The Moral Imperative in Politics

This morning, Mark Galli posted a provocative essay on the Christianity Today website about the use--more accurately, the overuse--of words of morality in political discourse by both the right and the left. Here is just a snippet from a very thoughtful essay. After describing two examples of the use of appeals to moral imperative by liberals, Galli then appeals to his largely conservative evangelical audience:

That day, the morality card was mostly played by liberals, but on other days, it's conservatives who pull it out to intimidate the opposition or to cajole allies into line. It is practiced within parties, across parties, and across nations.

Christian activists, as we might expect, often pull this card out of their tunics, especially when they get in a prophetic mood. They are getting in this mood more and more lately, making everything and anything a great moral issue. The budget has become a "moral document" to some, as the Federal Marriage Amendment is to others. For many Christian activists, Left and Right, moral posturing has become politics as usual.

This is surprising considering how biblical teaching runs in precisely the opposite direction. For the Christian, moral discourse begins by focusing not on the sins of the other but on one's own failures. "O God, be merciful to me, a sinner." It is the publican's humble prayer that is accepted by God, and it is the Pharisee—who is confident of his morality and the other's immorality—who is condemned. Moral discourse begins, as Jesus said, by taking the log out of our own eye.

. . .

A Christian account of the world, though, goes even deeper. For the politician, immorality is "redeemed" by public condemnation and by distancing oneself from the immoral. The disciple of Jesus, however, embraces the immoral and opens the door of redemption by that very embrace.

. . .

How Christian activists combine public moral pronouncements with personal humility—well, that's something with which they are called to wrestle. To be sure, some historical moments demand the moral imperative. Martin Luther King Jr. used it magnificently in the civil rights movement. But for him, it wasn't so much a political tactic as it was the plain truth. Our problem today is that we pull out the moral imperative card so often, we risk taking the Lord's name in vain.

Read it all.

Galli raises a very interesting point. Christian activists on both the left and the right do use the moral imperative card so often that it is both losing its currency and taking the Lord's name in vain. And perhaps more to the point, it is corrosive to the political dialogue on tough issues. All meaningful discussions ceases once the moral imperative card is laid on the table.

And this is true of the small "p" politics now being played out within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Community on the issues of sexuality. One need only read the comment chain on websites such as Titus One Nine to see that the dialogue sometimes (but not always) quickly degenerates to name calling ("homophobe" versus "pagan") and statements of moral absolutes (justice versus scriptural certitude).

As Galli concedes, there are indeed moral imperatives in public life, and we need not shy away from saying so. But I also agree that in both our national political life and our church political life, we should do a little more listening, and a lot more soul searching, before we proclaim that our side of an issue is compelled by a moral imperative.


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