What's the Moral High Ground in Today's Politics?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because morality is at the heart of how a nation sees itself.
By Nick Fouriezos
As Robert P. Jones watched recent debates unfold, the director of the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute was struck by how much the discourse had changed in just over a dozen years. From World War I to the Iraqi War, the United States went to great lengths to argue why military action was necessary to stave off evil across the globe. Politicians and philosophers alike agonized over moral quandaries such as what constitutes a fair and equal response, how do you maintain the high ground over terrorists without scruples and, most important, what allows America to continue viewing itself as a good nation?
Today: “That stuff is just out the window,” Jones says. Recently, Ted Cruz described plans to indiscriminately bomb Syria. “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark,” he told Iowa supporters, “but we’re going to find out.” And Donald J. Trump defended his proposal to kill families of ISIS members if necessary, saying: “So they can kill us, but we can’t kill them?” Now the Republican Party is in the awkward position of having staked out a moral high ground in stump speeches and campaign slogans, yet having its two leading candidates become the most vocal members of the militant right. “The conversation about biblical values and the conversation about the use of violence,” Jones says, “has become completely separate.”
Why? For one, fear, not ideology, drives the modern political discourse. Emory political scientists Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster published a report in November showing that voters feel roughly the same about their own parties as they did three decades ago. The major difference: They dislike the other party much, much more. The Pew Research Center reported that 27 percent of Democrats believed Republicans were a threat to the nation’s well-being in 2014, while 36 percent of Republicans said the same about Democrats. This is true for domestic politics, but it also applies to foreign policy: For voters today, it’s much easier to jettison an ideological view — in this case, that war must be just — for a fear-driven one, where we must do whatever it takes to eradicate the enemy. “This is all part of the polarization,” Abramowitz says. “There is a strain of nativism — that they are different, that they are not like us.”
Republican figureheads have cited the Bible on social issues yet have taken a pass when it comes to foreign ones.
This hasn’t always been the case. In the weeks after the attacks of 9/11, President George W. Bush consulted a handful of scholars and religious leaders and received public support from University of Chicago ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain, an expert in just-war theory. It’s a doctrine found in most religions: in Islam (throughout the Qur’an), Hinduism (from the dharma-yuddha, or doctrine of “righteous warfare”) and Catholicism (in the writings of St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas). These theories coalesce around the idea that a moral war must be used only as a last resort, have a just cause and have clear limits. As The New York Times put it in Elshtain’s obituary: “The notion became central to the Bush administration’s justification of the war in Iraq as in large part a humanitarian project to free the Iraqi people from a tyrant.” Compassionate conservatism, as Bush called it, influenced other aspects of foreign policy, such as the decision to spend millions of dollars fighting AIDS in Africa.
More recently, Republican figureheads have cited the Bible on social issues yet have taken a pass when it comes to foreign ones. The tension between the application of faith at home and abroad is nowhere more evident than with Cruz. The former Bush adviser has had no trouble proving his faith-filled creds, having earned endorsements from pastors in each of Iowa’s 99 counties and in a poll about how many believe he’s guided by Christian values in opposing abortion and gay marriage. He also often touts his belief in “biblical marriage” and wants to protect life “from conception,” citing Pope Francis.
To be sure, some conservatives, including Jeb Bush and Rand Paul, have decried the stances taken by Trump and Cruz, whose campaigns wouldn’t comment. “Trump is wrong,” retired Major Gen. Robert F. Dees, the national security adviser to Ben Carson, told OZY. “That’s not who we are as Americans.” And some prominent Christian leaders have criticized Cruz’s blanket ban on Syrian refugees and said America should take in migrants.
But rank-and-file evangelicals remain less convinced, and when combined with violent views toward warfare, some Republicans are concerned. “We have to be true to ourselves as a nation, which means we need a moral justification for what we do,” says David McIntosh, an evangelical Christian whose Club for Growth PAC has endorsed Cruz in past elections, but is a vocal opponent to Trump.
Perhaps in the oddest twist of all, the issue of how to deal with ISIS and refugees presents an opportunity for Democrats to claim a biblical base. In a September speech at Liberty University, an evangelical college, Bernie Sanders quoted Matthew 7:12 (“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you”) and has said that he wouldn’t turn his back on refugees. Hillary Clinton, who has argued against carpet bombing and denying migrants, cites her Methodist faith as a major influence in her views toward aiding the neediest in society. Abramowitz says he isn’t sure if Democrats would refer explicitly to the Bible, “but you’ve already seen some attempt to appeal to this aspect of the Christian message of brotherhood.”