Over the Thanksgiving holiday, my wife and I watched the new A&E series, “The Clinton Affair.” Like the title suggests, this six-part documentary retold one of the most explosive political moments not only of the 1990s, but in American history.
The point of this essay is not to recount President Clinton’s many indiscretions when it comes to his lewd treatment of women and the tales of marital infidelity. Instead, it is to highlight how times have changed (however slowly) since the 1990s in regard to how women are treated and talked about—for the better—in the culture, and how this progress demonstrates the failure of our culture to hold to a timeless code of ethics.
As my wife and I watched the documentary, I was stunned to see how the media and entertainment culture treated Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky. Late-night comedians mocked Paula Jones’ accent, appearance, and socio-economic status. They made fun of her for being from Arkansas and for having a protruding nose. Other comedians and journalists made disgusting innuendos about Miss Lewinsky—political cartoons and jokes too inappropriate to even describe in this space. They mocked her weight and sanity. Jones and Lewinsky were both humiliated and scapegoated. Feminists turned their backs on both because their preferred politician was in the White House.
These women were scorned by the same voices and industries that now parade themselves as the moral guardians of society—especially in light of the #MeToo movement. Were any of the same types of comments made about women today, there would be immediate dismissals. Rightfully so. Few in the media or entertainment industry are willing to confess their complicity and wrongdoing in bringing shame to women—but that’s what they were doing in 1998, but shunning in 2018. How the media and entertainers treated Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky in 1998 makes them nothing but hypocrites by the standards these same voices expect today.
Let me be clear: I am immensely thankful for how society is getting honest about its treatment of women. I’m thankful that men who abused their power to sexually harass and intimidate women are starting to be held to account. This is actual progress. But we still have a long way to go.
And today’s progress sheds light on the fickleness of human or man-made morality. It highlights how people are okay with the popular morality of the crowd, regardless if the morality in question is fair or loving. What are the lessons in this? There are three I want to highlight.
1. Staying consistent
First, it was wrong to let media, journalists, and entertainers set the parameters for moral discourse in 1998. It’s wrong to let the same industries do this 2018. If they did not steward their responsibility well for how women were talked about then, I’m not sure why we should unquestionably defer to cultural elites today. When standards of morality are always in flux and evolving, it’s dangerous to let the crowd be the culture’s gatekeeper.
2. Morality is not relative
Second, the outrage generated today at the news of women being treated poorly demonstrates that morality is not relative. When an injustice occurs against women that twists our insides or disturbs our conscience, it’s a reminder that the sense of injustice and anger we experience is not culturally-conditioned; it’s not simply an evolutionary quark; it’s not simply a neural response. It’s real injustice, and real injustice demands not only our rage but our commitment to calling perpetrators to repentance. We do not tell predatory men to “live your truth” like we do on other moral matters where there’s not so easily an identifiable victim.
The outrage that follows injustice is a reflection of the moral code given to us by God. The Apostle Paul calls this innate sense of objective and universal morality the “law written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:15). God gives us a conscience to respond to this universal law. It is one of the greatest gifts of God because it guides us to truth and shows us error.
3. Christian ethics are timeless
Third, the inconsistency and hypocrisy of our cultural gatekeepers highlights one of the most important truths of Christian ethics: their universality and timelessness. This simply means that Christian ethics are true, and always true. If Christian ethics were true when God ordered the world in Genesis and showed us what these ethics look like in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ, it means they are just as true today.
The culture can forge helpful moral movements like #MeToo, yet we don’t need the media or journalists or entertainers to tell us that treating women as sexual objects is wrong. All we have to do is look to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31)—something that even Christians have woefully failed at as stories appear highlighting our own hypocrisy. I’m glad the culture is playing catch-up with an objective morality that has been there all along.
Real, ultimate, and true morality needs God to stand behind it—to authorize it, to enforce it, and to judge all other ethical systems by this standard.
Something as important and necessary as morality cannot be left to the whims and opinions of man. We see this to be true because a morality conditioned by the times we live in has shown itself to be untrustworthy. Our gatekeepers failed. They moved the moral goal posts in the right direction, but who is to say that it won’t shift in a problematic direction once again?
The same is not true for Christian ethics. True morality requires stability. If we fail to live up to our ethics, it is because we are sinners—not because we think morality shifts to fit the moods or preferences of a given culture. Christian ethics do not have an asterisk or qualifier behind their relevance or truthfulness. Real, ultimate, and true morality needs God to stand behind it—to authorize it, to enforce it, and to judge all other ethical systems by this standard. One of the great treasures of Christian ethics is their consistency and constancy. When morality has God behind it, it does not change; it just ends up being validated.
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