Skip to main content.

Back to: >> Editorial


Jim Wallis plants his feet squarely on the ground: critically assessing both the Left and the Right, politically. An evangelical Christian, Wallis is nevertheless an acute thinker who does not accept dogma (narrow or limited vision) when he can do better. Moral Values is one area where he reaches way beyond the political crowds who invoke God as being on their side. Much of what follows either comes from or was inspired by his recent book God's Politics.

To begin, the 2004 election exit polls seemed to be a watershed for conservative America. "Moral values" headed a list that included war in Iraq, terrorism, health care, education, taxes and the economy. This event thrilled and emboldened the religious Right and their political surrogates who believed that the 22% who opted for that answer empowered and justified application of strong-arm tactics in politics. The moral values actually reflected by that vote had to do with abortion and gay marriage. This result is seriously flawed in two ways: 1) It confused preferences in these two areas with morality itself and is a whole different issue than the other choices presented, and 2) the result was not different statistically from alternate interpretations. The sampling error was larger than the differences found. Pooling the "group issues" in the exit polls showed more concern for both war/peace and the economy than the narrow moral values. Nevertheless, with the blessing and encouragement of the Right, the White House ran off with this narrow view and straight into trouble born of arrogance and short-sightedness. The Right lost the 2006 election for this lack of appreciation for the actual reality.

To illustrate further, factually, consider the Zogby poll that a week later asked: "Which moral value influenced your vote?" 42% chose the war in Iraq, 13% said abortion, 9% said same-sex marriage. When asked to choose the most significant moral problem, the responses were:

Value Percent
Greed and Materialism 33
Poverty and Economic justice 31
Abortion 16
Same-sex marriage 12

When asked about the greatest threats to marriage, respondents replied:

Value Percent
Infidelity 31
Rising financial burdens 25
Same-sex marriage 22

This is the reality. Moral values clearly extend beyond the narrow view of the religious Right. Morality in fact needs to enter politics as neither political party gets it right. The Republicans preach against abortion and gay marriage while they invade Iraq, an act that led to 100,000-500,000 deaths; the latter figure happens to be the only assessment with a shred of science behind it. But many Democrats would separate church from state to the point of discomfort for the devout. In these ways, faith is a legitimate issue for many voters. Nevertheless and in any event, it is high time morality played a more significant and general role in governance. Morality is at its best when it permeates all human endeavors.

Too many people equate morality with religion and leave it at that. There is a third very important perspective here. Religious leaders take the position that it is only they who can define and practice morality. This is not true. If faith bears on violence, in a positive way, then why are modern atheists so free of violence. The answer of course is that they are moral. See Monotheism and Violence for the actual data and discussion behind that statement. Ethics and its practice is not an exclusive feature of any one group. Ethics is common to all. To be sure, the systems differ. For that matter, ethics is not even purely a human affair. See Natural vs Moral Law for how a female gorilla gave the world a lesson in morality by rescuing a human child who fell into the gorilla cage and was too badly hurt to scramble out herself. Conversely, our genetic cousins, the chimpanzees not only manufacture weapons to kill game, but they make war upon neighbors. Both sides of humanity were expressed well be before it existed.

Morality issues facing governance today include:

  • Which values and whose values?
  • How narrow and how wide need they be?
  • Will they cut both ways and involve both major parties?
  • Will they be used as wedge issues to divide us further?
  • Will they bridge us together?
  • Where is the debate and more importantly dialogue on moral values?
  • Where can we all find common ground?

Dialogue on these matters will get us somewhere, edicts and rigged votes will not, whether religious or secular in origin. On the religious side, a progressive religion is past due. On the secular (logos) side, faith (mythos) must be recognized as having a legitimate place in the world.

Logos and mythos, being different things, get along nicely as long as each speaks to the other and not for the other.

Mythos and logos must each guard against being co-opted by extremists from any quarter. When one has to invoke the other in its quest for legitimacy, its leadership and presumptions must be questioned. Fortunately, that is still possible in America.

Unfortunately, certain churches are striving for government support and ruling privilege as during the current administration, confusing the moral issues no end.

Most of the foregoing relates to Protestantism. A 2004 statement by the Catholic Bishops is telling and right on:

Faithful Friendship
Politics in this election year and beyond should be about an old idea with a new power--the common good. The central question[s]...should be "How can we--all of us, especially the weak and vulnerable--be better off in the years ahead? How can we protect and promote human life and dignity? How can we pursue greater justice and peace?"

The oldest Christian Church is the largest denomination in America. Politically, they may just be wiser than their Martin Luther offspring. But Catholics in America also have grave troubles with gay pedophiles in the priesthood. No monotheism is a paragon of virtue.

The real lesson of the 2004 and 2006 elections is that the religious Right is still only about 20-25% of all of us, relatively moderate citizens occupy the middle, while the extreme Left and Right mirror each other.


No comments yet

To be able to post comments, please register on the site.