In a recent post I used a graphic illustrating what I call six traditional Republican “vectors” of general directional agreement over time. Three of these have been virtually obliterated (the red X’s) from public party conversation in the four years of Trump. The bottom vector shown is my contention that pre-Trump Republicans had long put a high value on the “moral probity,” or “public-facing virtue” of its officeholders. It is hard to assert that today with a straight face.
Ever since Bill Clinton’s “escapades” before and during his presidency created the “porno for conservatives” Starr Report, Democrats have been on the defensive on the issue of public moral probity. This post is my attempt to chart a way to reclaim the literal “moral high ground” for public officeholders of either party. However, that exercise does require us first to consider the failings of traditional definitions of “public morality.”
Public faces and secret sins
Like many post-war Americans in the 1950s, my family-of-six spent many hours lined up in church pews with other large clans, sitting quietly in our Sunday best, the women wearing hats and the boys’ hair slicked down with Brylcreem. However, in conversations with childhood friends and relatives over the years since, I have come to realize that this 1950s moral probity covered up a lot of secrets. In that one small church were families silently struggling “behind the mask” with alcoholism, spousal/child abuse, drug abuse, tightly closeted homosexuality, teen pregnancy and other family dysfunctions. Some families would quietly disappear from the church after a “scandalous” divorce, with the male church elders tasked with “finding who was at fault.” All in the name of Jesus.
One traditional way out of the public exposure of “sin” has been what I call the “Jimmy Swaggart confession,” in honor of the televangelist’s famous 1988 on-air meltdown after his extramarital affair was uncovered. This seems to be a particularly American approach to failures of public morality that relies on the common “Saved Wretch” theology of human moral fraility sung about in “Amazing Grace” and other Christian hymns. We are all sinners, the theology goes, begging for forgiveness and an always-needed rescue from the throes of Hell. Up until 2016, most male politicians, especially Republicans, had used a variant of this approach when caught with their pants down.
But then came Donald Trump, who refused to perform that act of public contrition, and even bragged to church leaders that he never asked for forgiveness from God or from anyone else. What was the party and its “good Christian” base to do with a sinner who refuses to repent, and who indeed continues to openly flaunt every “sin” in the traditional list? 
Clearly, the religious Republican base has made an exception for Donald Trump. They have dug into the dustiest pages of their Bibles to come up with examples like the Persian King Cyrus, who rescued Israel from the Babylonian captivity, or Israel’s own King David, who once danced nearly naked in the streets.
Unfortunately, the Trump base acceptance of norm-breaking public behavior has escaped past the presidential exception and has bled into everyday society, even by professed Christians. The coronavirus crisis and recent shocking murders by police have produced numerous incidents caught on digital video of obnoxious and threatening behavior by publicly-religious politicians, anti-mask open-carry gun enthusiasts and others. And so, is there any basis remaining for restoring some kind of “public morality”? For starters, that fake 1950s-style public piety needs to go. It just does not play well in the Internet Age.
Morality must be based on reality
This simple phrase was a continuing theme of a Jesuit ethicist under whom I studied over 25 years ago. And this position frequently put him at odds with the local Catholic authorities when his views, sometimes at odds with Catholic tradition, landed in the local newspaper.
What this adage means is that some traditional “moral judgments” do not hold up well to modern understandings of science. Sexuality has been the most contentious example. We are all mixtures of hundreds of physical and behavioral characteristics influenced by our X and Y chromosomes, even before taking pre-natal and post-birth environmental influences under consideration. In each of us, we find that most of these characteristics, from physical height to sexual identity, will “fit within the statistical norm” either for “XX” people (women) or “XY” people (men).
But we each have some sex-related characteristics that are statistically “outside the norm.” Only some of these get singled out in any particular society as “deviant,” while other statistical deviations from the mean (ironically called exactly that by statisticians) bear no such taint. Religion has too often made “the middle of the curve” on sex-related characteristics a lazy equivalence for “moral behavior.” It is certainly possible to do bad things with our inherent sexuality. But natural and random differences in our genetics do not in themselves “make us bad,” as some religions have long preached.
It is also important to acknowledge that not all religion is anti-science. The best “moral norms” are those that use the most edifying religious and philosophical language from our various traditions to communicate the “reality of the world” as to as broad an audience as possible. Most people do not express their moral concerns in the language of science; instead they more often use the language of their religious tradition. Indeed, female ordained ministry, and more recently the open embrace of LGBTQ people, have given new life, diversity and mission in recent years to some denominations and religious congregations.
While religious conservatives often decry these moves as heretical, they are better seen more like the general Christian acceptance of consuming pork. At some point, some “sins” no longer make rational sense. When “the morality” strays too far from “the reality,” it ceases to be an effective governor of human behavior, and it just becomes a toy for theologians and a cudgel for preachers.
Science is not the enemy of religion, rather it is just the enemy of ignorance. And in this new world of an ever-present killer virus, ignorance currently commands from some mighty high places. In a “new moral probity,” reality needs to be front and center, and public displays of ignorance deserve pity, if not scorn for those who know better.
All people are of innate worth
Many nationalistic and race-preferenced theologies have for millennia interpreted this genetic diversity discussed above in ways that treat people of other races, sexes and cultures as “lesser in God’s eyes.” That religion-based bias is then often infused deeply into their civil societies. Again, the scientific reality is that genetic diversity is usually greater among any sub-classification of humans that we could define than it is between those sub-groups. Scientifically, we are one species.
The idea that all humans are “one people in God’s eyes” is also found in many religious traditions, including my own, although those scriptures have conveniently been ignored when necessary. Many secular cultural traditions also have words of inclusion, or at least “hospitality” toward others. I like the word medmennesker from my own Norwegian cultural heritage, which means “fellow humans.”
The Apostle Paul could be very inconsistent in the application of his own words, but he did write the iconic lines, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) I have written in the past of the traditional secular concept of the commonweal, the “public good” in which all human beings are included “at the table.” And yet, in practice, we usually fall short of that ideal. However, that ideal of the commonweal is another good basis for an identifiable public-facing morality, where the best of religion, cultural tradition, and the reality of genetics come together with an overlapping message: You and I are inextricably related and biologically equal.
Even though our own founding documents expressed this very concept, we have historically failed in its practice. “All men” in the Declaration of Independence obviously did not include Black men, and of course it did not even intend to extend that progressive ideal to women. We are all, in this regard, prisoners of our upbringing. Racism, homophobia and sexism taught to us since our birth cannot be magically wished away. But we can acknowledge that they are all wrong, and in religious terms sins, especially when practiced in the public square. Any “new moral probity” needs to honestly acknowledge our own failings as well as our earnest desire to make life in our society more just and fair.
Relationships based on mutuality
My mother had to leave home to work as a live-in domestic at the age of 14 during the depths of the Great Depression in the 1930s. She escaped that life because of World War II, when she and her sister managed a paint and wallpaper business in the absence of available men. But then, in 1947, she belatedly entered into a very conventional post-war marriage, as was the case in almost every other house on my block of tiny VA-subsidized bungalows, and in the families filling those pews at church.
Some of those marriages in my sphere of upbringing had, even through traditional spousal roles, a good balance of mutuality, with respect, fidelity and loyalty strengthening the family bonds. But I also learned over the years that, in many of those relationships, mutuality was sorely lacking. Most of the time, it was male dominance that quashed the dreams of mothers and daughters, although sometimes a matriarchy caused its own unique problems.
This is another area where many of us in my generation have had to spend a lifetime learning that our traditional rearing has often rendered us blind to the hopes and dreams of the family members closest to us. Mutuality in relationships is not about “perfect marriages,” rather it is the public acknowledgement that society and individuals can do much better in strengthening family bonds, even when those families do not “fit the mold.” This new moral probity is not so much about photogenic “traditional” families as it is about supporting social policies that enable the best potential for all family members.
While much print was generated concerning the “morality” of same sex marriages over the last two decades, we have more often “lost the thread” on the unavoidable legal complexities of cohabitation. As a friend liked to say, we need less emphasis on the “plumbing” of the marital partners and more emphasis on ensuring an ethic of mutuality in familial relationships, supported by a legal system where equal protection in cohabitation rights is front and center. Again, a pretty simple “public-facing morality”: Family relationships of all permutations must have community support, concern for all family members as individuals, and equal protection under the law for all in the household.
Acknowledging the power differential
Of all of the “red letter” words ascribed to Jesus of Nazareth in the Bible’s four gospels, the most compelling, and likely the ones that got him into trouble with the authorities, were his statements on power differentials. “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven,” he says. “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” in God’s Kingdom, he tells his followers. No wonder the powerful rulers had to do away with him. But it is a message that is not preached so much these days in the Trump-supporting “prosperity gospel” megachurches.
In today’s secular world, you need to add several zeros to the difference between the richest and the poorest of Jesus’ day, or indeed from just thirty years ago. Recent attempts to insure that people on the bottom half of the socioeconomic scale at least have equal voting rights have largely been trashed both by Congress and the Supreme Court.
In autocratic governments where secret police “proactively arrest” people from the streets in unmarked cars, differences in political power are intentionally exaggerated and exploited. In more civil societies and true democracies, by contrast, there is a public realization, an expressed moral probity, if you will, that a significant role of government is the protection of those without political and economic power, not their subjugation. In a true democracy, the concept of “one person, one vote” is applauded and championed by political leaders. In plutocracies, on the other hand, “one dollar, one vote” is the reigning ideology.
Back in November I reviewed an interesting new book by ethicist Todd May called A Decent Life: Morality for the Rest of Us. The author attempts, in this book, to simplify the complex traditions of public ethics. Public decency in politics, Todd May suggests, is the acknowledgement of a need to “inhabit a common space” in this world.
There is no doubt that this “common space” has been under siege in a spate of very public trashings of political enemies and social movements. Social media has become a cudgel that we wield against whoever crosses us. But when we are on the receiving end, we decry the same “cancel culture” that we are often ourselves guilty of.
It is no coincidence that the most glowing endorsements of Joe Biden as a presidential candidate feature his public life-long reputation “common decency.” That singular perceived trait has won him support even from many lifelong Republicans, who long for a public space in which political differences can be debated without the nastiness and meanness that are at the very heart of the Trump presidency. As many have noted in the debate about immigration, “cruelty is the message.”
Ah, you ask, is it also not “indecent” to criticize the President in this manner? In the early days of the internet, I moderated religious discussion website, where I learned that some people insist on “being at the table” for the very purpose of “spitting in your food.” The internet culture calls these people “trolls.” President Trump has been “trolling” the good people of the United States for years as a financial con artist, sexual abuser, and now abusive politician. The great, recently-deceased songwriter John Prine wrote a plea to common decency in the early 2000s that still rings true. Some people, he says, are just “the pigeons that s**t on your hood”:
Some humans ain’t human, some people ain’t kind;
They lie through their teeth, with their head up their behind.
You open up their hearts and here’s what you’ll find:
Some humans ain’t human, some people ain’t kind.
- Do we even need Trump examples of any of these? The traditional “seven deadly sins”: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride.
- The new religious Machiavellians
- Constantine, Putin, Trump and the co-opting of religion
- John Rawls and justice ethics
- Income inequality and the Rule of 72
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