The Role of Morality in a Pluralistic Democracy

As I mentioned previously, it was interesting to watch conservative Christians wrestle with the fact that the party they have been loyal to for years nominated Donald Trump to be president. A few, like Russell Moore, chose not to support him. But for the most part, both the leaders and their followers got behind one of the most immoral men who has ever run for president.

Those who actually struggled with that decision reached their conclusion based on one or both of the following:

  • The most important issue is abortion and Trump promised to appoint a pro-life justice to the Supreme Court.
  • God can use imperfect men to accomplish his will.

I’ve already discussed the moral challenges to only being pro-life when it comes to a fetus. But I know what some of my conservative Christian friends would say in response to my argument. Their position would be that they support the lives of gay teens, people with HIV and drug addicts. They just don’t see it as the government’s job to intervene – that should be left up to private individuals and the church. Except when paired with the dismal record of most churches on filling the void, that argument ceases to be about morals and becomes one about the pragmatism of politics.

On the other hand, I’ve been told that, contrary to what the Bible says and what Jesus taught, the only real work of Christians in the world today is evangelism. That’s because if people die before they are “born again,” they will spend eternity in hell. Rick Santorum even went so far as to suggest that there was something redemptive in suffering.

During a town hall meeting in Ottumwa, Iowa Friday afternoon, Rick Santorum argued that Americans receive too many government benefits and ought to “suffer” in the Christian tradition. If “you’re lower income, you can qualify for Medicaid, you can qualify for food stamps, you can qualify for housing assistance,” Santorum complained, before adding, “suffering is part of life and it’s not a bad thing, it is an essential thing in life.”

That kind of argument is almost always made by someone who doesn’t have to live without health care, food or a roof over their head – which makes it nothing more than the typical rationalization devoid of any moral standing for why conservatives deny support to those they deem unworthy.

But it is in that second rationalization for supporting Trump that conservative Christians abandon all claims to moral authority. If God can use a man as imperfect as Donald Trump, are there any moral underpinnings left on which to evaluate our leaders? It’s worth noting that many of these same people (see Franklin Graham) made the case against Barack Obama by denying his Christianity and claiming that he might be Muslim. In their eyes, God was obviously not able to use a man as imperfect as our 44th president. In truth, their differences with Obama were more about politics than the kind of morality they claim in supporting Trump.

These are the reasons I agree with John Stoehr when he writes that the choice these conservative Christians made robbed them of their moral authority.

It’s unclear whether Christian conservatives know the price they have paid. By going all-in with Trump, they have seriously undermined, perhaps bankrupted, their moral authority. The movement’s big wheels are scrambling to contain dissent bubbling up from their ranks, from young evangelicals appalled by the older generation’s attempts to rationalize Trump’s corruption, views of immigrants and his endless, breathless lying.

Stoehr suggests that this creates an opportunity for liberals.

Allowing the Christian right to crash on its own might seem like a victory for liberals, but it’s not. The Christian right could limp along for years if allowed to. Liberals need to recognize this moment as an opportunity. The right’s former moral authority must be supplanted by a new moral authority, one equally rooted in religion.

I agree that there is an opportunity for liberals to stake a claim to moral authority. That has long been a tradition in the African American community and leaders like Rev. William Barber (founder of the Moral Mondays Movement) are carrying forth in that tradition.

But I would also argue that liberals don’t necessarily need to follow in the footsteps of conservative Christians to root their moral authority in religion. Back in 2006 then Senator Barack Obama gave a speech in which he too encouraged liberals to join the conversation about morality and politics. He had this caution for Christians.

Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.

And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson’s, or Al Sharpton’s? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount – a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application?

While he affirmed the role of morality in politics, he went on to say this:

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

If we assume that morality is only the province of the religious (and particularly those of one religious faith), we exclude it from any role in a pluralistic democracy. That is a price we should never be willing to pay.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.