Everyday Ethics: A Review by Eric Hilker

August 31, 2020

Lamb, Michael, and Brian A. Williams, eds. Everyday Ethics: Moral Theology and The Practices of Ordinary Life. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2019.

Banner, Michael. The Ethics of Everyday Life: Moral Theology, Social Anthropology, and the Imagination of the Human. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Everyday Ethics is a collection of essays that responds to Michael Banner’s The Ethics of Everyday Life, yet folks should be interested in what Everyday Ethics represents, whether or not they are familiar with Banner’s work. Everyday Ethics goes beyond its immediate responsive purpose by taking part in, and providing methodological reflections upon, a movement by Christian moral theologians who engage more deeply with the work and tools of anthropology. There has been something of a convergence of interests between these fields of late. In anthropology, some scholars have turned toward moral philosophy or theology in an attempt to better understand the agonistic pressures within moral lives and/or to identify more clearly with suffering subjects—a point made by Patrick McKearney in his very helpful bibliographic essay. For moral theology, in contrast, the movement represents an important shift away from an overemphasis on the abstract, theoretical, and textual, and towards the concrete, experienced, and embodied.

Conversation between fields that take themselves to be descriptive and those which take themselves to be normative has not always been very common, and when there has been cross pollination between them, it has often been at the level of abstract theory: if virtue ethicists have been willing to adopt Pierre Bourdieu’s theoretical construct of the habitus to describe how persons exist in social contexts, they have not run to anthropologists’ descriptions of everyday life to help them think more concretely about something like the concept of courage. Yet this is just what Banner and his respondents do. In a chapter of The Ethics of Everyday Life, Banner places Augustine’s reflections on the virgin birth in conversation with an anthropological description of the kinship relations that result from assisted reproductive technologies. Everyday Ethics extends this sort of work suggested by Banner. For example, Eric Gregory’s essay looks at ethnographic work on humanitarianism, where efficiency has become the top priority, and considers how Christians should regard such a priority given theological commitments to relationality—i.e. to loving the neighbor.

A strength of Everyday Ethics is related to a weakness of Banner’s book, one that he admits to in his own response to the essays. Banner positions his use of the thick description of social anthropology as an intervention in the field of moral theology without recognizing other work that is very closely aligned with his commitments. While he regards Banner’s work as exemplary, Charles Mathewes begins his essay by noting that The Ethics of Everyday Life is “epoch-marking rather than epoch-making.” This is especially important to say, I would argue, because many of the epoch-makers who first connected thick descriptions of everyday life to theological judgments (at least in Christian moral theology) are feminist and womanist ethicists who had to fight for this kind of work to be accepted in the academy. In her essay, Stephanie Mota Thurston highlights the work of Katie Cannon and Ada María Isasi-Díaz as two scholars using the tools of anthropology to mine the experience and moral wisdom of women in particular contexts, three decades before Banner’s The Ethics of Everyday Life. Alongside Thurston, other essays in Part I address what is missing in Banner’s book—consideration of both the scholarly history and methodological quandaries that continue to challenge conversations in and between religious ethics and social anthropology.

Engaging thick descriptions of everyday practices is not easily done within the methodological commitments of Christian moral theology—I find it challenging in my own work. The constructive essays of Part II pull this off with varying degrees of success. Still, essays such as Gregory’s (on humanitarianism, noted above) demonstrate why this kind of work is, to my mind, some of the best being done in moral theology right now: these scholars are working to realize the immense possibilities for doing confessionally-located work that is bound to, and chastened by, folks’ lived realities; they are de-centering and de-naturalizing previously assumed universal rationalities; they are lifting up the realities of marginalized persons not often given voice in historical texts.

Part III of Everyday Ethics takes up some of the methodological challenges for a moral theology that takes anthropological work seriously. Bringing these fields together opens new sites of encounter, and there are political ramifications here. Charles Mathewes, for example, argues that engaging with anthropology may be important for the manner in which we understand the relationship between the church and the world—not as the church against the world, but as the church for the world. Anthropology forces moral theology to get close to its subject, to question the naturalness of its assumptions, and in doing so to become open to the questions of others.

There is a humility in being open to the questions and claims of the other, and, as Patrick McKearney’s essay points out, there is the possibility of mutual transformation. Luke Bretherton’s essay, however, asks how we can both turn to culture and turn away from idolatrous structures and cultural processes. Thus the possibility of transformation is appealing when we might come close to, say, a refugee—when we are transformed by the otherness of one who has suffered violence and homelessness. Should we also be open to mutual transformation with a white-nationalist?

If you can feel the weight of that question, then you are beginning, I think, to see both the political power and the political challenge of the methodological task under concern in Everyday Ethics.

Eric Hilker is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.

An Inevitable Fall From Grace? Falwell, Liberty, and Where It All Went Wrong by Robert MacSwain

The multi-generational saga of the Falwell family of Lynchburg, Virginia has always been a dramatic epic of sin and redemption. According to Jerry Falwell Sr.’s autobiography, Strength for the Journey (which was ghost-written by fellow evangelical, Mel White, before he came out and became a gay activist), Falwell’s father, Carey, was a bootlegging entrepreneur who killed his brother, Garland, in 1931 during an exchange of gunfire. Garland was drunk, high, recently out of prison, and on a violent rampage. Although it was a clear case of self-defense, Carey coped with his guilt by drinking, becoming an alcoholic before his deathbed conversion.

Jerry and his twin brother, Gene, were born under this shadow in 1933. Jerry’s own journey toward Christian faith was not an easy one either, but after a rough and rowdy youth he was converted on January 20, 1952. This eventually led to his call to be an Independent Baptist preacher and pastor, the founder of Thomas Road Baptist Church, “the Old-Time Gospel Hour,” Lynchburg Baptist College, and the Moral Majority, a conservative Christian movement which helped put Ronald Reagan in the White House and established the Religious Right as a powerful force in US politics. 

Lynchburg Baptist College became Liberty Baptist College in 1975 and was rebranded ten years later as Liberty University. It is now one of the largest and wealthiest evangelical Christian universities in the world. Jerry Falwell Jr, who inherited the presidency from his father after he died of a heart attack in 2007, transformed the university’s fortunes. But his forced resignation after allegations of sexual misconduct have compromised both the redeemed family name and the institution. There will be plenty of commentary on whether Liberty’s moral reputation can fully recover, but Liberty has arguably never been the academic success Falwell Sr. had envisaged.

The Liberty University I attended from 1988 to 1992 was still small, struggling, and deliberately trying to transcend its past. The name change signaled a strategic shift away from its fundamentalist roots toward a broader, more generic evangelical identity.  It planned to take its place alongside established schools such as Wheaton and Calvin as a national evangelical institution of higher education.

Rightly or wrongly, that’s why I went there. A native Virginian with a conservative but eclectic religious background, I would never have attended “Lynchburg Baptist College,” but going to “Liberty University” to study Christian philosophy and apologetics with respected scholars such as Gary Habermas and J. P. Moreland seemed like a feasible proposition to my 18-year-old self. (I graduated from Liberty with a B.A. in philosophy and then went on to graduate studies in theology, ordination in the Episcopal Church, and an eventual academic career. My theological and political convictions have thus taken me in a different direction than “the Liberty Way”).

However, as theologically and politically conservative as the school I attended was (the commencement speaker at my graduation was Pat Buchanan), after eight years of Reagan and during the four years of George H.W. Bush, Falwell Sr. was enjoying the fruits of victory. The ambiance in this period was thus generally more complacent than combative, with a focus on developing a “Christian worldview” (of a very particular sort). I thus believe that seeking to build Liberty into a bona fide university was the genuine ambition and agenda, although a process that was just getting started.

But despite its subsequent growth, its rankings and reputation indicate that Liberty has never achieved the academic excellence that Falwell Sr. hoped for. What went wrong? Well, lots of things. It maintained a belief in biblical inerrancy and young-earth creationism, while also holding to uncritical free market economics and an overt opposition to “the social gospel.” There was a pervasive anti-intellectualism on the administrative level, the lack of a substantial theological tradition, and the rejection of academic freedom and faculty governance. (I remember Falwell Sr. once telling us in chapel that giving professors tenure was “like letting the inmates run the asylum.”) Liberty wanted to join the evangelical elite, but its fundamentalist gravity kept pulling it back.

Specifically, I now see that my four years at Liberty were bookended neatly by two significant events: the repeal of the FCC “fairness doctrine” in 1987 and the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. The first led to the rise of Fox News and other partisan right-wing propaganda machines both fueled by and further inflaming white resentment. The second motivated Falwell Sr. to return to the frontlines of the culture wars, abandon his higher academic aspirations, and restore Liberty as a citadel of conservativism—but with a new primary emphasis on politics rather than the old fundamentalist-modernist debates. Chapel speakers in my day were Charles Stanley, D. James Kennedy, and Chuck Colson; more recent ones have included Sean Hannity, Michele Bachman, and Glenn Beck.  

Falwell Sr. died at 73 in his office at Liberty on May 15, 2007, leaving his oldest son Jerry Falwell Jr. in charge. Kevin Roose provides a fascinating eyewitness description of this transition in The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. A nominal Quaker undergraduate at Brown, Roose decided to spend a semester at Liberty in the spring of 2007 as a “participant observer” to better understand (and write about) the evangelical subculture. The book offers an astute and sympathetic but not uncritical analysis, and Roose incidentally had the last interview with Falwell Sr. before his death.

Roose concludes by describing some of the early changes made by Jerry Falwell Jr., sensible actions that seemed aimed at making the school even more mainstream and generic in its evangelicalism. A graduate of Liberty (1984) and UVA Law School (1987), Falwell Jr. is not a minister like his father or younger brother Jonathan; instead he focused on business, and it seemed that his primary goal was simply the pragmatic one of making the university succeed. And it did. Even by Roose’s semester in 2007, largely due to Falwell Jr.’s acumen, Liberty had become a wealthy behemoth. During my time it was over $100 million in debt and almost lost its accreditation. Today it has an endowment of $1.6 billion and over $3 billion in total assets.

But here’s the chronological point: The year after Falwell Jr. took charge, Obama was elected. And if Clinton’s election in 1992 galvanized Falwell Sr., Obama’s election in 2008 apparently had an equally profound political effect on his son. If nothing else, the concomitant rise of Fox News and the cumulative impact of the Clinton and Obama presidencies deeply radicalized the administration of Liberty University, pushing it (and most of white evangelical Protestantism) much further to the right, enlisting the university as a sometimes unwilling yet still complicit banner-bearer in our ongoing culture wars.

However, it now also seems sadly clear that at some point something happened to Falwell Jr. beyond conservative revanchism. Those who have remained in closer contact with the university during the past two decades can comment on these developments with more authority than I, but from many accounts the place has become increasingly unhappy and disconnected from its original mission.

Some students and faculty resented Falwell Jr.’s formal endorsement and enthusiastic support of Donald Trump in 2016 (something that even Falwell Sr. would probably not have done). Additionally, his increasingly bizarre and controversial social media posts—so at odds with the abstemious “Liberty Way” which students have to abide by—became an inherent yet discordant component of Liberty’s brand, to the distress of many graduates and current students. Thus, even before the latest story that led to his resignation, Falwell Jr. had been put on administrative leave, with the scandalous photos that he himself had posted on Instagram suggesting a degree of impaired judgment.

Not surprisingly, the fates of the Falwell family and Liberty have been intimately intertwined. Some will of course date the school’s problems from its very foundation in 1971. Maybe so. But a more charitable interpretation, even granting the conservative evangelical framework, might claim that the overriding concern with political power and wealth derailed the quest for academic excellence, which in turn undermined the institution’s spiritual and moral integrity. It allowed Falwell Jr.’s autocratic presidency and personal improprieties to remain unchallenged. Until now.

Maybe Jerry Falwell Jr. will finally face the family ghosts that so obviously haunt him. And perhaps this fiasco will be the “come to Jesus moment” that will save Liberty University from its sins. I sincerely hope so.

The Rev. Dr. Robert MacSwain is an Episcopal priest and Associate Professor of Theology at the School of Theology, University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee.  

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore