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Superman, Relativism, and Democracy

“In a democracy, good is a conversation, not a unilateral decision.” Those words, uttered by Holly Hunter’s character Senator Finch in Batman v Superman, are beyond terrifying. In the film, they come in the midst of congressional hearings during which Finch, determined to expose and control Superman’s vigilantism, forcefully insists that no individual can be trusted to do what is good. For Finch, “good” is not fixed or absolute. It doesn’t exist apart from common agreement. And her words, specifically the moral relativism they betray, paint for us an alarming picture of the very real future that may lie ahead.

Moral relativism is a heady concept for the average person. Though we frequently see it manifest in our society, it is not a subject which is well understood or engaged on the popular level. As I sat in the theater and witnessed that scene, seeing the consequences of relativism so clearly on display in the realm of pop culture, I was stunned.

Western society has long been the subject of a power struggle. Since the dawn of the Enlightenment, there has been a steady tide attempting to erode belief in the supernatural. More recently, the philosophical assumptions that issue from broad acceptance of an ultimate reality have come into the crosshairs, and nowhere is this more clearly on display than in terms of morality. But substituting faith in a divine or ultimate authority, in favor of naturalism and rationality is not without its consequences. Indeed, while our culture is in fact becoming more secular, such an experiment—at least in America—necessarily severs our ties to the philosophical and ethical moorings that undergird not only our laws, but our national identity. I am confident we have underestimated the cost.

America is not now, nor has it ever been “a Christian nation.” President John Adams and the United States Senate affirmed as much with the ratification of the Treaty of Tripoli in 1797. But it would be a profound mistake to assume that this means that the United States was established as a secular nation. This is plainly seen in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence,

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The very basis from which the American revolutionaries proclaimed separation from British rule was their resolute belief in the natural (unalienable) rights bestowed upon all men by their Creator. And while this is undeniable, the anticipated rejoinder is that such references to a Creator—though present in the Declaration—are absent from the Constitution. And indeed this is the case. However, notice also that Jefferson, and those joining his final dissent to imperialism, affirmed that the truths espoused therein are “self-evident.”

Let us return for a moment to Superman’s dilemma. Standing before a congressional committee, the hero of Metropolis is facing the ire of a Senator whose foremost desire is to subject his heroism to government sanction. But most importantly, Senator Finch offers no critique of Superman’s integrity or character to advance her argument. Instead, she makes the case that left to himself, the Man of Steel is incapable of doing what is good because such a thing does not exist absent the consent of the majority. But could this possibly be the case?

I have always found myself standing in judgment of Nazi Germany. I never questioned whether or not the slaughter of innocents was a moral evil. And as I think through the implications of the kind of relativism displayed in that fictional scene on Capitol Hill, I find myself doubling down on my notions of absolutes. I cannot imagine living in a country where winning a majority or plurality is sufficient cause to uproot the moral foundations of an entire people. I cannot imagine living in a country where such victories grant permission to dismiss or undermine those foundations either. But make no mistake, that is precisely the path of relativism.

I am frightened by the words I quoted at the outset not because I am unable to differentiate fiction and reality, but because I fear that reality may soon resemble fiction. Departing from an objective view of morality will bear untold cost. Affirmations of civil liberties and first principles do not float aimlessly in the cultural milieu. They rest on robust foundations. The natural rights we esteem, chief among them a commitment to human dignity, are the results of our forebears’ acceptance of an objective and transcendent reality. But this flies in the face of both secularism and relativism. America, since its founding, has acknowledged that our lives and actions are measured according to an objective standard. What is good, right, and true is so intrinsically and definitively.

Progressives and cultural elites would see secularism stand alone in the public square. And as this shift occurs, the ties that bind our public morals to their foundations will continue to deteriorate until they finally dissolve entirely. But instead of the tolerant and enlightened culture that is anticipated, the result will be a dystopian future that eliminates freedom and autonomy. Imagine a world where even the most basic or innate inclinations and desires are subject to public scrutiny or government oversight. Are we actually willing to embrace a future where there is no such thing as “self-evident” truth?

Moral relativism may come to us as a silent revolution, but it will assuredly be a failed one. It is a philosophy without a foundation and such a system will not bear the weight of a burgeoning democracy. Our government is established and defined by the Constitution and as it turns out, even that document is predicated on self-evident truths and a commitment to natural rights. That is by design. The laws of our nation were written to secure the inherent liberties and inviolable rights of men. They do not exist to codify or sanction the popular opinions of a (voting) majority. Such an arrangement would indeed threaten the very fabric of our society and our identity as a people. If we are to maintain our Constitutional government, we must preserve our national commitments to first principles. We must not yield or waver in our recognition that our rights are bequeathed to us by our Creator. We must not forget that what is good is innately so, and no amount of discussion will make it otherwise.

In the face of these things, I live as a Christian with bold confidence in the sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Christ over every square inch of all creation. As an American, I fear that the moral framework on display in Batman v Superman may indeed portend troubled days to come. In any case, it is not often that we are confronted with a pressing moral issue through the vein of pop culture. Perhaps we should be grateful.

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