Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


The Minefield of Morals

By Shawn Healy
I return for my eighth installment of the Pass the Pundits series, examining the ever-ambiguous issue of moral values in the context of the 2008 presidential election. Some suggested that the issue was the determining factor in the 2004 election, as roughly 20 percent of voters listed this all-encompassing category as the most important influence upon their presidential vote. You already know this, but it happened the favor the incumbent in this case, President George W. Bush.

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.”


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since McCain is running against Obama, as a conservative I have to vote for Obama.

Things will get worse with McCain.

Things will get much worse with Obama. And that is why I am voting for Obama. For things will only get worse with McCain but they need to get much worse for us to survive as a nation.

Of course a statement like that needs an explanation. And I will do so in the form of an analogy. Do you know how to cook a frog? Well, if you put it in a pot of boiling water the frog will quickly jump out. But if you put a frog in a pot of water that is warm and turn up the heat gradually up to boiling the frog will just sit there not even realizing it is being boiled alive.

Obama is the one who puts the frog into the hot water and McCain is the one who turns up the heat gradually. With Obama his extremism will cause a backlash so great that America will start electing good leaders to oppose him. It happened in 1980 and it happened in 1994. And it will happen again.

But McCain he will really be the death of the Republican Party. As I said above things will get worse with McCain and therefore he and the Republican Party will get the blame. And then America will elect a Democrat in 2012 for President. And if recent history has shown us anything it has shown that the Democratic Candidate has been getting increasingly extreme. So I can’t tell you who the Democrats will put up that year but I can tell you that person will be as extreme if not more extreme than Obama. So, how long are we putting off having an Obama-like President? Four Years?

And meanwhile McCain has shown that he wants to drive conservatives and conservatism away from the Republican Party. For those of us who believes that the only solution to our country’s problems, it is unacceptable that neither of the two major parties represents conservative values.

So, I am left with the ultimate act of “tough love”. Not to say there aren’t hard times ahead for there is but that is true with McCain as well. But at least with Obama there is hope that things will get better after him. With McCain all hope is lost.

1:11 PM  

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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

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The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

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