Reframing public morality
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Bay Windows
September 6, 2007


Reframing public morality

The American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition, defines hypocrisy as “the practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold or possess; falseness.” Depending on which part of that definition you emphasize, outgoing Idaho Senator Larry Craig either is or is not a hypocrite. His career is over either way, but the meaning of hypocrisy is of continuing interest given the role that so-called family values have played in recent American politics.

Some conservative voices, perhaps looking to get past the Craig scandal and reclaim the moralistic high ground, insist that failure to live up to sincerely-held beliefs does not make one a hypocrite nor invalidate those beliefs. Some liberals reply that those who live in glass houses should not throw stones, and that the conflict between what political moralizers say (gays are a threat to the family) and what so many of them do (troll men’s rooms, hire prostitutes, commit adultery, divorce and remarry multiple times) reveals family-values politics as little more than a cynical ploy for turning out socially conservative voters who otherwise are not taken seriously.

I tend toward the latter view, but I concede that many conservative politicians sincerely hold their anti-gay beliefs. The point is that those beliefs are ignorant and mean-spirited without offering a bit of help to any family. Blaming gay people for straight couples’ problems does no more to address those problems than 14th Century Europeans defeated plagues with accusations of witchcraft.

Aside from the scientific evidence that homosexuality is a natural orientation for a small minority, and the testimony of countless gay people as to the value of their lives, anti-gay conservatives have no monopoly on religion and no right to impose their beliefs on everyone else. The question is, how best to counter them.

Considering the long-term gay-accepting trend in opinion polls, and the string of scandals that have exposed the moral bankruptcy of some prominent moralizers, the 2008 election presents an opportunity not merely to turn the tables but to reframe the issue of public morality.

To avoid sheer opportunism, the Reframers (as I will call them, hoping that their ranks will be bipartisan) should readily admit that they are subject to the same human foibles as disgraced politicians like David Vitter and Larry Craig, and therefore have no claim to moral superiority. They should point out that moralistic politics have advanced partisan interests while doing nothing to advance morality, feed hungry children, improve health care, increase productivity, or secure our homeland.

Far from dismissing moral concerns in politics, the Reframers should call for replacing the destructive politics of scapegoating with a more constructive politics where we summon the best in one another instead of beating our neighbors over the head. They should argue that attempts to abolish the separation of church and state serve only to set Americans against one another and poison the public square where we must gather to confront our common problems.

We have allowed morality to be hijacked by bullies and busybodies. We live in the most diverse society in the world, which ought to be seen as a source of pride instead of resentment. The success of the American enterprise depends on maintaining a working level of mutual respect. To be sure, voters elect representatives not to “get along” but to fight for their interests. Keeping the peace among those competing interests requires a degree of mutual accommodation.

The partisan exploitation of anti-gay initiatives has been pernicious because it seeks to deny common legal protections to a class of people; it substitutes fear and force for understanding. Choosing a more civil alternative requires renouncing neither one’s beliefs nor the use of force (police have their value); it simply requires the humility to accept that force has its limits, as the faith community should be the first to recognize. Stigmatizing our desires does not change them.

Those who decry the politics of personal destruction can show they are serious by not practicing it themselves. (This includes resisting the “outing” zealotry of activists like Mike Rogers at blogActive.) They can use religion to uplift rather than divide, and use Scripture as a guide to self-reflection instead of a bludgeon for attacking others. Because “going negative” can be so effective, cultivating the public hunger for a more inspiring politics will require toughness and resilience; but it can strengthen our country in the long run.

The man most American moralizers worship had a few things to say about hypocrites. Consider Luke 6:42: “How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the splinter that is in your eye,’ when you cannot see the plank in your own? Hypocrite!” Also consider Matthew 6:5-6: “And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward. But when you pray, go to your private room and, when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.”

If the self-righteous cannot hear this wisdom when they go to their own secret place and close the door, perhaps they are too busy tapping their feet. But do not be distracted by them; you have your own business to conduct.

Copyright © 2007 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.