The Minefield of Morals
Looking back even further, the issue of morality is nothing new to presidential politics, surfacing as early as Thomas Jefferson's challenge to sitting President John Adams in 1800, where the author of the Declaration of Independence was accused of lacking religious faith entirely (not true, he was a Deist) and fathering a child outside of wedlock with one of his slaves (accurate by most accounts). Fast forward to 1968 when Republican candidate Richard Nixon rode his "Silent Majority" to two White House victories. Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter spoke openly about his born-again faith in 1976 and Ronald Reagan beat him to the punch four years later when he ousted the incumbent, building the since formidable Religious Right, a critical component of the Republican Party's national coalition.
This nearly three decades-old coalition is showing signs of wear. New issues like global warming have emerged that cross traditional partisan lines, while the evangelical Christian's candidate of choice, the aforementioned Bush, suffers from historically low approval ratings. Moreover, the group failed to coalesce behind a single candidate in the since-completed Republican presidential primary. True, former Gov. Mike Huckabee struck their fancy, but he was unable to find a locus of support outside of the Bible Belt and thus lost the nomination to Sen. John McCain.
The presumptive nominee has problems of his own with this vaunted group, calling their leaders "agents of intolerance" back in 2000 when his maverick campaign against establishment favorite Bush crashed and burned. He has since tried to make amends, visiting with select leaders and invoking language and promises that brought most of them back in the fold. However, some, most pointedly James Dobson, suggest they will never support John McCain, and others embrace him as only the lesser of two evils (Update: Dobson now is edging ever closer to endorsing McCain). It is clear that McCain cannot rely on their grass roots energy to win the general election this time around, that he needs to find a new base of support, perhaps among independent voters who are more receptive to his maverick tendencies.
Moreover, McCain's subtle measures to earn evangelical support arguably harmed him more than it helped. For example, controversial pastor John Hagee's endorsement was later lampooned as earlier condemnations of Catholics surfaced. McCain was forced to distance himself from these remarks, even relinquish the endorsement, and his measured approach to the Religious Right played into attacks that he represented a third Bush term by abandoning his secular ways.
The reality is that the Religious Right has stood as a vital component of the Republican coalition since Reagan, and that McCain cannot win the White House without, at a minimum, their votes, if not their enthusiasm. In short, he will never be "one of them," but he does find basic agreement on key issues like abortion and gay marriage, and promises to appoint Supreme Court justices in the mold of Roberts and Alito, conservatives who are likely sympathetic to these views. His critics in this camp charge back that McCain supports embryonic stem cell research and is against constitutional amendments outlawing abortion and gay marriage. He sees the latter two issues as provinces of state power. However, all three positions add to suspicions on the right, thus the "lesser of two evils" connotation.
As the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama has traversed an ideological journey of his own as he navigates the ever-fluid electoral landscape with values voters in mind. His voting record as a Illinois state senator and in the US Senate, and his campaign rhetoric during the Democratic primary process, lurches decisively to the left, especially on so-called moral issues like abortion. Just last week, however, Obama voiced his support for President Bush's Faith-Based Initiative, at least on principle, evidence that the junior senator is carefully drifting to the center. This came on the heels of his outspoken support of the Supreme Court's decision stamping out an individual's right to bear arms, and ardent criticism of the decision disallowing the use of capital punishment on child rapists.
Like McCain, Obama also had some pastor problems of his own, most notably his former pastor at his house of worship on the South Side of Chicago (Trinity United Church of Christ), the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The man who married him to his wife Michelle, baptized his two daughters, and served as his spiritual adviser, was distanced from the Obama campaign as early as his initial announcement speech. This spring, when clips of his controversial sermons surfaced on YouTube and then cable news, Obama first claimed this rhetoric was taken out of context while defending Wright, then ended their relationship altogether when Wright took to defending himself in remarks delivered at the National Press Club.
Pastor-gate didn't end here either. At the end of May, another Obama adviser and longtime confidant, Father Michael Pfleger, delivered a sermon at Trinity disparaging the campaign of rival Sen. Hillary Clinton. The gender and racial undertones unnerved the nation's pundits once more, forcing Obama to end his 20 year relationship with the church.
Obama has also been forced to defend himself on charges that he is a Muslim by birth given the fact that his father was a member of the faith. He claims that his mother was an atheist and he was raised the same, discovering Christianity in his adult years through Rev. Wright and Trinity. The candidate has gone so far as to create an online presence to fend off these false attacks, labeling them as nothing less than "smears."
Like many of his Democratic predecessors, Obama has been forced to play defense on the patriotic front, too. Criticized for not wearing the flag pin on his sport coats, a fashion statement that has become standard for politicians of all stripes, Obama first suggested that he refused to partake in false displays of patriotism, then quietly pushed the pin in his jacket as he pivoted toward the larger electorate (Note: John McCain does not regularly wear a flag pin himself).
Obama has also been attacked for not placing his hand over his heart when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance (not true), and his wife Michelle was lampooned for claiming that she was proud of her country for the first time due to the success of her husband in the presidential race. The junior senator from Illinois felt vulnerable enough on this issue that he gave a major speech addressing the topic in advance of the Fourth of July, proving to his detractors that he would not be painted as an out-of-touch liberal (see Michael Dukakis riding a tank) on matters of patriotism.
This series is an attempt to get beyond the banter of the punditry, and much of this post thus far has failed on this front. I blame this on the nebulous nature of the issue of moral values themselves, but in staying true to my mission, I nonetheless surveyed the respective positions of the two candidates as posted on their web sites.
McCain titles his entry into this thicket as "Human Dignity and the Sanctity of Human Life." From the very outset he flaunts his pro life credentials, critiquing Roe v. Wade and suggesting that abortion is a matter for states to decide. McCain also mentions the fact that he and his wife Cindy adopted a daughter from Bangladesh, holding this up as a viable alternative to abortion, and pledging to break down the bureaucratic barriers to its realization. The senior senator from Arizona reiterates his belief in the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, and also takes shots at Internet pornography and online predators. He ends with a statement of his own values that echoes throughout his writing and campaign speeches over the years: "To sacrifice for a cause greater than yourself, and to sacrifice your life to the eminence of that cause, is the noblest activity of all."
Obama's counterpunch is much less specific and focuses solely on his faith. It is titled "Reconciling Faith and Politics," and references a 2006 speech that called for people of all faiths to transcend sect and find a common way of expressing their values in the political sphere. This theme meshes well with Obama's overall pledge to change the type of politics practiced in Washington. An attached position paper is laden with Obama quotes representing specific themes, among them a call for progressives to insert themselves in a positive way in our national conversation about religion, a abandonment of matters of faith as so-called "wedge" issues, and an affirmation of the constitutionally protected separation between church and state.
In order to provide a fair contrast between Obama and McCain, Obama's positions on the "wedge" issues must nonetheless be vetted. Obama supports Roe v. Wade and promises to appoint judges quite different from Roberts and Alito. Indeed, he voted against their confirmation in the Senate. His voting record on the issue of abortion has ignited some controversy, especially his opposition to the Born Alive Infant Protection Act as a state senator. More recently, Obama opened to door for some restrictions on late-term abortions, suggesting that a women's mental state must be scrutinized before she receives the go-ahead to partake in the procedure. On the issue of gay marriage, Obama opposes it in name, and instead favors civil unions. On other cultural issues, Obama is a critic in his own right, scolding black fathers for their dereliction of duty and black culture in general for not embracing education and mimicking "hip hop" values.
In balance, this minefield of moral values is a murky one, especially when viewed in the context of two candidates who fail to fit the traditional mold for their respective parties. Both have arguably glaring vulnerabilities, and as a result, it doesn't seem clear that either will win or lose the election on this issue alone. Give credit to McCain for his delicate gestures to the Religious Right while remaining his own man, and to Obama for striking preemptively in an area that has long derailed his Democratic predecessors. You may remember that he announced himself to the nation with soaring rhetoric in this very realm of morals.
In my quest to provide equal time, I will end with a brief excerpt of Obama's speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention in August that goes to the very heart of the rationale of his candidacy in 2008:
“The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”