As a ‘life’-long liberal / progressive (I mean, as long as I have had a political conscience), I have always believed that the Republicans couldn’t win in a fair fight. I’m not alone in this: most liberals believe that the Republicans rely on trickery, low voter turnout, apathy, disenfranchisement of minorities and the Supreme Court to win elections and maintain their grip on power. If only, we’d all say, if only we could get the youth to turn out, or get the African-American community to the polls, then we’d dominate American politics.
Well, it’s false. We know that now.
The mainstream liberal wisdom seems to be that Democrats need to embrace ‘moral values’, and return to rhetoric highlighting social and economic justice as moral imperatives. Robert Reich (on ATC last night) and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post (today’s column) have made just that claim. I say bullshit. The phrase ‘moral values’ is clearly a euphemism of anti-gay hate and anti-abortion single-issue voting.
In case you doubt my characterization, consider the ‘moral values’ that are not included in the republican calculus: lying, cheating, loyalty (outing a CIA agent), rushing to war, failing to plan for peace, protecting the citizens caught in the chaos after invasion, the death penalty, the lack of adequate healthcare, tax cuts for the wealthy, reduction in social services, the paternalistic approach to women’s ability to make their own moral decisions, proportionate punishment for drug offenders… The list goes on and on. Make no mistake about it: the term ‘Moral values’ refers to what we do in our bedrooms and nothing else.
Moreover, we must face the fact that a majority of American people - in what must be considered the fairest of fights - want the government involved in what we do in our bedrooms. The left will get nowhere pointing out that ‘moral values’ includes the progressive agenda, nor will they get anywhere pointing out the immorality of making moral decisions for others.
To try to convert the evangelicals into leftist thinking (as Reich and Dionne advocate) simply won’t work. Evangelical culture, while it is diverse, shares one common thread: a commitment to the literal interpretation of the Bible. And that commitment entails two things: (1) all evidence can be denied if it contradicts the Bible and (2) all morality flows from the bible. The second of these, in turn, entails that (3) individuals have no right to make moral decisions on their own.
People, according to evangelicals, are not autonomous moral agents. The only autonomous moral agent is Jesus. When faced with a moral dilemma, the rest of us need only ask ‘what would Jesus do?’ to decide the whether a particular action is permissible, obligatory or impermissible. This is, as you might expect, why they believe women incapable of making their own moral choices - they believe all humans incapable of choosing morally. Thus, to argue with an evangelical about whether an action is permissible or impermissible is to argue with a squirrel about whether a nut is a seed or a vegetable - not only is there no possible evidence you can present that will change their minds, but they are, themselves, incapable of classifying actions according to that schema. They believe themselves morally impotent.
Again, if you doubt my characterization, consider what happens when Evangelicals get caught acting immorally. When Jim Baker cheated on Tammy Fay, it was the Devil’s fault. Blaming one’s sins on either the tempter (more often, the temptress) or the Devil absolves oneself from the responsibility entailed by one’s actions. And if one is not responsible for actions, neither praise nor blame can be attributed. Pat Robertson recently said that it doesn’t matter what Bush does - God will bless him either way. And notice that all those athletes who ‘give God the glory’ after a victory do so precisely because they believe that they deserve no credit for their performance - they have no responsibility for the victory. If they want to take credit for a victory, they would have to take the blame for sinning. The don’t want the latter, so they can’t have the former. Evangelicals just don’t believe that they have moral agency.
We liberals and progressives must not get sucked into debates about the permissibility or impermissibility of actions. It is a fruitless enterprise. We should be fighting against the idea of moral impotence itself. We should be fighting to ensure all people’s - especially women’s - status as autonomous moral persons. And we must insist that people take responsibility for their actions throughout society - whether it be Kenneth Lay or President Bush, if you want credit for building a company or winning a war, you must take responsibility for destroying pension plans or killing 100K Iraqis. Not your company, or God, or your advisors. You. Personally.