Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Reclaiming Morality

I know you are busy. But I'd like to ask you to take a few minutes and watch Rev. William Barber talk about morality.

I have often found it frustrating that the word "morals" has been hijacked in our culture to spur only thoughts about sexual morality. Obviously Rev. Barber - who is the founder of the Morals Monday Movement - has a much more expansive view of the term. He grounds his belief in his Christian faith. But the moral justice he is talking about is something we all share, regardless of our religious tradition (or lack thereof).

The reason I think this is so important is because we are currently witnessing a movement in our country that has no claim to morality. When two men assault someone because of his Mexican heritage, claim that their actions were based on their thinking that Trump is right, and Trump responds by saying his followers are "passionate about making America great again," he is not talking about the America I believe in. Dylann Roof was passionate too. But when he walked into a church and gunned down nine people simply because of the color of their skin, that was the opposite of moral.

Let's put this bluntly...hate is immoral. And anyone who fans the flames of hatred is acting immorally. That's why Rev. Barber is right when he says that, "It's a necessity for the destiny of our democracy that we realize that we have to look at public policy through the moral lens of justice for all and through the Constitutional principle of the common good."

Of course it is important to remind ourselves that the root of hate is fear. It seems that a lot of people are afraid today. Perhaps some of those fears are grounded. But when our fear is unmoored from morality, hatred is the result.

It's not enough to condemn the hate. We must take up the mantle of building a moral alternative to the fear. I believe that is exactly what Rev. Barber is doing in North Carolina. Here's how he describes the movement's philosophy.
When we looked at the preponderance of this legislation that was passed and was being planned, we said, let’s look at the deep values of our constitution. We read where it says that in North Carolina, all political power should only be used for the good of the whole. We saw that our constitution of 1868, passed by blacks and whites, guaranteed equal protection and it guaranteed public education, both as a constitutional value and a moral value. Then we looked at the federal constitution and saw that the deep values in that are the common good—promoting the general welfare. The first word, before you even get to freedom and liberty, is the establishment of justice.

Then we went to the Bible. We saw that every major faith says that love and justice should be at the center of public policy. Isaiah 10 says, “Woe unto those who make unjust laws that rob the right of the poor.” And we said, wait a minute, when you look at these policies, it’s not only bad policy, but it’s immoral and extreme. And we said that we had to stand up as a coalition—not liberal vs. conservative (that’s too small, too limited, too tired), or Republican vs. Democrat. We had to have a moral challenge because these policies they were passing, in rapid-fire, were constitutionally inconsistent, morally indefensible, and economically insane.
I'm all for having a discussion about what we should do about immigration. But when it is based on immoral lies about a non-existent "crime wave" spurred by "illegal aliens" and "anchor babies," that is no discussion...that's fear-mongering that leads to hatred. And I'm all for having a discussion about police reform. But when it's based on an immoral lie about "thugs" and "playing the race card," that's fear-mongering too.

To have a moral conversation about those issues means starting where President Obama did in his second inaugural address:
Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional -- what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth. The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.


  1. "Of course it is important to remind ourselves that the root of hate is fear."

    I have heard this before, but I don't think it holds up as a universal concept. There are at least a couple other places it can come from:

    - We are apes. We have primate tribal instincts in us that sometimes seek expression in modern life. One of those instincts is to have an "other" to fight against, whether or not they pose a threat and whether or not we're genuinely afraid of them. (By the way, a vast amount of Republican appeal makes more sense if you see it as ape vs. ape mentality.)

    - Positive reinforcement growing up. If you have racist parents, and you get praised for echoing their racist sentiments even without initially understanding them, it gets easier and easier to believe that they're justified.

    I used to think that, if people choose cruelty over compassion, it must be because they're scared. But then I realized that a great many of them simply don't give a damn.

    1. In psychology we have a word for those who simply don't give a damn. We call them sociopaths.

    2. Empathy is a choice for most of us; the difference between sociopaths and everyone else is, sociopaths don't seem to be capable of empathizing. Some of us empathize habitually (which I say is what tends to push a person towards liberalism), others are pretty good at coming up with reasons why empathizing isn't called for.

  2. I've come away recently from more than one of your posts with tears in my eyes. I've been vaguely aware of Rev. Barber and the Moral Monday Movement, but haven't given much of my attention to him or it. I will now. This is powerfully inspiring. I think you are succeeding in forcing me out of my depressing gloom.

  3. There are two big obstacles to getting good national conversations about morality. One is referenced above: "conservative vs liberal" and the whole concept of ideology.

    Why is there said to be a "political spectrum"? Are policy preferences, eg, deport all undocumented immigrants and single payer health insurance related to each other like red and violet? Does single payer go with increasing Social Security benefits like blue is next to violet?

    Of course not. It's just a leftover idea from the Enlightenment when the fashion was to turn everything into a Newtonian science. In the meantime we've learned that living things are best understood by applying Darwin, not Newton. But when Trump jumbles up the rainbow, pundits and political scientists alike keep thinking Newtonian optics. Sam Brownback isn't the only one real science has left behind.

    Human sexuality might be a spectrum and the spot you find yourself can't be wrong. But some policy preferences are morally wrong.

    The other obstacle is the "objective media".
    People complain about Fox and long for the good old days the Founders had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment. But the Jeffersonian Press was worse than Fox! They called the Father of Our Country a traitor who should be charged with treason for the Jay Treaty!

    A good press has a voice and an opinion. The half century experiment in pretending otherwise needs to end.