Quick Follow Up

I made mention below about liberals’ unwillingness, or maybe reluctance, to couch their arguments in explicitly moral language. And I want to revise and extend my remarks a bit here. I do not want to fall victim to what I’d like to term Amy Sullivanism, which is form of accepting the basic premise that liberals are haters of religion.

It should go without saying that most liberals are either religious themselves or religiously tolerant. The stereotype of militant atheists running the Democratic Party is beyond laughable. Yet, it still remains a very powerful myth, especially for those like Pat Buchanan and other nativists who believe they are losing their country.

With that said, I do believe that there is some reluctance among liberals to couch their policy arguments in explicitly religious rhetoric. I would argue that there are a couple of reasons for this phenomenon. First, the language of values/morals/religion has become so politically loaded over the past four decades. While the Religious Right and their conservative political benefactors have made religion a central tenet of their politics, the liberal reaction has been to argue more stridently for separation of church and state. A more potent tactic, perhaps, would have been for liberals to push for their own views of policy driven by religious/moral values. Instead of saying conservatives were wrong for commingling religion with politics, they should have been arguing why those policy ends were wrong and not in comport with their own particular view of religion or morality. (I’m no divinity scholar, but there are ample liberal moral arguments in the Bible and in Catholic social and economic justice thought.)

The other cause of this unwillingness to bring explicitly religious language to liberal politics is the liberal (and by liberal here I would add classical liberals as well) notion that morals do not flow exclusively, or even primarily, from religion. (I would place myself in this second camp.) There is a rich tradition in moral philosophy that holds little account for God. Even some religious moral philosophers (Kant, for example) still set their account of morality in reason, rather than the supernatural (Leibniz).

Leaving aside what is a philosophical (and I think interesting) argument about the nexus of morality, I would argue that liberals do make moralistic policy arguments all the time. What underlies calls for health care reform is not some abstract desire for socialism, but a genuine belief that a good society is one that endeavors to meet its members’ basic needs. Support for a progressive tax system is not driven by class warfare, but by a conviction that a just society ought to to tax its citizens based on ability to pay. Etc.

These policy positions all have explicitly moral underpinnings. That cannot be questioned. But you will not often hear them made as such. (Health care as a right is, obviously, more of a rights based argument than a moral one.)

It is imperative that liberals begin to couch their policy arguments in the language of morals. This is not to say that liberals ought to cover themselves in the cross, as many of the Right have done. But rather that they make their underlying moral values more apparent. Not only for the obvious political value, but for the larger democratic value of fostering a dialogue of ideas and visions.


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