Most Americans today have never heard of Joseph Fletcher, but his moral legacy lives within us every day.
Every time we make a moral decision and reference “circumstances” rather than moral absolutes, we are channeling Fletcher. Every weak pastor who tones down his message so as not to offend some of his congregation is echoing Fletcher. Every politician who goes against his conscience to toe the “party line” is following Fletcher’s doctrines. Every social media titan who de-platforms those he disagrees with “for the greater good” is acting out Fletcher’s corrupt philosophy.
Fletcher was one of the leading American Protestant theologians of the 20th century. His concept of “situation ethics”—a moral philosophy whereby one’s ethics must be adjusted to suit the circumstances—has transformed the United States’ religious, cultural, and political values.
According to a biography on YourDictionary.com: “Fletcher lectured at over 450 universities and medical schools throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. He was a visiting scholar at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland and Cambridge University in England, … [and] a visiting professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo. He was awarded honorary doctorates from West Virginia University, Berkeley Divinity School, and the Episcopal Theological School. … He was an elected honorary member of Alpha Omega Alpha, the national medical honor society. He was also named ‘Humanist Laureate’ by the Academy of Humanism in 1983.”
Fletcher wrote over 250 articles, monographs, and reviews, plus 11 books—the most famous and influential being “Situation Ethics: The New Morality.”
Fletcher’s book was perfectly timed to exploit the spiritual vacuum of the times. Post-war affluence, coupled with the “let ’em roam wild” parenting theories of leftist pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock and the free love doctrines popularized by professor Herbert Marcuse and his Marxist “Frankfurt School” colleagues, had rocked America’s traditional foundations. American Christianity was in full retreat.
After the passing of the Johnson amendment to the U.S. tax code in 1954, which threatened churches with loss of tax-free status if they endorsed political candidates, thousands of cowardly pastors took the tax exemption in return for abandoning the moral leadership of their communities. In 1962 and 1963, prayer was taken out of public schools. The old morality was dying. America was ready for something new. Fletcher supplied it.
According to Fletcher’s New York Times obituary—written, incidentally, by Peter Steinfels of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and the Democratic Socialists of America Religion and Socialism Commission:
“Although other scholars attacked situation ethics as either dangerous or too vague to resolve difficult moral conflicts, Dr. Fletcher’s argument resonated widely in a decade marked by discontent with conventions and established authorities.”
According to traditional Christian organization Ligonier Ministries:
“Joseph Fletcher ranks among the most influential intellectuals of the twentieth century. Fletcher, an Episcopalian priest who became an atheist in later life, is best known for his book ‘Situation Ethics: The New Morality.’ First published in 1966, the book cemented Fletcher’s standing as one of the founders of the system known as situational ethics.
“Fletcher rejected the traditional law-based approach to Christian ethics in favor of making the circumstances of each particular situation the norm by which right and wrong are decided. … [He] said that the principle that has to be followed in every ethical decision is that we must do what love demands in the particular situation that we face. But Fletcher did not define what love demands according to any fixed, transcendent norm; rather, the situation itself determines the most loving response. So, for example, adultery could be the most loving thing in one situation while love could demand chastity in another.”
Fletcher’s ideas swept through the United States’ Protestant churches and permeated all corners of U.S. society. A generation of affluent atheists, materialists, free-thinkers, liberals, and socialists sent their children, with minimal religious or moral foundations, into a university system soaked in free love, moral relativism, and Marxism. It’s a tribute to America’s Christian roots that any of them at all went on to lead moral and productive lives.
According to Fletcher, the Ten Commandments were old hat. Almost any action was permissible as long as it was done in the spirit of “love.” AsFletcher said: “Only one thing is intrinsically good; namely love and nothing else at all.”
The traditional concept of justice and personal accountability was also redundant: “Love and justice are the same, for justice is love distributed.”
And who got to define what is “love” or “loving”? You did, of course. According to Fletcher, morality was now a personal decision. Absent was revealed moral standards from the Bible or the Torah. “If it feels good, do it” or “what’s right for you, may not be right for me” became the new moral guidelines for millions of Americans.
Fletcher certainly helped to advance the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s.
According to the American Presbyterian Church website, an April 16, 1966, UPI story in the Greensboro Daily News had the headline “Premarital Sex Upheld by Cleric.” It stated:
“An Episcopal theologian said Thursday premarital sex relations between consenting, intelligent individuals should not be condemned.
“Dr. Joseph Fletcher also told a seminar on population policy at the University of North Carolina that colleges and universities should provide information on birth control and actual contraceptive care for those who request it. …
“‘No sexual act between persons competent to give mutual consent should be prohibited, except when it involves either the seduction of minors or an offense against the public order,’ Fletcher said.”
But who was Fletcher? Despite a long tenure at the Episcopal Theological School of Harvard University, was he even really a Christian?
Fletcher’s Christianity is highly suspect. Certainly, Fletcher had little respect for the Church that paid his salary and gave his views respectability and credibility.
According to Fletcher: “The top 10 percent of the people who are most creative, constructive and thoughtful, do not have much to do with churches. To them the canons of reason come first, making faith secondary and questionable.”
After leaving academia, Fletcher declared himself an atheist and became active in the American Euthanasia Association and the Association for Voluntary Sterilization. This anti-life activism was a family affair. Fletcher’s wife, Forrest Hatfield, had worked closely with Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, who was once well known for her eugenicist and racial supremacist views.
In 1954, Fletcher published “Morals and Medicine,” in which he “argued the case for active euthanasia … and for sterilization of those judged unfit for parenthood,” according to his obituary.
As a young man, Fletcher attended Berkeley Divinity School in Northern California. Even then, socialism was rampant in many Protestant divinity schools. In the summer of his first year, Fletcher enrolled in a program called “Seminarians in Industry.”
According to YourDictionary.com: “He was assigned to the Plymouth Cordage Company factory where he discovered and exposed a blacklist of union sympathizers that included Bart Vanzetti, the Italian anarchist [later executed for murder]. During his second summer, he volunteered for the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee in Boston”—a cause championed by the newly formed Communist Party USA.
“His last year at seminary was spent collaborating on a book with [socialist] Spencer Miller, education adviser to the [communist-infiltrated] American Federation of Labor, titled ‘The Church and Industry’ (1931). After completing divinity school in 1928, Fletcher pursued graduate studies in economic history at Yale.”
In 1930, he went to London to study under “Christian socialist” R. H. Tawney at the left-leaning London School of Economics.
Returning to the United States at the height of the Great Depression, Fletcher continued his union activism and teaching as dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Cincinnati. There, he developed a school of “social training” for seminarians. Fletcher “taught courses in labor history and New Testament at the University of Cincinnati and social ethics at Hebrew Union College,” according to YourDictionary.com. He also “taught volunteer courses in a labor education night school supported by local unions.”
After moving to Harvard, Fletcher became involved in serious international communist activity.
Fletcher was a sponsor of the Scientific and Cultural Conference for World Peace, which ran from March 25 to 27, 1949, in New York City. It was arranged by a Communist Party front organization, National Council of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions. This conference was a follow-up to a similar gathering, the World Congress of Intellectuals, which was held in communist Poland from Aug. 25 to 28, 1948.
Among the sponsors of the communist-inspired “Call to Mid-Century Conference for Peace, May 29, 30, 1950” in Chicago was “Rev. Prof. Joseph F. Fletcher, Episcopal Theological School, Cambridge, Massachusetts,” according to the “Report on the Communist ‘Peace’ Offensive” by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
The Mid-Century Conference for Peace was one of the regional sections of the congressional-cited Communist Party front organization, the Committee for Peaceful Alternatives to the Atlantic Pact.
Fletcher was elected to membership on the Soviet Union’s first major international front group, the World Peace Council, at the Second World Peace Congress held in Poland from Nov. 13 to 19, 1950. They had been planning to hold the congress in Sheffield, England, but, at the last minute, the socialist, but anti-communist, UK government refused to allow the foreign delegates to land in England, necessitating a transfer to Warsaw.
“Mr. KUNZIG [counsel]: Mr. Philbrick, seeing as we are here in executive session, and this testimony being confidential, do you feel you could tell the committee the names of these ministers in the Boston area whom you, as you said, have a pretty good idea were the ones that you feel were the members of the Communist Party? … Then could you give us for the record in executive session here this afternoon these names to which you have referred?
“Mr. PHILBRICK: Yes, I could … The Reverend Joseph Fletcher, F-l-e-t-c-h-e-r, of the theological seminary, Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Mass., is another. Joe Fletcher worked with us on Communist Party projects and on enormous number of tasks.
“Mr. CLARDY [committee member]: He is still there?
“Mr. PHILBRICK: He is sir. Another minister—and I almost feel like saying—quote—’minister’ in each of these cases because they are something entirely different from what I comprehend to be a true minister of the Gospel. …”
Other leftist theologians also worked to spread Fletcher’s “situation ethics” ideas.
In 1968, Fletcher co-edited “The Situation Ethics Debate” with his colleague Harvey Cox, then the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard.
Cox was an avowed socialist who would go on to be a longtime leader of the Democratic Socialists of America Religious and Socialism Commission.
Fletcher damaged the United States’ moral underpinnings almost beyond repair. Was Fletcher’s “situation ethics” the fruit of a sincere but badly errant Christian academic?
Or was it the work of a committed atheist Stalinist aiming to overturn Judeo-Christian ethics in service of the world revolutionary movement?
If revolutionaries such as Fletcher can succeed in overthrowing the divine roots of morality, widespread depravity becomes inevitable. Depravity and chaos create a devil’s playground. The communist revolutionary is evil’s most valuable servant.
Fletcher had a major influence on American Christianity and the wider culture.
He was very seldom on the side of the angels.
Trevor Loudon is an author, filmmaker, and public speaker from New Zealand. For more than 30 years, he has researched radical left, Marxist, and terrorist movements and their covert influence on mainstream politics.