The Politics of Morality

Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of our current political leaders is their willingness to lecture the rest of us on the importance of morality. Whether it is a self-righteous diatribe about a “culture of life” or an insistence on “abstinence-based” sex education, this fixation on our personal behaviors evidently consumes far more of their time and energy than trying to making health care affordable, or balancing the budget.


We’re beginning to see just how “moral” these people who’ve cornered the market on virtue really are.


I’m not talking about the morality of things like the war in Iraq, or efforts to deport all illegal aliens, or tax policies that line the pockets of campaign contributors at the expense of the most vulnerable, although those are undoubtedly appropriate topics of discussion. No, I’m talking about the garden-variety, “don’t lie, don’t steal” kinds of morality. How are the guys in charge doing on those homelier virtues?


In Congress, the Jack Abramoff scandal has put Republican Congressman Duke Cunningham in prison, and has led to the indictment of so-much-holier-than-thou Tom Delay. As many as twenty more lawmakers may be implicated before it’s all over. Bill (“Terri Schaivo looks fine”) Frist is under investigation for securities fraud.


In the Administration of our current moralist-in-chief, we have a bonanza: Scooter Libby has been indicted for felony obstruction of justice (and Karl Rove is still under investigation) in the Valerie Plame “outing.” Domestic policy advisor and self-proclaimed Christian conservative Claude Allen has been arrested for felony shoplifting. White House procurement officer David Safarian has been arrested for corruption. At Homeland Security, the agency created by the President to protect us all from the bad guys, not one but two high-ranking officials have been arrested—one for kiddie porn, and the other for trying to have sex with a 14-year-old he “met” over the internet.


These are the guys who have been lecturing us about godliness and morality!


Maybe these are just examples of age-old “do as I say not as I do” moral smugness. Or maybe these politicians are using religion and religious folks for cynical political advantage. (A recent study called “False Promises” accuses the GOP of deliberately using homophobia to win support from African-Americans; others have suggested that immigration fears are being used in 2006 in much the same way gays were used to mobilize the Republican base in 2004.) Whatever the explanation, the consequences for the country are nothing short of appalling.


These Republican leaders have used the language of morality to set American against American. The older rhetoric of “we the people” has been eclipsed by dark references to “them” and “us.” Now, as these favorites of the Religious Right turn out to be considerably less than godly, Americans are reacting by becoming more cynical. As GOP apologists claim “everybody does it,” many citizens assume that’s true. It isn’t—but the perception is profoundly corrosive of trust, and without trust, democratic government cannot endure.


It’s enough to give morality a bad name.