Monday, May 12, 2008

The Moral Minority

Some years back, we listened as Father Ron (all pseudonyms today) ripped bloody chunks of rhetorical meat from the flank of his erstwhile seminary classmate and supposed friend, Father Ben.  It was a strikingly vicious display, for which we sincerely hope he has since done harsh penance.

And what provoked this verbal rampage?  Ron had just learned that Ben was a registered Democrat.  To Ron, this was utterly unacceptable for a Christian, because in his mind the GOP had a lock on matters of morality.  He went on at considerable length, and volume, about the "godless Democrats," a phrase that left Ben sputtering with frustration.

Both men were Boomers, and Ron was a convert from Presbyterianism who retained a certain legalistic habitude.  For him, morality, at least in public affairs, consisted more or less entirely of where one stood on the question of abortion.  Other issues held little interest for him.  He did not consider the size or cost of government to have a moral dimension, nor did he care about them as practical matters.  He didn't like poverty, but didn't seem to think that the government had any particular responsibility to address the problem.  War and peace were gray areas at best, as well as being matters on which he was stunningly stupid:  in the spring of 2002, he assured us privately that the members of his Pennsylvania parish had already forgotten 9/11, and that "the war" -- meaning Afghanistan -- "is already winding down."

But abortion -- !  Well, that was a different matter.  It was, to Father Ron, the sole difference of any importance between the two major parties, or between any two candidates for office.  And where all those other matters -- wealth and poverty, war and peace -- were complex and debatable policy questions, this one was in his mind a stark matter of good and evil.  One side was holy, and the other was godless.

This was a Manichaean view of the world popular among many Boomers.  For a generation of voters, especially people now in their 50s and especially those with strong religious commitments, abortion competed with and finally replaced the battle against Communism as the ultimate issue.  It was the wedge used by Richard Mellon Scaife and his army of mercenary ministers to pry religious voters, and especially Roman Catholics, away from their traditional allegiance to the Democratic Party.  It was the cement which held the Republican coalition together.  People who didn't agree about trade or fiscal policy, about military matters or racial issues or even personal morality, could all make common cause against what some called the right to choose, but they called the slaughter of the innocents.  

They have experimented with other issues -- opposition to the rights of women and gay people, for example -- but none of those has ever struck the same nerve. 

We mention all this because of yet another article on the young evangelical Christians who are beginning to desert the Republican Party.  (Click the link, and read the last line for a chuckle).  They aren't liberals, and they aren't signing up with the Dems, at least in any large numbers.  But they are ticked off at the Party of God and its agents for launching a freakishly unjust war, and then fighting it badly; for disregarding the God-given rights of all human beings not to be tortured; for disingenuously mocking those who warned that the rape of the planet might have serious consequences; for filling political government posts with adulterers and gay-baiting closet cases; for encouraging fear and rage against the immigrants who drive our economy, and for whom our freedoms are often the last, best hope.

In other words, they are still eager to vote based on moral issues -- but they recognize, at last, that there are a lot of moral issues to think about.

No mistake:  this is not some new hope for the wheezing Democratic Party.  This is new hope for American democracy.

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