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Political Morality is a Greater Good Than Personal Morality
For former Vice President Mike Pence, there is no difference between personal morality and political morality. His recent message to the Faith and Freedom Coalition national conference was clear.
“Let me say from my heart, the cause of life is the calling of our time. And we must not rest and must not relent until we restore the sanctity of life to the center of American law in every state in this country.”
There is a difference, however. .
Personal morality has to do with private actions that primarily affect one’s own self. It is the realm where persuasion, not the law, is the appropriate means if one wants to make others change their behavior.
Political morality, as opposed to personal morality has to do with how we treat other people. The actions we take that affect others in material ways beyond just offending their personal beliefs. Law is the appropriate means for setting boundaries. Politics is how we go about deciding where those boundaries should be.
The divide between private and public, between personal morality and political morality, is hazy, can be disputed and difficult to apply in specific cases. The basic difference, however, holds.
The current cultural, political, religious conflict that takes up so much of our attention and energy is about erasing the difference between the personal and the political. It is a fight to incorporate personal morality into law, force others to comply, and limit their freedom to follow their own moral beliefs in their private lives.
Abortion and gender identity are the central issues.
Making the debate more intense is the belief that the morality I want enforced is not just a morality I believe in, it is a morality that reflects God’s will and the community will be better off if those morals are enforced.
At the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference, the political speakers, Republicans all, differed from each other only in how far they would go in making religious based personal morality enforceable by law.
The rhetoric made clear they are not just engaged in a political campaign to change the law. They are engaged in a crusade to bring the nation back to God. To obeying God’s commandments. To defeating Evil.
“This nation is at war. We need a warrior (to lead us)” brought some of the loudest cheers.
Trump stoked the animosity. It is Us against Them. “Together, we’re warriors in a righteous crusade to stop the arsonists, the atheists, globalists and the Marxists.” Portraying himself as the chief target of the enemy, he called his criminal indictments a “great badge of courage”. Borrowing the metaphor of Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross, he claimed, “I am being indicted for you.”
As many as 20 states have passed laws affecting the activities of transgender individuals and their families. The decisions they can make, the medical treatment they can receive, even the bathrooms they can use. States have also passed laws limiting the courses that can be taught and the books that can be read.
This is where the attempt to turn personal morality into political morality has always ended. In conflict and suppression. Force always becomes necessary. We see the end state most clearly in those countries where there is no difference between religious precept and civil law.
In contrast, politics has to do with building community. Making it possible for all of us with our different histories, our different values, to live together in relative peace.
Political moral values, the political values we strive for, are the qualities that make community possible. Liberty, equality, justice, security and stability. Qualities that allow all of us in our own ways to pursue our own personal happiness.
We all participate in and share those political values. Because they are shared, they are contested. We want more for ourselves. Politics has always been a contest over who’s liberty, what justice, how equal. Political parties differ. Laws draw the line. The character of community changes as our politics change.
Political morality takes precedence over personal morality because it is a greater good. We can follow our own personal morality only when we live in a community where liberty, equality and justice are valued.
When personal morality takes precedence, when personal morality is imposed on the community, liberty is diminished, some become more equal than others, harmony is destroyed. Community becomes impossible.
We have difficulty separating what is right for me from what is right for everybody. Although it might go against our natural inclination, there is no inherent inconsistency in holding a moral standard to be appropriate to govern one’s own actions but not appropriate to making laws, requiring all to follow.
Catholic Democrats, in particular, who support legal abortion are pressured, accused of abandoning their faith or being without moral courage. “Either you stand for what you believe in or you don’t.”
There are quieter voices than the crusading militants that call for a closer connection between politics and a moral world view. An Anglican priest writing in the New York Times expresses what for her is a desire for something better.
“I already know that I won’t feel represented by the platforms of either party. I know I’ll feel politically estranged and frustrated. People like me … don’t have a clear political home ... A whole life ethic is often antiwar, anti-abortion, anti-death penalty, anti-euthanasia and pro-gun control ... I find it strange that a view that is respected by so many religious bodies and individuals is virtually absent from our political discourse and voting options.
“Maybe there needs to be a new moral vision that offers consistency in ways that might pull from both progressive and conservative camps … people committed to a consistent ethic of life might actually feel as if they have at least a modicum of — a possibility of — representation ... Those of us who feel morally alienated from both parties must speak up and offer hope for a different sort of politics in America.”
Even though the rhetoric is quieter, the essential question doesn’t change. What moral vision? Whose moral vision? There is considerable controversy from different directions over each part of the “whole life ethic”. Once you bring personal morality into politics you have started to substitute coercion for persuasion. Party platforms have to do with what the Party would make law if elected.
Our natural inclination is to think that what we think is good, is good for everyone. “There ought to be a law.” We contest and divide. When we win, we want to keep winning. Then there is the backlash.
The greater good, the essential purpose of politics, is the creation of community where each can follow their own good, making it possible to live in relative peace with each other.