The upcoming presidential election may be one of the more critical in our lifetime. There are stark differences between the candidates on pressing moral questions like abortion, gay marriage, embryonic stem cell research, and other issues. Whoever wins the presidency will have enormous influence over what direction the culture takes concerning these issues.
"Statesmen may plan and speculate for liberty, but it is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand," wrote John Adams in 1776. The American founding Fathers believed that when religious and morality directs the decisions of citizens, a virtuous society can develop that ensures freedom and justice. They crafted the separation of church and state not to remove religion from public discourse, but to ensure the continuing contribution of religiously minded people.
It is difficult to separate politics from morality in American society because America is a nation of laws, not class. There is no institution of moral arbitration in the American system, no designated cultural elites, no monarchs, and no national church. When no national consensus exists about moral questions, politics becomes one arena in which the adjudication of moral questions takes place.
The moral dimension of public policy questions is not the exclusive property of either the Democrat or Republican parties, but the Democratic captivity to a leftist cultural agenda over the last four decades renders it most hostile to the Judeo/Christian moral tradition. Ever since the McGovernite wing took over the party apparatus after the Viet Nam war, the Democratic platform increasingly mirrors the radical egalitarianism and radical individualism of the radical left.
Radical egalitarianism ends in tyranny (institutionalized under the rubric of "fairness"), and radical individualism (especially in the reduction of the limits on personal gratification) ends in hedonism. The social fallout of these ideas is apparent to anyone willing to look - family breakdown, the epidemic STD rates among teens, a coarsened public culture (think Howard Stern or the flood of pornography), the catastrophic failure of the Great Society especially toward young black men, the redefinition of marriage to include homosexuals, to name some examples. These ideas militate against the received moral tradition and seek to erase the cultural memory of how it guided western civilization for the last two millennia.
It was inconceivable a mere half-century ago that the party of the working man and poor would become the political arm of the cultural left. Pro-life Democrats are not allowed to speak at national conventions anymore. Former President Clinton vetoed the bill prohibiting partial birth abortion - a barbaric practice that only an abortion ideologue could defend - yet Senator Kerry defends it. Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards claims a Kerry presidency will heal all manner of diseases through embryonic stem cell research without considering the moral implications of the claim and ignoring the fact that no evidence exists to support it. Kerry is silent on gay marriage in public, but privately assures homosexual groups that he will champion it once elected.
Granted, the ideas of the cultural left are only part of the Democratic platform. Yet these ideas are so corrosive and represent such a distinct break from the moral tradition, that relegating them to the back burner only delays the inevitable day of confrontation with them. The radical left is radically intolerant to any idea that challenges their claim to cultural dominance and the good ideas that remain in the Democratic platform will be subsumed by the leftist agenda unless the captivity is broken.
Republicans have problems of their own but captivity to the cultural left is not one of them. The Republican Party has become the political home of many disaffected Democrats alarmed by the aggression of the cultural left. The fit is not always comfortable (neo-conservatives and the religious right for example), but the shared resistance towards leftist cultural aggression makes it work, at least for the time being. This is one reason why Republican influence has grown over the last three decades, especially on state and local levels.
The private values of each candidate will determine their public decisions in areas where morals matter. If the former Clinton administration is any indication, a Kerry win will return an aggressive pro-abortion policy towards the third world (a particularly noxious form of American cultural arrogance), support of gay marriage, a lessening of the restrictions on abortion (including infanticide) and euthanasia, aggressive funding of embryonic stem cell research among other culture of life issues. John Kerry is more liberal on these issues than Bill Clinton and a world apart from George Bush. He will appoint administrators and jurists (and require a pro-abortion litmus test for Supreme Court nominees) who reflect his values and advance them.
Democratic captivity to the cultural left doesn't excuse Republican moral failings or inconsistencies. Religion is not politics, faith is more than activism. But Christians in the Democratic party are confronted with this discomforting truth: if they want to remain Democrat while remaining faithful to their moral tradition, they must resist the ideas and policies that militate against the moral precepts of their faith. Until the captivity to the cultural left is broken, the only place for a faithful Christian in the Democratic Party is as the outsider. It requires moral courage and clarity of mind to avoid the wrong compromises -- and supporting candidates who champion the moral precepts of the cultural left is a wrong compromise.
There is no such thing in politics as the party of God. Christ is always the outsider. But relative good exists and some choices are better than others. The cultural left seeks to enforce a moral vision that mimics the values of the moral tradition through a skillful and clever appropriation of the Judeo/Christian moral vocabulary, but in fact seeks to subvert and finally abolish that tradition. Today the Democratic Party functions as the political agent of the cultural left. Republicans fight this cultural aggression and thus slow the institutionalization of the decline it portends.
Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse is a Greek Orthodox priest and edits the website OrthodoxyToday.org.