Politics

Brave New Moral World

 Morality and liberty must get along.

By From the January-February 2014 issue

Heather Cuthill (Flickr Creative Commons)
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It had to come. And, oh, boy, did it. The new president of the Southern Baptists’ social policy unit has dipped his oar into those troubled waters, seeming to signal a Baptist pullback from the culture wars. Or maybe not so much a pullback as a truce. Or if not a truce, then maybe a nicer way of talking about social questions. Or…whatever. 

The full-time prognosticators of political trends—a numerous bunch, based mostly on the East Coast, with jobs in, or constant access to, the media—never tire of asking how long before “social issues” and other out-of-date connections with 20th-century America strand Republicans in desuetude and despair. Can’t be much longer, can it? Abortion, gay rights, “the war on women”—how much of this cargo can a political vessel take on without heeling to starboard, then capsizing? 

Thus when Russell Moore, a young (42) pastor and blogger, took over at the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission last autumn, and indicated the need for adjustments in attitude and style, he renewed a debate that was more about the place of the social issues in politics than it was about Russell Moore. Moore didn’t so much stake out new ground—he opposes abortion and supports traditional two-sex marriage—as he evidenced weariness with current tactics and strategies. “We are involved,” he told the Wall Street Journal, “in the ‘political process,’ but we must always be wary of being co-opted by it,” so as to become “mascots for any political faction.” He dismissed the idea and practice of “God-and-country sloganeering.” 

It is no easy message to convey in a few sentences. One letter-writer to the Journal complained that Moore was “kicking aside the message Jesus brought to all the world.” Another—identified as a minister—cried hallelujah: “Your article lays the foundation that will save both the church and the GOP from the dustbin of history.” Sensing that some clarification might not come amiss, Moore fleshed out his ideas in an article for the traditionalist Christian monthly First Things. He was not running up the white flag, he stressed; he was reassessing the battlefield and the configuration of fighting forces thereon. The old-style Christianity that made Jesus a totem for “a happy marriage, a successful career, well-behaved children, and for eternal life as well”—that was off. The Christian political activism of the ’80s and the ’90s—Jerry Falwell, Dr. James Dobson, the Moral Majority, and so forth—“has been a political agenda in search of a gospel useful enough to accommodate.” No more “triumphalism and hucksterism” of that sort, if you please. 

The Rev. Russell Moore’s place in the cultural-political biosphere of the future remains to be determined. He deserves credit all the same for pulling back the blankets to show what odd bedfellows modern Americans have become: by no means united on the murky matter of morality, unsure at the same time what to do about their disunity. The thrashings and slashings of cultural politics have rent many formerly well-understood political alignments, never more notably in my own memory than when Barry Goldwater and Jerry Falwell fell out over what would come to be known as the gay rights issue. Falwell, a Goldwater admirer, put forth on a particular occasion the traditional view of homosexuality as sinful. Goldwater, who had a homosexual grandson, was offended. He offered angrily to kick Falwell in the region he was accustomed to sitting on. Falwell was stunned. Didn’t two conservatives agree on the conservative basics? Not on the present matter—no siree. Or on many another matter involving personal convictions as they play out in politics. 

Do they ever play out! The loosening of old moral convictions, especially those having to do with sex and personal expression, gives a very different cast to the tone of 21st-century life. As of December 2013, 15 states, the District of Columbia, and eight New Mexico counties allowed gay marriages, with Illinois set to come aboard in June 2014. Abortion, unrecognized as a constitutional right prior to 1973, has become the feminist touchstone. He who diminishes the right to “control my own body” (so the feminist asserts) diminishes my personhood! Who would want to do a thing like that? 

Abortion and gay rights are the Big Two cultural issues, but there are second-order issues of immense consequence. One is marijuana—a word once used mostly in conjunction with the word “den,” redolent of dim lights and the patter of bongo drums—now enjoyed by 25 million Americans a year, according to NORML (the old National Organization for Reform of the Marijuana Laws). Last November, voters in Portland, Maine, and three Michigan cities approved ballot measures decriminalizing marijuana possession. The display of crosses or Nativity scenes frequently invites the legal wrath of the American Civil Liberties Union and like enterprises committed ostensibly to religious neutrality but in reality to the desacralization of the society that exists outside church doors. Consider that religious reasons to oppose federal requirements that insurance cover birth-control devices are met with disfavor and opposition in Washington, D.C., as well as among organizations that support Obamacare. It is no longer the world—the moral world, that is—in which many of us grew up.

But we know all this, and so what? Is it such a big deal that we don’t live the way folks did in the high noon of Father Knows Best? Many on the right of the political spectrum reply, no, if not %$#@ no. These would like to address the likes of Russell Moore in stringent terms. Back off, Bud! Stay out of my life! The notion here has two aspects. The first is that, as a matter of principle, the identification and enforcement of most moral requirements, especially those proceeding from religious understandings, is no part of a political party’s mission.

The second aspect of the matter is that too fervent an embrace of social issues hurts Republicans and helps Democrats. After Virginia Republicans lost the governorship last November to a Bill Clinton buddy and backer, Terry McAuliffe, the state’s Republican lieutenant governor blamed fallout from too-tight embrace of the pro-life cause. “We are a pro-life party,” said Bill Bolling, “but if we’re going to be the party of fetal ultrasounds, we’re going to have a problem.” A Republican mayor who endorsed McAuliffe affirmed that GOP belief in limited government hardly went with the desire to invade private bedrooms. It isn’t just liberals, in other words, who want to downplay the moral stuff; it’s self-identified “mainstream” conservatives, positioned against those who call themselves religious or evangelical. Not that mainstreamers want the evangelicals to go off and form their own popular front. The mainstreamers want evangelical votes without evangelical lip.

In the context of a magazine article I am unable to quiet the controversies that result from these two different ways of understanding the place of morality in the discussion of public questions. The point I would make is, all of us on the right end of the political/philosophical spectrum need to take a step back; we need to take exquisite care in sorting out the implications involved in dealing with moral questions at the level of retail politics. The libertarian-moral traditionalist divide on the issues at stake is no easy or straightforward thing to address, much less resolve with sighs of general satisfaction. Neither side in this family feud, to my own way of thinking, should roughly, abrasively dismiss the other side’s concerns. Both sides make points worth considering. We might wish to accord Russell Moore some respect for calling in from both sides—the moral-witness side, the leave-the-whole-damn-thing-alone side—air strikes on his position. At worst, he got people talking. Beyond that, what can be said about the need to find a way that morality and liberty may flourish side by side as civic ideals?

The obvious thing to say (it seems to me) is that the two cannot readily be detached. They go together—the philosophical equivalent of ham and eggs, Laurel and Hardy, Johnny Manziel and the forward pass. John Adams observed in 1772 that “The presence of liberty depends upon the intellectual and moral character of the people. As long as knowledge and virtue are diffused generally, among the body of a nation, it is impossible they should be enslaved.” John Dickinson—who in celebrated fashion fell out with Adams concerning the timetable for independence—made a point totally congruent with Adams’s: that the “right essential to happiness” came not from the state but “from a higher source—from the King of Kings and Lord of all the earth…created in us by the decrees of Providence, which establish the laws of our nature.” 

To bring the matter forward in time: Restricting—because abolishing before the house—the exercise of religion as a guide to wise and rightful conduct means creating a void at the center of public understanding. If varied religions sometimes give varied answers to the big questions of policy and deportment (e.g., Is birth control legitimate? Is it Illegitimate? What, then?), still some semblance of a standard emerges from the conversation. Secular meditations on such matters matter only to secular speakers and hearers. With what authority do such people speak? A Ph.D. in sociology or a magazine editorship confers the right to lay down The Truth? Whose truth? Their’s or everybody’s? How do we ever get to the bottom of the matter? We don’t? We just count noses or something? What a formula for social peace!

The question that follows accordingly is: How much scope do we afford religion in an age more secular in its methods and conclusions than, say, the 1950s? Nobody is presently certain, not even Russell Moore. Arguments for the exclusion or marginalization of religious viewpoints in public policy make no sense, except as instruments in a power contest. At the same time, power is the central element of politics: got to have it in order to do anything; got to elect people in order to have it; got to find ways of arguing successfully in public for a broad range of policies in which issues such as gay marriage are an ingredient but not the whole dish.

Gay marriage seems by way of becoming the great conundrum for conservatives. Recall the case of Goldwater vs. Falwell. To oppose same-sex unions, in 2014, is to turn off the young and the hip, no small number of them; to favor it is not only to turn off moral traditionalists but to conspire in marginalizing the meaning of marriage as understood throughout the entirety of civilization. Is that the end at which we aim for the sake of retaking the U.S. Senate? The matter, on account of butting up constantly against human sensibilities, is agonizingly hard to talk about, far less adjudicate—as Falwell and countless others on both sides of the question have come to understand. All the same, the issues at stake are immense. It doesn’t do for conservatives who have weakened on the marriage issue to act as though fundraising and vote-cultivation were the main considerations to be sorted through.

Just as actions have consequences, so have non-actions: the stacking of arms and arguments employed for centuries in defense of the American quest to be an exceptional people—free and at the same time moral. Well, you know, as moral as a large populace of adventurers and experimenters ever gets. Their feat is all the more challenging as launched amid widespread social and cultural acceptance of chattel slavery. Speaking of which, are there not moral implications that attach to the campaign which became a veritable religious crusade against slavery? “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord/He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored…” There came along a century later a Bible-quoting Baptist pastor named King, who earned a kind of immortality on account of dragging the Christian religion into the task of rounding off the work of the original crusade. 

The brusque dismissal of religion from the tumults of the ensuing century isn’t likely to work among a people whose governmental charter enshrines the right of religion both as to exercise and belief. Traditionalists may have to face the fact that society not only isn’t what it used to be but isn’t going to be, pending the Second Coming. This leaves room for constructive interplay of ideas and strategies whose proper focus is the overthrow of the Obama regime, not the turning of Jerry Falwell’s picture to the wall. 

Republicans and conservatives ought to knock it off and acknowledge that significant differences among friends and political co-conspirators require patient adjustment, in preference to caterwaulings accompanied by the display of claws and the snatching out of hair. Members of what the media call the “religious right” like to affirm that the Lord’s in charge—of everything. The present moment would seem an appropriate time to test that well-burnished proposition: no kumbayas but lots of reflection on what the last five years in America have wreaked upon common hopes, shared expectations. 

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About the Author

William Murchison is a Dallas-based columnist for Creators Syndicate. His latest book is The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson.