The Role of Morality in Politics

The Role of Morality in Politics

By: Dr. Robert D. Crane

Aug 2001

The great debate in United States of America at the beginning of the 21st century, just as it was when America was founded more than two centuries ago, centers on the role of religion in societal governance. This will determine the outcome of the as yet still inchoate but ultimately equally decisive debate worldwide on economic and social justice. Together they frame and are framed by the traditionalist pursuit of order, justice, and liberty, which form the three, core, social functions of all religion, and determine the rise or fall of every civilization.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, America’s first two presidents after George Washington, were arch rivals for political power, but they agreed that, as Adams put it, the American Constitution and the entire Great American Experiment in self-government were made “only for a moral and religious people.” Jefferson was attacked as an atheist, or at best as a deist, for whom, his opponents argued, God exists but has nothing to do with either humans or humankind. In fact, Jefferson was one of the most deeply spiritual of America’s founding fathers, which is why he wanted the state to stay out of religious affairs, since religion must be a personal quest or it is not religion. He affirmed that no representative government can succeed unless the voters are educated, that education must focus on building awareness of virtue, and that commitment to virtue by an entire people is impossible without love and submission to a loving God.

The major measure of a man or woman was character, known in Islam as akhlaq, which came from moral education rooted in religion. As James Davison Hunter puts it in his recent book, The Death of Character, the honorable person was important but not the center of the universe, and he was important only because he realized this. Self-esteem came from considering, forgiving, and helping others, that is, from following a higher calling than the pursuit of narcissistic self-indulgence and self-aggrandizement. Hunter observes that even when character failed and people murdered for love, hate, or money, no one fired indiscriminately upon strangers. And no-one dreamed that avowedly secular government, including public education, would ever be given the task of building character, especially when the political leaders have no more character than the special interests that organize to elect them.

In contrast to classical American traditionalism, toward the end of the twentieth century, American cultural gurus and managers began to exploit modern technology to globalize “amorality,” which is not so much anti-moral as it is indifferent to any concepts of right and wrong. Militant secular fundamentalists, led primarily by de-spiritualized Jews in the fourth estate of the media, and increasingly in the fifth estate of think-tanks, have been trying for half a century to secularize America’s future by denying its religious past, so that questions of justice and right and wrong can no longer even be raised. They now go so far as to assert that religion must be excluded from public life, in opposition to those who increasingly are concluding, together with America’s founders, that the only salvation for a sane society is the infusion of religious awareness in all aspects of public life.

This apocalyptic confrontation of primordial forces, the moral versus the amoral, came to a head in the first presidential elections of the baby-boomer generation in the Year 2000. Both major parties recognized the rumbling of clashing tectonic plates in the body politic and rushed to capture the moral center of uncommitted voters. Particularly when economic issues had become low priority, the majority of voters agreed only that neither party had been responsive to their moral concerns.

The Republicans addressed this fundamental discontent by wrapping their platform in the mantle of “compassionate conservatism.” Candidate George W. Bush defined this in his acceptance speech at the nominating convention as “fighting in the trenches” for “justice and opportunity.” This was perhaps the first time since the populist campaign of William Jennings Bryan, a century ago, that any presidential candidate of a major party has ever even mentioned the word “justice,” even though the Founding Fathers of America based all their thinking and writing on it. If this commitment can be translated by either of the major parties into legislation and policy, American politics, and, indeed, American civilization, can be transformed so that America can be what its founders envisioned, namely, a moral leader of the world

The Democrats recognized their windfall opportunity to fill the morality gap in American politics by nominating a seriously Jewish candidate, the first Jew at the presidential level, Senator Joseph Lieberman. Immediately, the Democratic base communities, which had been proudly secular ever since the New Deal of their grandfathers and the Great Society of their fathers, cried that this was a craven sell-out. In academia and the think-tank community heated debates took shape, but Lieberman proved to be intellectually superior not only to his opponents in the Democratic Party but to the Republican intellectuals who tried desperately to portray Lieberman as a fraud.

Admittedly, Lieberman was instructed to capture the morality vote in carefully staged “message events” and to tone down his message when he spoke to the party’s powerful base groups, especially the labor unions, the National Education Association, the gay-rights and abortion-rights movements, and the secular Zionists. But, his message came through loud and clear, especially in his major address at Notre Dame University on October 24th, 2000. According to USA Today, “Quoting from the Qur’an, the Torah, and the New Testament, Lieberman tackled a subject polls show to be near the top of voters’ minds, saying the nation has lost its ‘moral bearings’ amid unprecedented prosperity.” Without cowtowing to the authoritarian relativism of political correctness, Lieberman announced, “I want to bring truth to power - the truth of faith and the power of values that flow from it. … We share a commitment to using our office and our influence to support and encourage this new burst of moral and cultural renewal.”

He educated pundits by equating the misnomer “deism” with theism, which is the Founding Fathers’ belief that God sustains everything in the universe, and gives meaning and purpose to it, but does not impose a sectarian monopoly on spiritual wisdom in a world of diverse religious paths. Lieberman bit the bullet on the First Amendment by stating in traditionalist “codeword” that, “the Constitution promises freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.” He explained that America is alone in the world as a nation governed by “a civic religion - deistic, principled, purposeful, moral, public, and not least of all inclusive - which includes the best forces of faith in our public life without excluding those who do not share these beliefs.” In these few words he hit all the bases of contention and answered all of his critics about the role of religion and morality in American politics. Senator Lieberman stood out as an advocate of what James W. Skillen, President of the new Center for Public Justice, calls “genuine pluralism” in a true “republic.” This, he says, “is a society that respects religion in public but does not try to force one religion or no religion on everyone. This should be America’s testimony to the world about political society: A republic is not a community of faith but a community of citizens under common public law, citizens who have allegiances higher than the state.”

Senator Lieberman is addressing the uprising of longing not merely for private spirituality but for national meaning, purpose, and vision, none of which can prosper without the others. Without a sense of community and consensus on common purpose, all we are left with as ultimate national and personal goals are power, prestige, plutocracy, and hedonistic pleasure. The value of Lieberman’s contribution to the great American conversation, known also as the “culture war,” is his emphasis on the role of tradition in giving meaning to values. Only by maintaining the diversity of faith traditions, with all of their private particularistic practices, can we cooperate freely in recognizing the common essence of our faiths, and only then can we develop a global civilization that can actualize our hopes for order, justice, and freedom.

The absolutely unique contribution of the vice-presidential candidate, Joseph Lieberman, perhaps because of his halaqiq education and deep familiarity with the Torah and midrash, was his effort to link a coherent framework of moral principles to specific policies. “Balancing the budget,” he explained, “embraces and embodies the values of responsibility and discipline,” and Democratic health and education plans protect “our children, the most precious of God’s creations,” while strengthening Medicare and Social Security will “honor our fathers and mothers,” and protecting the environment “is a way to protect and guard God’s work.”

These may seem like platitudes, because sincere people legitimately can draw quite different conclusions on how best to translate such principles into specific policies. What is missing in American discourse, especially among Republicans who have been the only ones who claim a moral basis for their policies, is the effort to spell out the moral imperative in the universal terms of the world’s great religions. Lieberman concluded his reasoning with the admonition: “This is a conversation that we as a nation need to have.” Inevitably, this conversation must address foreign policy and the need for justice in the Holy Land.

America’s founders differed on the role of government and economic institutions in pursuing justice, but they recognized that justice is the ultimate purpose of all policy, and of all societal institutions, and the very reason why humans congregate in society. As the leader of modern traditionalists, Russell Kirk, put it, “At the dawn of civilization, people unite in search of communion with a transcendent power, and from that religious community all the other aspects of a culture flow - including, and indeed especially, a civilization’s laws.” Only within such a moral framework can the purposes and practicalities of policies on voucher education, affirmative action, right to life, traditional marriage, gender equity, and above all on economic and social justice, be intelligently discussed.

The Jihad al Kabir

The great lack in the efforts toward religious and cultural renewal in America, and from it throughout the world, is a rigorous framework of what traditionalist Catholics call moral theology, and what Muslims and Jews simply call law, based on the understanding that an enlightened understanding of law is nothing other then the will of God. This is the function of the maqasid al shari’ah or universal purposes of Islamic law. Centuries of the world’s best minds and spiritual leaders, starting with the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and his favorite follower, ‘Ali, developed this systems analysis of human society to a level far exceeding anything available today in America or anywhere else in the world. Unfortunately, this sophisticated framework has been dead for six centuries.

As yet Islam is still hovering on the margins of American life. But it is part of what Harvard professor, Harvey Cox, calls the rise of movements “from the bottom and edges” of society to fill the gap that is yawning in the middle. Professor Cox, first gained fame more than thirty years ago by his best-selling book forecasting the end of religion in the world. Now, in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Spring/Summer, 1999, in his profound essay, “The Myth of the Twentieth Century: The Rise and Fall of Secularization,” Cox sees in these religious movements a clear signal that, “a ‘Big Change’ is underway. … Even the most skeptical observers are beginning to conclude - whether for weal or for woe - that something basic is shifting.” The Spiritual awareness of the transcendent, which has always been the core of religion in its ascendant phase, not only is replacing establishment religion throughout the world, with the possible exception of Europe, but is transforming religion into the most powerful force in both public and private life.

Allah revealed the Qur’an and created a model for its application not only in the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) but in all the prophets of divine revelation . Not only our prosperity but our survival as more than brutes in a jungle depend on Islamic intellectuals tzking the ecumenical lead in fulfilling the divine command to wage the only jihad mentioned in the Qur’an, the jihad al kabir, the intellectual jihad to bring the divine wisdom of revelation to a humanity in distress. And behind this intellectual jihad must be the jihad al akbar or spiritual jihad, because without it our rational intellects can have no reliable guidance. Allah reveals in Surah al Ghafir 40:7:

They who bear [within themselves the knowledge of] the throne of [God’s] almightiness, as well as all who are near it, extol their Sustainer’s limitless glory and praise, and have faith in Him, and ask forgiveness for all [others] who have attained to faith. The modern commentator, Muhammad Asad, in his translation and commentary on the Qur’an, suggests that, “So it is evident that [this verse] applies not only to angels but also to human beings who are conscious of the tremendous implications of the concept of God’s almightiness, and hence feel responsible for translating this consciousness into the reality of their own and their fellow human beings’ lives.”

And from Surah al Dukhan 44:3-7, as interpreted by Muhammad Asad, we learn, in his words, “that the revelation of the Qur’an, symbolized by that ‘blessed night’ of its beginning, provides man with a standard whereby to discern between good and evil, or between all that leads to spiritual growth through an ever-deepening realization (ma’rifah) of God’s existence, on the one hand, and all that results in spiritual blindness and self-destruction, on the other.”

Behold, from on high have We bestowed [the Qur’an] on a blessed night: for verily, We have always been warning [man]. On that [night] was made clear, in wisdom, the distinction between all things [good and evil] at a behest from Ourselves: for verily, We have always been sending [Our messages of guidance] in pursuance of thy Sustainer’s grace [unto man]. Verily, He alone is all-hearing, all knowing, the Sustainer of the heavens and the earth and all that is between them - if you could but grasp it with inner certainty.

This certainty can come only from within ourselves, because, as Allah reveals in the Qur’an: “And We are nearer to him [the human spirit or person] than he is to his own jugular vein.” Among the names of Allah in the Qur’an are “the beginning, the end, the outer, and the inner,” which means that whichever direction we turn, we can meet up with God.