A student of mine last spring approached me about a grade, telling me her research paper was as good as that of her roommate who received a higher grade. The two had worked on the same topic, shared notes, discussed many of the issues--so why shouldn't they get similar grades?

I was struck by her logic. Presentation, style, and grasp of the subject seemed irrelevant. All that mattered was that she had done exactly what the assignment called for, and she had followed the rules every bit as much as the roommate. How could this be?

Over the summer, I was struck once again by an instance when this same logic resurfaced. One of the characters banished from the group on the television show "Big Brother" responded, "But I haven't done anything worse than others in the group. Why me?" Like my student, she made an appeal to principles of equity and fairness. How could it be that her actions are worse that those of others?

Indeed, the logic widely underlies American moral sensibilities at present. One politician is no more corrupt than another. One judge is no less qualified to sit on the bench than another. Democrats are no less beholden to big corporations than Republicans. And on and on.

Might we call it the "Inverted Golden Rule"?

The Inverted Golden Rule looks not at positive acts of "doing unto others as you would have them do unto you." Instead, it operates out of a negative calculus: "What I'm doing is no worse than what you are doing, so it should be okay." It is a calculus given not to cultivating good bonds between people, but to justifying one's moral worth on the basis of a perception about how others live. If I am no worse than you, am I not entitled to equal treatment? Why should I be singled out as any different?

A similar trend has surfaced in religion. It has been said there are Golden Rule Christians, and in America much the same holds for Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and just about any other religious group. "Go into the churches," wrote Tocqueville in the 1830s, "and you will hear morality preached, of dogma not a word." Despite differences of creed and tradition, a common theme stood out.

Writing much later, in the 1960s, political commentator William Lee Miller observed: "In the main drift of religion in America the theological and liturgical and contemplative move into the background...and mystery fades away, and leaves--as the core of what Americans think religion to be--the moral."

Sociologist Nancy Ammerman, who coined the term Golden Rule Christians, says they are neither hot nor cold religiously--instead, they're concerned with living a respectable life. Treating others as you would want to be treated and promoting fair play are more honored than strict adherence to doctrinal creeds or unrestrained emotions. Deeply ingrained for Americans, it is a sensibility once expressed to me in an interview: "If you play by the rules, you can know that you are a good person and look into the mirror every day without shame."

In mainstream thinking, religion is linked to goodness, and goodness is bound up with playing by the rules.

But there's a flip side. In American culture, fair play means I should win points if what I do matches or is better than that of others. Goodness lies in playing by the rules--that is, playing by the rules as well as others do. And doesn't God honor fair play? Such logic, however, easily distorts our moral and spiritual sensibilities. It is especially apparent in the popular perception about the heavenly rewards that come to those who have lived a good life. A person we once interviewed in North Carolina put it this way: "They will tell you they are going to heaven and that the important thing is daily living based on the Golden Rule: I won't do anything worse to somebody else that they do to me, so that's pretty good." This is a mentality, she goes on, "that says if I do more things right than I do wrong, then God's pleased with me."

God's favor, it seems, rests in the balance between the pluses and minuses.

But where does this leave us? God is pleased if I don't steal from my neighbor? Pleased if I don't evade taxes to my country? Pleased if I don't abuse my children? Pleased if there aren't more things I've done wrong than I've done right?

The questions all seem a bit ridiculous until we recall the observations of Tocqueville, Miller, and others about morality being at the core of American religion. If they are correct, then the quality and depth of spiritual life rests to a great extent upon our moral sensibilities. But to keep those sensibilities healthy there must be a mutual respect for the moral order we share. And that means that what is going on with fascination with television programs like "Big Brother" and "Survivor" is even more chilling than perhaps we first thought.

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