You can’t separate politics from morality

To me, the most interesting part of this Dahlia Lithwick article on the recent wave of left-of-center protests in North Carolina is this:

One of the first speakers of the morning opened with a booming, Southern, “Shabbat Shalom, y’all.” An imam spoke eloquently of civil rights. An astute 11-year-old friend observed that when so many religious leaders can agree so much about moral truths, “The speeches can be much shorter.” And when Barber spoke, he toggled almost imperceptibly between quoting the Constitution and the Bible. “Kicking hardworking people when they are down is not just bad policy. It is against the common good,” he preached, pleading, “Lord, Lord, plant our minds on higher ground.”

Progressives are not used to so much religion in their politics. I met someone who planned to avoid Saturday’s protest because of the God talk, and it’s clear that for many liberals, it’s easier to speak openly about one’s relationship with a sexual partner than a relationship with God or spirituality. But there are a lot of liberals who live on the seam between faith and politics. And one of the core messages of Moral Mondays is that ceding all talk of faith and morality to the political right in this country has been disastrous for the left. Or as Barber put it when he spoke, those who dismiss these protesters as “violent, and losers, and leftists, and socialists” fail to understand that the great prophets of the Bible and the founders of American constitutional democracy were “violent, and losers, and leftists, and socialists,” too.

As discomfiting as it may be to hear the Bible quoted alongside the Federalist Papers, the truth remains that for most people of most faiths, kicking the poorest and most vulnerable citizens when they are down is sinful. Stealing food and medical care from the weakest Americans is ethically corrupt. And the decades long political wisdom that only Republicans get to define sin and morality is not just tactically wrong for Democrats. It’s also just wrong. This is a lesson progressives are slowly learning from nuns and the new pope. When we talk of cutting food stamps or gutting education for our poorest citizens, we shouldn’t just call it greed. We should call it what it is: a sin.

Liberals have long been skittish about mixing politics and religion, and often with good reason. After all, one of the fundamental tenets of a liberal society is an embrace of religious pluralism. This has led many academic liberal theorists to take their cue from philosopher John Rawls’ admonition that a liberal society must be “neutral” between competing conceptions of the human good.

But the uncomfortable truth is that this is at odds with much of the history of progressive social movements. Arguably, the two most important movements for social justice in U.S. history–abolitionism and the Civil Rights movement–succeeded in no small part because they appealed to Americans’ religious sentiments. Lithwick’s article suggests that forging any broad-based political coalition in America still requires such an appeal.

Personally, I’m skeptical that any society can maintain a strict Rawlsian neutrality among conceptions of the good life.  Public policy will, I suspect, inevitably reflect prevalent views on what kinds of life are worth pursuing, which for many Americans includes a religious component. In the realm of real-world politics, refraining from taking a position on the good is likely to cede the public arena to the influence of wealth or naked self-interest. This constitutes a de facto endorsement of a certain vision of the good.

The question is whether we can affirm certain goods as worthy of public endorsement while maintaining our commitment to a reasonable form pluralism. I think we can, but I can also see why it might make some liberals uncomfortable.

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7 thoughts on “You can’t separate politics from morality”

  1. It’s interesting, in this context, to think about the Old Testament reading from this past Sunday’s lectionary:

    Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12)

    Thus says the high and lofty one
    who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
    Shout out, do not hold back!
    Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
    Announce to my people their rebellion,
    to the house of Jacob their sins.
    Yet day after day they seek me
    and delight to know my ways,
    as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
    and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
    they ask of me righteous judgments,
    they delight to draw near to God.
    “Why do we fast, but you do not see?
    Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
    Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
    and oppress all your workers.
    Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to strike with a wicked fist.
    Such fasting as you do today
    will not make your voice heard on high.
    Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day to humble oneself?
    Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
    and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
    Will you call this a fast,
    a day acceptable to the LORD?
    Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
    to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
    Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
    when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
    Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up quickly;
    your vindicator shall go before you,
    the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
    Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
    you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
    [If you remove the yoke from among you,
    the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
    if you offer your food to the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
    then your light shall rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be like the noonday.
    The LORD will guide you continually,
    and satisfy your needs in parched places,
    and make your bones strong;
    and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters never fail.
    Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
    you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to live in.]

    The more I hear in church on Sundays, the clearer this message becomes; you hear it in the Psalms constantly, and I’m very familiar with them But I wasn’t really aware that you find it literally everywhere.

    In fact, this kind of thing is actually what makes the God of Abraham attractive to me; if there’s a God, wouldn’t anybody hope for this one?

  2. OK, as a scholar who has done work on the political thought of the American founding, the idea that the founders were socialists is about as credible as that they were all African-American women.

      1. True. On my previous point: the Constitutional Convention was called largely because of worries about protecting private property.

    1. Well, Lee, it’s not that it is not “completely” historically accurate, it is that it is completely inaccurate! Again, it would be like they announced the US had been founded entirely by African-American women.

  3. Well, without the context of the full speech it’s impossible to be sure, but I took it to be a hyperbolic way of saying the prophets and the founders were on the side of the underdog, the downtrodden, etc. (Which is certainly only partially true, particularly in the latter case.)

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