MY MOTHER was fond of telling stories, and spinning out their
morals. One of her favourites was what, as a child, I knew as
In Leigh Hunt's original, Abou Ben
Adhem saw an angel writing "the names of those who love the Lord",
and discovered that his name was not on the list. "I pray thee,
then," Ben Adhem said to the angel, "Write me as one that loves his
fellow men." The next day, when the angel came back and showed the
names of those whom God had blest, lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the
Real religion, my mother said, was
loving your fellow men - not mumbo-jumbo. Of course, the
mumbo-jumbo was good for people who did not know any better, but no
educated person would believe such things. Real religion was
In those days, Americans embraced Ben
Adhemism from President "Ike" Eisenhower, who famously said that
the United States "made no sense" unless founded on a "deeply felt
religious faith", but did not care what it meant to the majority of
citizens who stoutly maintained that it did not matter what you
believed as long as you lived right.
Religious liberals were especially
fond of the Ben Adhem doctrine. Dogma was divisive: ethics was
ecumenical - it was something on which members of all the great
world religions agreed.
But, by the late 20th century, popular
culture had absorbed Marx and Freud. It became a commonplace that
the moral programme of the great world religions - in particular,
Christianity - was oppressive and damaging, and a source of human
Disagreement about what it was to
"live right" became more divisive than any dispute about theology.
New alliances were formed. Evangelical Protestants collaborated
with conservative Roman Catholics, polytheistic Mormons, and other
sectarian groups to promote a socially conservative agenda. What
mattered was not theology, but sexual conduct, gender roles, and
Conservative churches, defending an
increasingly countercultural moral agenda, captured a niche market:
beleaguered social conservatives. In the new millennium,
pre-marital sex was a non-issue; a small but growing majority
supported gay marriage; and it was taken for granted that women
should work outside the home. Only the conservative churches backed
socially conservative Americans who were fighting a last-ditch
battle against modernity.
Meanwhile, mainline churches -
Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, and the like - did not have
much to do. The larger society endorsed their ethical programme,
and operated numerous organisations to promote it: secular
charities; secular civil-rights organisations; and political-action
groups that promoted environmentalism, peace, and every other
Liberal churches added more advocacy
projects for racial minorities, gays, and other disadvantaged
groups, most of whom were perfectly capable of advocating for
themselves; and added more charities to the endless list of
charities devoted to ameliorating every human ill.
This should have been a cause for
celebration. The world, exhorted by liberal pundits, had taken up
the Christian ethic of compassion and fairness. At last, the Church
could get ethics off its back, and concentrate on religion - fancy
buildings and ceremonies, music and mysticism.
But, instead of thanking God that good
works and social justice had been taken over by the state and
secular charities, mainline churches continued their Ben Adhemist
programme, adamant that real religion was simply ethics.
It was hardly surprising that there
were few takers for what they offered: if you wanted to do good,
then why bother with church; and if you wanted religion, most
mainline churches had little to offer.
Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of
Philosophy at the University of San Diego, USA.