Moral Authority: Walking the Walk versus Talking the Talk

One of the most schizoid aspects of Age of Reagan was the peculiar division of labor that developed between conservatives and progressives over the question of morality.

Somewhere on the road between 1980 and 1994, the conservatives seized and locked down exclusive U.S. franchise rights on talking the moral talk—and proceeded to wring every possible advantage out of their monopoly. Day in and day out, they’d wind up and held forth as long as you could want (and often, long beyond that) on any and all subjects, including many topics they didn’t have a clue about and even more that were none of their damned business in the first place.

Over the decades, we were lectured at length about family values, the sacred rights of individuals, the evils of collectivism, the alleged Christian origins of the nation, and the importance of moral clarity in foreign policy. We were hectored constantly about who we were sleeping with, in what position, for what purpose, and with which accessories. We heard a lot of high-minded Calvinist sermonizing on personal responsibility, the divine right of the aristocracy, the benevolence of corporations, and the God-given freedom to put profit before life, liberty, community, sustainability, or any other human concern. We were assured that America had the moral edge on everybody else on the planet, especially Commies and A-rabs who made the mistake of worshiping no God, or the wrong one—but were also cautioned that we could only hang onto that edge if we put women back in the kitchen and prayer back in the schools, pronto. For three decades, any time you put anybody from anywhere on the right wing in front of a microphone, a screed on American morals would follow more surely (and often, with more mindless force) than tornadoes in Texas.

They did it because it worked for them. The fact is: most voters like this kind of talk. They like hearing about values and visions. They like being told where their candidate has staked his or her moral core. They like knowing that their leaders have strong convictions, and aren’t afraid to state them boldly. In an era when image almost always won out over substance, strong moral talk that drew clear lines between Eternal Right and Irredeemable Wrong was taken as an adequate facsimile of actual moral strength. For a long time, that image sufficed well enough that nobody ever bothered to ask them to stop making speeches about morality, and do something—just once—that showed some actual moral fortitude.

But by and by, a funny thing happened: The louder they talked the talk, the more Americans began to notice that conservatives weren’t walking the walk. (Who walks, when there are limousines and private jets lined up at your feet?) The thick fog of moral bluster occasionally parted just long enough for folks to see the loudest of the public scolds coming out of motel rooms with prostitutes, sneaking off with mistresses, paying off rentboys, and taking bribes. Self-righteous posturing about personal responsibility only went so far when disaster struck, and these moral giants started pointing fingers instead of sending help. Those aristocrats are looking a whole lot less benevolent now that they’re diverting taxpayer bailout money into personal bonus checks. And the family values talk rings damned hollow when families can’t afford college, retirement, or health care—and the spacious concrete roof over their heads also doubles as a freeway overpass.

The progressives were left with the opposite end of the deal—still walking the walk, but told to shut up any time they tried to talk the talk. The caterwauling from the conservatives effectively cut us out of the moral conversation as the American progressive legacy faded from the culture. Even so, a lot of us slogged on anyway, driven forward by internal ethical codes that we were often forced to compromise, but never really let go of. Outshouted and apparently outnumbered, we raised our children, pursued our careers, donated and volunteered, blogged and canvassed, and tried to uphold our deepest principles as best we could under absolutely wretched circumstances.

We did eventually learn to murmur, carefully couching our ideas in conservative-friendly language—much as I’d stick a dog pill into a chunk of liver, hoping to trick the dog into swallowing it whole. The cons had ways of punishing uppity progressives who dared to openly assert the essential Enlightenment truths and imperatives that animate our movement and undergird our politics—human dignity, the common good, justice, equality, the interconnectedness of life on earth—or who weren’t afraid to confront conservatives with the contradictions inherent in their unholy “ethics” and call them to a higher and more humane standard.

Rather than endure the humiliation, we voluntarily tailored our language to the realities of the era, justifying our proposals in the bottom-line terms conservatives wanted to hear. A “good” idea would deliver a tax cut, or make people less dependent on the government, or enhance the role of faith-based organizations, or rig a payoff to a military contractor. If we didn’t sell it this way, we figured, no idea coming from the left would never see the light of day. Bill Clinton was the master of this kind of liver-bait language, which had the corrosive effect of surrendering the entire moral landscape of the country to the conservatives without so much as a hint of a challenge.

But the times have changed, and there’s no good reason for us to keep our values off the table any more. The Democrats run the show in Washington. Progressives are building some real political muscle. We’re walking our walk with a new swing and swagger. It’s time to take off the duct tape, reclaim our moral voices, and start talking our talk, too. The conservatives have moralized at us for three straight decades, and it’s time for the country to get a piece of our minds (and hearts) for a change.

Of course it’s important (perhaps even more important, now) to demonstrate that our policies are financially, scientifically, and socially sound; that they’re effective at actually solving the problems they’re aimed at; and that they increase our collective security, freedom, and well-being. But we also need to make the case that our ideas are good because they’re based on deeper moral principles that guide our vision of what America should be. In the progressive universe, we have our own ideas about what constitutes Eternal Right and Irredeemable Wrong. And it’s time for us to start telling America where we draw that bright line.

I’ve been thinking about this since Pope Benedict XVI released his new encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Love in Truth) a couple weeks ago. It’s obvious he wrote it because he figured that humanity needed a sharp reminder of what we owe each other, and how closely both our well-being and our very survival are intertwined. Yeah, there’s the usual retrograde stuff in there about the evils of abortion, contraception, assisted suicide for the terminally ill, and homosexuality. (He’s the Pope, after all.) But if you cruise over that, most of the rest of the letter is a tour-de-force of what a passionate, unequivocal, unapologetic progressive moral argument sounds like. You don’t have to be Catholic—or even a believer—to find some inspiration in his words, along with a potent example of how we need to be explaining ourselves to the world.

The pontiff kicks off the meat of his letter by unequivocally smacking down the conservative conceit that “there is no such thing as society” (Margaret Thatcher), and the hubris of the notion the common good is a dangerous fantasy promoted by people who can’t make it on their own. Not only is there such a thing as the common good, the Pope asserts; that shared interest is in fact the very center point from which all authentic Christian morality proceeds. Our task as human beings is to live in community with each other, and care for each other. This, he argues, is what gives meaning and grace to human existence. Losing sight of that central truth leads one into moral error, if not outright sin.

At the same time, he notes, there’s a dignity in the individual soul that’s also sacred. All people have an inborn urge to “be more”—to develop their potential, and make a full contribution to the world. Enabling every human in the world to fulfill that potential—through education, economic opportunity, equality, justice, access to the means of survival, and political action—is also core moral value. Furthermore, individuals and communities depend on the health of the planet as a whole; and sustaining the earth’s fecundity for future generations is a foundational moral imperative as well.

Much of the rest of the letter goes into the ways current global economic and political arrangements derail attempts to foster the common good, thwart the development of individuals, and damage the future of the planet. He asserts the duty of governments to redistribute wealth, ensure equality and justice, and open up opportunities for people to grow. He directs the people of the world—especially the wealthy—to ease off on the talk of “rights,” and start considering the duties and responsibilities that go with prosperity. He points out that our environmental problems are, at their core, moral problems; and that we won’t solve them without soberly re-evaluating our relationship to God’s creation.

The letter is a long read—I spent an hour and a half on it—but, like the speeches of FDR and Martin Luther King, Pope Benedict’s treatise on the moral roots of our current political and economic failures is an instructive education on what an uncompromised, fearless progressive moral voice sounds like. It’s been a long time since we’ve heard a world leader of any kind talk that way, and it’s worth a read just for that alone.

The lesson American progressives should take from the Pope’s latest missive is that we can rightfully foreclose on the right wing’s bankrupt claim to the country’s moral franchise—and shouldn’t hesitate to step right up and do just that. If we can talk that kind of talk while we keep walking our walk, there is no challenge on the planet that will be beyond our reach.

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