the human will is called into question, the foundations for considering morality become uncertain. Some people would much rather debate the will's existence than the contours and obligations of morality. Yet the existence of human will is integral to a full accounting of human dignity and the determination of what justice entails.

A third reason Willard identified was the increasing awareness of differences concerning moral views across cultures, which led to a discomfort with and ultimately negligence of objective moral distinctions and valuations. If morality is pushed out of the realm of knowledge and into that of private preference, the logic goes, we can avoid the messy business of evaluating and ranking different notions of what is moral. "The 'disappearance of moral knowledge' thus resolves a range of thorny issues," Willard wrote, "and that has seemed to make it a quite acceptable state of affairs."

Fourth, moral standards have come to be regarded as "power plays," and those who hold to them "blind or hypocritical." According to this perspective, moral standards do not become standards because they are right, but because they can be enforced with sufficient power. It is power that matters; morality is either a tool of hypocrites or the delusion of those foolish enough to acquiesce to an assertion of power deceptively presented as a matter of morality. Moral standards, then, are ultimately considered a soft form of coercion — a way to prompt people to act according to someone else's interests. This view developed at least in part as a defensive response to the misuse of moral claims and impositions — much of which, historically and presently, has derived from Christians and Christian institutions.

Willard's fifth cause naturally follows from the fourth — the increasing popularity of the belief that morality itself is harmful. This understanding usually emphasizes a punitive version of morality, defining moral standards as a senseless set of rules that, when not followed, justify abuse or punishment. Willard described this view as a rational response to the dominant "Victorian" form of morality in the 20th century. Also relevant here is what is now referred to as "respectability politics": a set of rules of accepted affect that can obscure and deflect from greater and deeper moral questions, typically to the benefit of the powerful.

A morality so transparently based on convenience for some and unjustified punishment for others undermined the concept of morality entirely, to the extent that, per Willard, "[f]reedom from morality came to be thought of as desirable in many quarters." Here again, actions and systems developed by Christians and Christian institutions played a significant role.

Finally, a fear or resentment of knowledge itself contributed to the disappearance of moral knowledge in the West. Willard explained:

Anything that is allowed to stand as knowledge is something that you must come to terms with — if not because you respect it as such in the guidance of your life, then at least because others do, and therefore will not leave you alone to disregard it. Knowledge...confers rights to act, and to direct action and policy, in a way that feeling, opinion (no matter how widely shared), and tradition do not. That proves to be highly threatening to some primary values of contemporary Western life: self-determination and freedom from social domination, for example.

In short, when you know something, you can't make yourself un-know it. That knowledge informs your outlook and influences your actions. You might wish you could flap your arms and fly, but once you know about gravity, your desire to jump off a cliff and take flight will bow to your knowledge that it just won't work.

This is only a cursory look at how moral knowledge disappeared. But some common themes stand out. The first is that moral knowledge was expelled from the public square in part due to the privatization of faith and moral claims, and that this was not solely, or even primarily, driven by atheists or entirely secular forces. Those who criticized the misuses of moral knowledge were often motivated by moral intuitions and convictions themselves. Moreover, given that moral knowledge is necessarily connected to public life, we cannot reduce the causes of the disappearance of moral knowledge to the collapse of private religious adherence.

The erasure of moral knowledge from public life has had widespread consequences. In the opening pages of The Divine Conspiracy, to take one example, Willard related a story from Robert Coles, a leading academic and author who served as Harvard University's professor of psychiatry and medical humanities.

Coles wrote an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled, "The Disparity Between Intellect and Character," in which he recounted a visit from a female student. The student had worked her way through college, often cleaning her classmates' rooms as a side business. In this role, she repeatedly encountered classmates who were rude, including one male peer who frequently propositioned her for sex. This classmate was a high-achieving pre-medicine student with whom she had shared two "moral reasoning" courses, where he had received high marks. Yet "look at how he behaves with me, and I'm sure with others," she told Coles. In response to these kinds of encounters, the student had quit her job and was planning to leave Harvard.

Coles listened to her account of college life but could offer no meaningful response to the student's searing indictment. "I've been taking all these philosophy courses," she pointed out, "and we talk about what's true, what's important, what's good. Well, how do you teach people to be good?...What's the point of knowing good if you don't keep trying to become a good person?" Coles could not muster much of a response:

Schools are schools, colleges are colleges, I averred, a complaisant and smug accommodation in my voice. Thereby I meant to say that our schools and colleges these days don't take major responsibility for the moral values of their students, but, rather, assume that their students acquire those values at home. I topped off my surrender to the status quo with a shrug of my shoulders, to which she responded with an unspoken but barely concealed anger.

Reflecting on the incident, Willard wrote:

There were no questions on [Coles's] tests about these matters. He never deals with the fact that he could not use such questions because no one can now claim to know about such matters. The problem here is less one of connecting character to intellect than one of connecting intellectual to moral and spiritual realities....The trouble is what is and is not in the intellect. Indeed, in the current world of accepted knowledge one can't even know the truth of a moral theory or principle, much less a specific rule.

Another example comes from journalist Christine Emba, whose 2022 book Rethinking Sex offered an insightful if provocative account of the current state of sexual relations and expectations, particularly among unmarried American adults. The book jacket includes a fascinating assurance: "Christine Emba has a message for women who feel let down by today's sexual culture: 'You're Not Crazy. The Thing You Sense Is Wrong, Is Wrong.'"

That this could amount to a powerful statement is a sad indicator of the state of our moral culture. Not long ago, many thought that reducing morality to personal judgment — a feeling with no real external validation or grounding — would be liberating. This has not turned out to be the case. Instead, one's own sense of right and wrong has become fragile and difficult to enforce, even in one's own life. This has developed to the point where a book can be marketed to women drowning in a culture of sexual coercion with its primary appeal to prospective readers being that they can trust their "sense" of what is wrong.

The view that moral claims ultimately rest on one's own personal feelings or the feelings of those involved leads into dangerous territory. If the standards are subjective, so is the enforcement. Without rooting our moral feelings and intuitions in knowledge of moral reality, we're left looking for validation and assurance without which we might forfeit even our correct moral intuitions. That's why the book jacket's language is so powerful: It stands in place of so many other messages we receive that are intended to reduce what we know to be wrong to the category of mere feeling or perspective.

This works in a different direction as well: Feelings and perspectives are often used to justify immoral behavior. When a person is convinced morality is subject only to his own sense of (in)justice, he might be led to vandalize the U.S. Capitol and terrorize those who work there. "A man was meant to be doubtful about himself," G. K. Chesterton wrote, "but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert — himself."

Willard summed up the predicament of our de-moralized public square by referring to the moral knowledge embedded in Christianity: We suffer today, he observed, from the

removal of the recognized values and principles of Christian/traditional moral understanding...from the domain of the knowledge that must be taught by the knowledge institutions of Western society. Instead, those values and principles were relocated...into the domain of feelings and cultural traditions, where they could not be taught by the acknowledged institutions of knowledge as a body of knowledge.

Any restoration of moral knowledge, therefore, must begin with its spiritual moorings.


Deeply connected to the disappearance of moral knowledge is the view that faith has nothing to do with knowledge. Rather, faith has become a kind of self-assertion. When religion is stripped of a claim to knowledge, it cannot hold up in the world and cannot be passed from one generation to the next.

As mentioned above, the notion that faith stands opposed to knowledge is not just imposed by the secular world; it's accepted and even perpetuated by many Christians. In some religious circles, the testimonies of Christians who claim they were "saved" absent any thought or reason are especially valued. Faith without knowledge is seen as a particularly exceptional gift and a blessing. "I just believed" is the mantra. The impression given is not only that the moment of conversion came "out of nowhere," but that the person still believes without his belief making any real sense to him.

Many Christians will also fall back into assurances that their convictions are just a matter of "how they were raised," or they might sheepishly explain when pressed that "this is just what my faith teaches." Whatever the intent of these statements, their effect is to suggest that what Christians believe is not really something with which others must contend. They reduce the faith to family folklore or tribal sentiments.

In this way, Christianity becomes a mere affiliation. Christians take part in a faith culture that might have some emotional or social benefits, but that culture is only to be taken seriously by those within it. The football fan who says his team is headed to the Super Bowl despite having one of the worst records in the league might insist he believes what he says, but he doesn't really want to be challenged to defend that belief. Though presented as a claim of knowledge, it is thought to be self-evident that, despite its construction, a claim like that is not meant to be treated as earnest.

Our failure to recognize religious claims to knowledge is evident in what we extol as "respect" for religious claims. "I can respect and acknowledge Christians' beliefs as valid and true for them," an open-minded non-Christian might say, "as long as they can do the same for me and those of other faiths." Or, as a tolerant Christian might observe, "I believe in Jesus, but I understand others were raised differently than I was." Both of these moves evade the content of the Christian faith. Is believing in Jesus only advisable if you were raised a certain way? Can you respect Christians' faith if they consider their beliefs to be true for you as well?

The upshot of this approach to religion is the belief that reality does not support genuine faith. A "true believer" is the person who believes despite all evidence to the contrary; everyone else is paying attention. Faith becomes a performative act of certainty that one has to muster up.

Without knowledge as a resource, faith rests on whatever one truly has confidence in. A person who believes in a knowledge of money but not a knowledge of God will find that the strength of his faith is vulnerable to financial mishap. A person who believes in a knowledge of politics will find that his faith in God is really an expression of his confidence in a particular ideology or political cause. Political trials can upend his sense of faith.

Knowledge has much to do with trust, and faith has much to do with both. Jesus did not call his followers to a faith without substance, a faith set against knowledge. Faith might precede or follow knowledge, but a faith opposed to knowledge is a faith opposed to trust — and without trust, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to proceed very far into discipleship.

For it is only knowledge — not warm feelings, not mere beliefs absent knowledge — that can sustain discipleship during times of trial. As Saint Paul recounted to Saint Timothy, it was his knowledge of the Lord on which he stood: "And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day."

Only knowing Jesus could make sense of Paul's life and death. Only knowing Jesus could explain Saint Peter's willingness to follow Jesus to a cross. Indeed, it is knowing Jesus that, by their own testimony, made possible the countercultural and sacrificial public service of so many Christians who have stood up for human rights, civil rights, and social justice. And it is in knowledge — knowledge that is sought, knowledge that unfolds — that the Christian is being renewed: "[Y]ou have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator" (Colossians 3:9-10).


Another factor that has contributed to the disappearance of moral knowledge in the public square is the separation of church and state. Such separation does not require the banishment of moral knowledge, but it does appear to have abetted the privatization of faith and the dismissal of moral knowledge from public consideration.

The phrase "separation between church and state" cannot be found in the U.S. Constitution; it was first used by Thomas Jefferson in an 1802 letter he wrote to the Danbury Baptists. However, the basic concept derives from constitutional sources, such as the First Amendment and Article VI. A narrow reading of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, for instance, interprets "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" to mean there shall be no federal law that would, say, make the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) the official denomination of the United States, or require the bishop of the ELCA to approve government actions and laws. Likewise, Article VI's mandate that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States" forbids laws requiring someone of a particular religion to hold a particular office, or prohibiting someone of a particular religion from holding that office.

Broader interpretations of these provisions can lead to actions across society that exclude religious institutions — like classifying any entanglement of government funds with religious expression as a form of establishment. This dynamic was at issue in the 1995 Supreme Court case Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, which considered whether a state university could withhold funds from a religious student publication that would be available to a similar non-religious publication.

As a public school, the University of Virginia operates as an agent of the state. Therefore, the university reasoned, financially supporting a religious magazine would amount to government endorsement of a particular religion. But the Court decided in favor of the publication, ruling instead that the denial of funds amounted to viewpoint discrimination. The Court affirmed this principle more recently in the 2022 case Carson v. Makin, where the justices held that Maine could not deny otherwise generally available tuition-assistance payments to parents who choose to send their children to religious private schools.

Although the Court has issued rulings to protect the free exercise of religion, the popular understanding of the separation of church and state can take on a life of its own. Consider the presidency of John Kennedy. Ahead of the 1960 presidential election, then-senator Kennedy appeared in front of the Greater Houston Ministerial Association to assure the nation that if he were elected America's first Catholic president, he would not heed directives from the Catholic Church. In an 11-minute, workmanlike speech, he declared that the central issues of the campaign were "not religious issues." "I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair," he declared, "neither imposed by him upon the nation [nor] imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office." He went on:

Whatever issue may come before me as President...I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.

Kennedy's full meaning is subject to debate, and his own behavior contradicted secular interpretations of his remarks: As president, he met with clergy and referred to theological concepts on civil rights, nuclear non-proliferation, and a range of other topics. Kennedy, as a Catholic and a Democrat, also had electoral considerations in mind when he gave his brief address: He hoped to appeal to Protestants and other clergy who were heavily Republican. Still, the speech further advanced the view that religion ought to be a purely private matter.

This approach persists among public servants today. When I worked at the White House, we launched an effort to educate our government's own diplomatic corps about religious engagement. This was partially in response to reports we had received from some diplomats who were uncertain of what was allowed and what was prohibited when it came to engaging with religious leaders. One diplomat reported a policy of not meeting with religious leaders at all because he feared doing so would violate the Establishment Clause.

This concern, of course, was misguided. And depending on where diplomats are serving, such an approach could severely undermine their ability to carry out their duties. But the popular understanding of the separation of church and state that was passed down to these diplomats, that they imbibed from their education and their professional experience, was that it would be inappropriate for public-sector officials as such to engage with religion and religious leaders.

This view is also pervasive outside of government. I once spoke with a philanthropic leader about the contributions of faith-based organizations to the causes that her institution sought to advance. When I finished, the leader told me that although she appreciated the work that faith-based organizations do, her institution could not fund religious groups because of the separation of church and state. I responded, as a friendly rejoinder: "Which one are you?"

The leader had no answer. She had not thought about the issue carefully, even as her assumption constrained and directed her stewardship of millions of dollars. She had simply received the message that permeates society about the relationship between religion and public life: that religion is of personal interest and not relevant to the public good or appropriate for general consideration or support.

We need to take responsibility for the moral decision-making that politics — indeed, that all of life — requires, and that means actively considering moral knowledge and its necessary status as a political category. "Knowledge is always political," Willard argued. "[This] follows from the relationship it has to truth, method, evidence, and life...[b]ecause it confers upon the possessor the right and responsibility to act, direct action, set and supervise policy, and teach, it cannot not be political." He added that the authority of knowledge

helps us appreciate why, in Western societies and especially in America, there is such a huge drive to rule religion and Christian institutions and teachings out of the domain of knowledge. By that move religion is stripped of the rights and responsibilities that always accompany knowledge and that would certainly increase its political influence.

In other words, if Americans understood that Christianity offers reliable knowledge that is essential to human and community life, our politics would have to accommodate itself to that understanding.

The separation of church and state still serves an important function as a legal doctrine grounded in the First Amendment and other related constitutional provisions; Willard himself wrote that it should be "zealously upheld." But one concern he had regarding religion and politics was the latter's ability to shape what is considered real. "In time," he argued, "religion and morality became merely 'political,' as they are now for most people. What is political, as now understood, does not require knowledge, but only advocacy. Its only issue is how to 'win' for 'your side.'"

In a democracy specifically, what "wins" constitutes its own kind of reality. That reality is supported by a political apparatus that responds to political victory in ways that are not necessarily constrained by a sense of morality or truth. Indeed, winning carries its own kind of moral authority, grounded not in knowledge per se, but in the will of the people.

This helps explain why our politics and public life are replete with religious appeals but lack religious accountability. Religious appeals are most commonly made in our politics on the basis of identity and affiliation, not knowledge. They are commercial advertisements intended to reach, cultivate, and win over a particular audience, not claims to knowledge that would, first and foremost, serve to hold the communicator accountable. This helps us understand why it often appears that politics is affecting and shaping our faith more than faith is shaping our politics.


There is much work to be done to restore the consideration and pursuit of moral knowledge in the public square. Churches and Christian institutions, along with other religious institutions insofar as it is consistent with their own faith, must offer the knowledge they have to the public as knowledge, in a spirit of loving service. Not only does a privatized faith rob the public of the good things Christians can and do offer, it actually undermines the faith itself, as experienced in the lives of Christians who confront public realities and decisions.

Those who do not believe that religion offers knowledge should be respected, and they should bring the best they have to offer to our politics for the broader public to consider. Yet using the existence of differing opinions about religion to justify cutting off religious contributions to our politics does not preserve space for democratic deliberation; rather, it undermines it. Likewise, the religious should not want or expect special favor in political deliberation, and they should be open to considering the resources and contributions of all, including those who are not religious.

One might object that as religion becomes more influential in public life, there is a greater likelihood that people will use it to harm and coerce. This is one of the primary causes of the disappearance of moral knowledge in the first place, and the concern should be taken seriously. Moreover, in diverse societies like that of the United States, there is the rational concern that a religious majoritarianism will lead to mistreatment of religious minorities.

Those skeptical of religion frequently point to the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, which showed us the evil that could come of bad religious ideas. But the wars of the 20th century demonstrated the results of bad secular ideas. Evil does not need religion as an excuse, though it will use whatever it can. All that presents itself as knowledge is not good, and we are right to be on guard against those who would justify harm and abuse.

Ultimately, moral knowledge is a helpful aid in identifying harm and preventing wrongdoing. It is only with moral knowledge that we can understand and strive for tolerance, justice, and human dignity. Taking moral knowledge seriously can entail taking one's own political opinions less seriously and restraining the impulse to dominate. When we see Christians or others act in politics in a belligerent way, it is not because they take their faith too seriously, but because they do not take it seriously enough.

Politics necessarily involves moral choices, and for many citizens, morality is tied to religion. When voters are asked to choose their leaders but leave their faith to the side, or when elected officials say they will separate out their religious convictions from what they believe to be right, religious judgments are not avoided. In fact, these sentiments themselves represent judgments about the appropriate or desired nature of religious commitment. In such an environment, moral decisions are made and enforced without even acknowledging that the choices exist, which undermines democratic decision-making. When we demand that people leave morality and its sources out of our politics, we are condemning them (and therefore our democracy itself) to a life without integrity; we force a division of the soul.

For democracy to be properly democratic, citizens must be able to bring their full selves to it. For Christians and all other religious persons to be their full selves, there must not be any area of life, including politics, that they wall off from God, thinking Him too pure or too inept to have anything to offer there.

Religious conservatives in particular tend to be pessimistic about the prospect of a more robust religious influence in public life. But there is a new opening to moral knowledge in the public square. After decades in which questions of character were considered to matter to only one political party, Donald Trump's rise has led to a new conversation about political leaders' character and morality among many people who once believed virtue to be largely irrelevant. Perhaps this revitalized interest in character will provide a pathway to a national reconsideration of what it means to be a good person.

What's more, the very recognition of cultural diversity that spurred a flattening of the value of moral differences and the disappearance of moral knowledge is now leading to an appreciation of non-scientific "ways of knowing." In an effort to promote inclusion of indigenous perspectives, medical schools have begun to accept the validity of viewpoints that offer alternatives to standard scientific practice. Organizations like McKinsey recognize that spiritual health is an essential aspect of overall health. Leading academic institutions and medical schools have entire centers dedicated to spirituality and health. Racial diversity within American institutions, as well as globalization, might contribute to a resurgent recognition of moral knowledge as well.

Finally, moral relativism is dying. At schools and on college campuses, young people especially have deeply felt moral intuitions. Yet they are realizing that it is unsatisfactory, unproductive, and exhausting to make and hold moral convictions without grounding or authority.

We are already seeing a desire among socially conscious young people to ground their earnest impulses in something lasting and real. This is hardly surprising: Moral assertions are individualistic, and having to constantly construct meaning for oneself requires tremendous effort, leaving an individual vulnerable to estrangement and with little refuge in the face of burnout. Moral knowledge, by contrast, is social and humanistic; we can seek knowledge together.

Classical and religious schools and other humanistic endeavors are sprouting up in communities across the country to respond to this desire. People are pushing back and making room for conversations, ideas, and practices that are not mere reactions to the political needs of the moment. There is a growing weariness with a public life that excludes earnest consideration of that which makes us human. If we continue to foster these efforts — if we ask not only what it might mean to do good, but also how to be good — moral knowledge might well make a comeback.

Michael Wear is the founder, president, and CEO of the Center for Christianity and Public Life. He is the author of The Spirit of Our Politics: Spiritual Formation and the Renovation of Public Life (Zondervan 2024), from which this essay is adapted.


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