Column #179. First published in the St. Cloud Times online June 3, 2022; in print June 5
Buffalo. Uvalde. The logic of replacement theory and Second Amendment extremism leads to genocide and child sacrifice. These are dark times for America – horrifying, embarrassing, humiliating.
A recent questionnaire asked: “Are you depressed? None of the time? Some? All?” Depression isn’t my thing. But now? “All of the time. How otherwise?”
I’m hopeful, at least “some of the time.”
If I did bumper stickers, “Christian by choice, Democrat by the grace of God” would be one of them. Glib, yes, but a clue to my identity and key to my hopefulness.
I sometimes take cues from David Brooks of the New York Times. Since the rise of Trump, he has been trying to rescue his beloved conservatism from its extremists – authoritarians, racists, Christian nationalists, a lethal crew who didn’t invent the tendencies but have given them voice and fashioned economic and political systems that are devoid of productive and moral power. In a recent (May 19) long essay, “How Democrats can win the morality wars,” he sets our current national dysfunction in a context that’s partly right but fundamentally incomplete.
Brooks, characteristically nuanced (lots of wiggle room in 2,879 words!), nonetheless sets up a stark polarity. “The culture wars … are a tension between two legitimate moral traditions” that profoundly shape us: “moral ecologies we are raised within or choose, systems of thought and feeling that go back centuries.”
Brooks bases what he calls conservatism in the moral tradition of “you are not your own,” and says it’s the “moral ecology” in which Republicans are raised. Basic to this tradition is the belief that “individuals are embedded in a larger and pre-existing moral order in which there is objective moral truth.” For many, “the ultimate source of authority is God’s truth, as revealed in scripture. For others, the ultimate moral authority is the community and its traditions.” At its root, “this moral tradition has a loftier vision of perfect good, but it takes a dimmer view of human nature: Left to their own devices, people will tend to be selfish and shortsighted.”
Obedience, dependence, deference, supplication, limits imposed by God’s commandments – these must be emphasized in the “you are not your own” moral universe. Brooks realizes the dangers, such as “rigid moral codes that people with power use to justify their systems of oppression.”
The other tradition he calls “moral freedom,” which he attributes to liberals/progressives and, by extension, Democrats. “Individual conscience” is the decider, and “it is wrong to try to impose your morality or your religious faith on others.” He acknowledges benefits – fewer repressions, less discrimination – but he omits fundamental liberal values and assumes that this tradition offers no shared moral order.
Then he paints this picture: “The left has generally won the identity wars but lost the cosmology wars. … Many Americans don’t quite trust Democrats to tend the moral fabric that binds us all together.”
But Brooks misconstrues liberalism and the “cosmology wars.”
He needs to know that we Democrats are guided by the words of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, who was in the tradition of Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale: “We all do better when we all do better.” This is a pretty good variation on “you are not your own.” It is in fact “a moral fabric that binds us all together” – a healthy “shared moral order.”
To be fulfilled in life is a good thing, and we need to be free to do that. But we do not have much freedom without opportunity and prosperity for all, so we value those. We want to be treated fairly and equitably by others, so these need to be our standards. We live in a community that will affect how well we live, so community building and service to community are important principles.
These are not top-down values imposed by those with a “lofty vision of perfect good” on selfish humans. We realize that we truly do need one another, and it is in our solidarity and common good that hope and healing lie. Many of us Democrats believe that we are made in the image of God; it follows that moral freedom is not a vice but a necessity. It is a shared moral order that makes room for all of us.
Brooks gives God to the conservatives. He is wrong. He comes perilously close to echoing a remark made to Amy Klobuchar, then Hennepin County attorney, when she attended a National Day of Prayer breakfast in Plymouth in 2004: “I didn’t know any Democrats are Christian.”
When there is so much to be depressed about, Democrats, including those who are Christian and who hear God saying, “Behold, I am doing a new thing,” are hopeful. Our cosmology can help heal the nation. We need to step up now.
[Note: The Times URL (https://www.sctimes.com/story/opinion/2022/06/03/no-political-party-can-lay-claim-moral-order/7500411001/) reflects the grossly misleading headline originally assigned to the column; fortunately, the Times was willing to change the headline; unfortunately, the URL is irreformable.]