Actual Moral Decision Making on Political Compromises


I’ve been thinking about the moral questions raised by the candidacy of GOP senatorial candidate from Alabama, Roy Moore, who seems to have had an unsavory attraction to teenage girls some years ago.  He isn’t but so relevant to policies in Rhode Island, but the questions that he raises are.

Peggy Noonan phrased the matter well, quoting Sohrab Ahmari of Commentary magazine in her own Wall Street Journal column, roping President Trump into it as follows:

Putting conservative judges on the federal bench “is not the only path to political success in America.” Mr. Trump picked Neil Gorsuch, to his credit. But any of the 2016 GOP contenders would have picked someone similar. We look to our leaders not only to enact policies but “to represent our nation on the global stage with the dignity that their offices demand.” American exceptionalism takes a hit every time the president demeans someone on Twitter; the Senate will be harmed if Mr. Moore is seated.

“Idolatry of class, nation, race and leader is a constant temptation for people of faith, and too many are succumbing to it today,” Mr. Ahmari writes. Supporters of Messrs. Trump and Moore are deeply and understandably pessimistic: “Many fear that under secularism’s relentless onslaught, Judeo-Christianity will be banished,” in time, from the public square. “I feel similar angst.”

But in our time “the Christian idea bested Soviet Communism, an ideology that was far more hostile to religious faith than America’s Enlightenment liberalism has ever been.” In America, Christians have “the First Amendment and freedom of conscience.” And there are other reasons for optimism. The sexual abuse scandals themselves suggest liberals may be rethinking “some aspects of the sexual revolution.”

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Two quick responses before addressing the deeper problem:

  • Perhaps any (or at least most) of the 2016 GOP presidential contenders would have picked Neil Gorsuch, but the thing is:  They didn’t make it to the general election.  Many of us didn’t want the choice to be Trump-Clinton, just as many Alabamans didn’t want the choice to be Moore-Jones, but that became the choice on the table.
  • We can’t deny that the victory of Western, Christian ideals over communism involved its share of difficult, questionable compromises in ways large and small, from working with tyrants to supporting politicians who might have been problematic for other reasons.  That’s just how it goes in a fallen world.

The meet of the above quotation, however, arises with the mention of idolatry.  Ahmari makes an important point, but by his same token, isn’t it a form of idolatry to insist that elected officials be seen as totems whom we must endorse in their totality if we’re to decide that they are preferable to the alternatives?

Look to the third paragraph of the quotation.  The extremes that American progressives have reached in the political and cultural wars prove decisively that key rights on which every other right about which Christians are concerned hinge on a handful of seats in the U.S. Senate.  It isn’t inconceivable that brushing aside Moore as a statement of objection to his past behavior would usher in the further erosion of those rights, if the far-left Democrats gain an edge.

Of course, these aren’t easy questions.  It could be that putting Moore in office will undermine more Republican seats than are saved by his victory, but that’s a purely political question, not a moral one, and the two should not be confused.

The important question is how we should approach these questions.  I’d propose that we work through the morality first and then consider the politics.  In that regard, I find myself weighing the legitimacy of Christian charities’ working even with vicious dictators if doing so is the only way to help the oppressed people under them.  Similarly, on issues such as abortion, we’re sometimes reminded by liberal religious folks that we can’t make it a litmus test and must consider the totality of a politician’s policies.  If this applies to a politician’s support for killing children even as they barely remain within their mothers’ wombs, why doesn’t it apply to an old man’s lechery when he was younger?

We need boundaries, to be sure, and it would be a mistake to make difficult questions of judgment simplistic with easy tests that could be automated on a smart-phone app.  Nonetheless, we must recognize that we have to review each interaction on its own merits, balancing the issues at play and accepting that sometimes we’ll have to cooperate with people who are morally compromised.