Saturday, October 6, 2018

Musings on Moral Universalism in Religion and Politics

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
The first step toward religious reconciliation in a world of increasing religious diversity and conflict is to eliminate exclusivist mystical beliefs that condemn those of other religions.  The next step is for competing religions to find common ground with a minimalist (Hegelian) moral standard of legitimacy that is universal, reasonable and that respects religious traditions.

Jesus provided such a universal moral standard in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, including our neighbors of other races and religions.  It is a common word of faith and a minimalist universal standard of morality that can reconcile Jews, Christians and Muslims without eliminating their religious differences.

Universal moral standards can be minimalist or maximalist.  Hegel’s minimalist moral standard is flexible, based on reason tempered with tradition.  Kant’s maximalist standard is invariant and based on secular reason.  Noam Chomsky put Kant’s categorical imperative this way: “If an action is right or wrong for others, it is right or wrong for us.”  

Human rights are where religious moral standards and politics converge into secular law.  The ancient scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam never mentioned democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law since these were irrelevant to those ancient times; but today those libertarian political concepts are essential to concepts of religious and political legitimacy.

The greatest moral challenge for democracy is balancing individual rights with providing for the common good.  In the 17th century the Enlightenment introduced reason into religion and politics in the Western world, fostering libertarian democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law.  Since then individual rights have been emphasized at the expense of the common good.

In America’s materialistic and hedonistic culture, the self-centered objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand has taken precedence over the altruistic moral teachings of Jesus, sanctifying greed and contaminating Christian morality with the materialistic prosperity gospel and radical right family values that contradict the altruistic teachings of Jesus.  

In Islamic nations apostasy and blasphemy laws deny the fundamental freedoms of religion and speech, while in America evangelical Christians use the freedom of religion to discriminate against homosexuals, denying them equal protection of the law.  Both religions must promote a better balance between individual rights and providing for the common good.

After shedding their exclusivist doctrines of salvation, Christianity must emphasize the teachings of Jesus as universal moral imperatives of faith, and Islam must acknowledge that Islamic Law (Shari’a) is incompatible with libertarian human rights and a secular rule of law.  Only then can those great religions be reconciled with a common word of moral universalism.  

Moral universalism provides a standard of legitimacy that can reconcile disparate and competitive religions and politics without forcing uniformity.  The greatest commandment is a common word of faith and a universal moral standard for Jews, Christians and Muslims; but applying its reconciling standard of altruistic love in both faith and politics will be a daunting task.


Moral universalism is at the intersection of religion, philosophy and politics, and it is where Immanuel Kant’s maximalist and invariant categorical imperative based on pure reason meets the more malleable minimalist moral standards of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel that consider religious and traditional norms.  Nicholas Adams has argued that Hegel’s more flexible minimalist standard of legitimacy that is compatible with the greatest commandment as a common word of faith is better suited to reconcile contentious religious differences.  See Nicholas Adams, In Pursuit of a “New Secular”: Human Rights and “A Common Word,” at chapter 14 of Muslim and Christian Understanding: Theory and Application of “A Common Word,” Edited by Waleed El-Ansary and David K. Linnan, Palgrave MacMillan, 2010,  
Standards of moral universalism are needed to balance the political conflict between individual wants and rights and providing for the common good.  Western democracies emphasize maximalist standards of human rights in their constitutions and promote them overseas through the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  Under the Cairo Declaration Islamic nations condition the human rights of the ICCPR to the provisions of Shari’a that include apostasy and blasphemy laws that prohibit the fundamental freedoms of religion and speech and that deny women equal protection of the law; and unlike Western democracies, they promote the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) that requires government to provide public welfare services such as employment and housing.  The conflict between the provisions of the ICCPR and the ICESCR at the international level is analogous to the political conflict at the national level between protecting fundamental freedoms and providing for the common good. See discussion of the above issues in Barnes, Religion, Law and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy, 2016, which is posted in Resources listed on the home page of the website Religion, Legitimacy and Politics at
On Noam Chomsky’s paraphrase of Kant’s categorical imperative, and on moral universalism generally, see Wikipedia at

An oppressive regime in Egypt has used Shari’a to deny fundamental human rights to those critical of it, most recently in jailing a woman for speaking out against sexual harassment.  See

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