Moral Values

OK, Bush won. I don’t like it, but it’s a fact. He won with all the legitimacy his election lacked in 2000. But the way he won re-election scares me, even more than last time.

I can tolerate four more years of smirky George W. Bush in the White House. I can tolerate a foreign policy I consider dangerous, but which is rooted in a geopolitical vision that I can respect. And I can tolerate economic policies I consider ill-conceived and selfish, but which will benefit people like me in the short run.

What I can’t tolerate, as a religious person, is the notion that God took sides in this election.

The United States is still deeply divided, along exactly the same lines it was in 2000. But something has shifted. Bush won because of evangelicals and others who ranked “moral values” as their top concern. In an election this close, any number of small things could have affected the outcome. Yet targeting moral conservatives was the heart of Bush’s re-election strategy from Day 1, and it worked.

There is a sense of moral outrage in the South and Midwest, which Bush tapped into. Karl Rove didn’t manufacture it. His brilliance was in finding two complementary constituencies: traditional economic Republicans and cultural conservatives. For the first group, the “war on terror” and fears about basic physical security trumped doubts about the cultural direction of party. For the second group, “moral values” issues like gay marriage, abortion, and stem cell research trumped concerns about job losses and bad news from Iraq.

Now, all the talk is about how Bush will try to “widen the base” of the Republican party. Don’t bet on it. Pat Buchanan was right in proclaiming a culture war; he was just a decade too early and too careless in promoting his agenda publicly. The Bush administration knows how to use the hidden networks of churches and talk radio to narrowcast to a receptive audience, without spooking the majority of Americans. And that audience which put Bush in the White House will settle for nothing less than an agressive commitment to its agenda. There is simply no way Bush can nominate a Supreme Court justice who isn’t resolutely pro-life.

But enough about tactics and political battles to come. There are things Democrats can do better, and we should start working on them immediately. What’s harder to accept, and more frightening, is the reality that Bush and Rove unearthed. A great many Americans, enough to elect a President, feel passionately about a set of “moral values” that I find, frankly, immoral.

What is moral about consigning millions of people with debilitating diseases and injuries to death and misery, because an abstract belief about a few cells in a petri dish trumps our commitment to science?

What is moral about a legal memo authorizing torture of prisoners, and allowing unspeakable abuses to occur in a prison that we operate?

What is moral about barring two consenting adults who love one another and want to spend their lives together from formalizing their marriage?

What is moral about telling women they cannot make their own decision about whether to bring a child in to the world, and throwing doctors in jail for performing medical procedures?

What is moral about allowing the destruction of God’s great creation, our planet, through pollution and global warming?

What is moral about telling our children and our children’s children that they must bear the burden of our economic profligacy?

Sprituality is at the core of how I live and evaluate my life. So I can see why others who, like me, believe deeply in God, feel threatened by creeping moral relativism and a “cultural elite” dismissive of their faith. And yet I find the views many Americans express in the name of morality deeply alien. The God I pray to doesn’t have a party affiliation. What kind of country are we becoming?

In the last election, Catholic and other religious leaders were actively working to prevent the election of a practicing Catholic, John Kerry. Religious leaders were turning houses of worship into campaign headquarters. Yes, there are equivalent figures on the other side, like the despicable Al Sharpton, but they don’t exercise moral authority on anywhere near the same scale.

Now, let me be clear. I don’t see George W. Bush, or the Republican party, or evangelical Christians, as inherently immoral. The passion out there is honest and heartfelt. Religious people have as much right as any other American to participate in a political campaign. The problem is those who see Bush’s re-election as fundamentally a religious crusade.

The realm of morality is not the realm of politics. The separation of Church and State that the founders of America put into place is as good an idea today as it was 200 years ago. There are places in this world, places like Saudi Arabia and Iran, where religion is political, and we see the results. America isn’t close to becoming a theocracy, but I worry that an important barrier was breached in this election.

I’m firmly convinced that a majority of Americans prefer my moral viewpoint to the one which propelled Bush — just look at the California stem-cell initiative, national polls about abortion, and the fact that even Bush himself accepts civil unions for gays and lesbians. It all depends on how you frame the issues, but that’s the point — the majority is somewhere in the grey middle rather than the sharply-defined fringes. And yet it is this passionate minority which seems to be determining the future of the country.

I can see why someone might feel threatened by gay marriage, and I can see why someone who believes life begins at conception would see abortion as murder. I disagree with those views, and I would try to convince a person who held them that they were wrong. Yet I would never begrudge them their faith. All I ask is that they not begrudge me my country.