Speaking in a Broken Tongue: Postmodernism, Principled Pluralism, and the Rehabilitation of Public Moral Discourse -- By: Theodore A. Turnau III

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 56:2 (Fall 1994)
Article: Speaking in a Broken Tongue: Postmodernism, Principled Pluralism, and the Rehabilitation of Public Moral Discourse
Author: Theodore A. Turnau III


Speaking in a Broken Tongue: Postmodernism, Principled Pluralism, and the Rehabilitation of Public Moral Discourse*

Theodore A. Turnau III

* I’d like to express my gratitude to Professors William S. Barker and William Edgar of Westminster Theological Seminary for their thoughtful and helpful critique of this paper.

I. Introduction

When the Founders wrote and ratified the First Amendment, they created space. By not allowing any one religion to become established as the Law of the Land, they created a space for public moral discourse, a public square where people of every and any faith could deliberate over public policy without fear of government censure. The end of this process was to be consensus: a guiding moral vision arising out of the plurality of voices in the public square.

One thing is clear—today the public square is in crisis. Those on either side of every significant public policy debate continue to talk, and to shout, past each other. The participants are not on the same wavelength, not even on the same planet. “Each side represents the tendencies of a separate and competing moral galaxy.”1 The public square is not a workshop for building a national moral consensus. It is a battleground for a culture war, as James Hunter asserts, and moral public discourse is subverted, useful only as weaponry. The voice of the nation has been effectively shattered. We speak in a broken tongue.

On the one side, the cultural progressives push for a seemingly endless series of “basic” human rights, to the point where any public moral consensus is undermined in favor of unlimited personal moral freedom. On the other side, the cultural conservatives attempt to delimit the corrosive moral relativism of the progressives by coercing a cultural consensus through legislation and the courts.2 And so, the culture’s moral vision splinters.3 The dynamic, as a whole, threatens to tear (or at least weaken) the fabric of this democracy.

The contemporary culture war is certainly a symptom of the loss of the languages of public morality in American society. Many of the battles of the culture war also represent a strain upon the course of democratic practice, a strain that could conceivably evolve into a serious threat to

these traditions if the contenders become yet more polarized.4

The loss of a common moral language is especially worrisome, for how can a society thrive (or survive) where disputants cannot talk or hear o...

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