Ethics, Politics, and Public Spaces


Robert Sutton

For presentation at the University of North
Carolina at Wilmington, March 30th, 1999,
7:30pm, Morton Hall.  Panel Discussion,
"Ethics/Morality and Politics in the
Next Millennium."  (3/30/99)

...our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions...therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust...unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him...of those privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right....

A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom,
Thomas Jefferson, January 19, 1786.

At the beginning of the new Millennium, one might think that our society is going through revolutionary changes more staggering than those of the Industrial Revolution, many wonder if they would recognize America at the end of the next century.  Looking at this quote from Thomas Jefferson one could conclude that despite the fact that many things will change, there are some concerns and issues that never seem to go away.  Is the relationship between ethics/morality and politics one of those enduring debates within the American experiment?

Since the mid-1970's many Americans have sought to link their political agendas with moral issues. Paul Weyrich, President of the Free Congress Foundation, and the man who suggested to Rev. Falwell that he name his organization the Moral Majority, recently described this strategy.

What many of us have been trying to do for many years has been based upon a couple of premises. First of all, we have assumed that a majority of Americans basically agrees with our point of view....The second premise has been that if we could just elect enough conservatives, we could get our people in as Congressional leaders and they would fight to implement our agenda (Weyrich, Paul M., "A Moral Minority?",  February 16, 1999.).
The conservative belief that most Americans wanted their elected representatives to make decisions and legislature tied to conservative religion and "traditional family values" (i.e., Western Judeo-Christian views) seemed vindicated in Ronald Reagan's election and the many new Republican members in Congress.  However,  the inability of the conservative Republicans to secure the impeachment of President Clinton and his steady popularity with a majority of polled Americans,  raises questions concerning the kind of linkage, if any, that a majority of Americans want between ethics and politics.  Maybe the "Republican Revolution"  was about getting an over regulating government "off the backs" of America, especially in the economic sector.  If this were the case, then the effort to force particular moral visions on the country could be seen as another example of an over regulating government.  Whatever the answers to this question, that Clinton managed to stay in office came as a surprise to many political strategists and conservative legislators who thought that they acted with a moral mandate from a majority of Americans.  Now many of these persons have suggested that they are involved in "culture wars,"  fighting against a hostile, liberal culture for the future of America.

Weyrich explains that "Today cultural conservatives, those of us who accept and live by the old rules of Western, Judeo-Christian culture, find contemporary culture intolerable"(Weyrich, Paul. "Separate and Free." Washington Post 3/7/99, B07.). He suggests that, "The culture has continued to deteriorate.  Today, the old rules of conduct are not merely broken, they are scorned."  He wonders why the Republican revolution failed to achieve the conservative agenda.  He answers, "The that politics itself has failed....because of the collapse of the culture. The culture we are living in becomes an ever-wider sewer"("A Moral Minority?").  This leads him to his conclusion,  "I do not believe that a majority of Americans actually shares our values"("A Moral Minority?").

Weyrich is not alone in condemning Americans for their lack of commitment to traditional values.  Robert Barr, William Bennett,  Henry Hyde and many others have publicly lamented the moral failings of American citizens.  Sen. Robert Smith of New Hampshire, a long shot Presidential nominee of the Republican party  was reported as saying, "'The president's acquittal is a sad commentary on the prevailing values in America today.'" In response to the polls showing Clinton's rising popularity despite the scandal and the lack of interest that a majority had in pursuing an impeachment, Smith responded, "'My wife likes to say they must be polling people coming out of Hooters on Saturday night'"(Berke, Richard L., "The Far Right Sees the Dawn of the Moral Minority," New York Times, New York Times on the Web,,  February 21, 1999.).

To what extent if any, should ethics find expression in the political agendas of elected officials and be voiced in the public spaces of our civic culture?  I would suggest that such a linkage is not consistent with the Republican form of government which the Constitutional creators constructed as an experiment in liberal political philosophy.  Possibly even more important, it is not consistent with most Americans' understanding of the role of government in promoting or, more accurately, of refraining to promote religious or moral agendas.  Paul Beck, chair of the political science department at Ohio University, remarked, "'...there is this curious contradiction:  Republicans are saying, "Let's get the government out of your pocketbook and wallet but into your bedroom."  The public may be thinking, "Who are you to tell us what the standards of morality should be?"'" (Berke, Richard L., "Republicans Face Identity Crisis," New York Times on the Web,,  January 31, 1999.).

Thomas Jefferson argues in A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom for the separation of religion from politics saying,

... Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain...that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time.... ( A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, Thomas Jefferson, January 19, 1786.
Jefferson thought that such impositions violated the natural rights of persons to pursue happiness and to regulate their own lives, based upon the exercise of unhindered reason.  It is somewhat interesting to note that the conservative Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo, who had been seeking the Republican party's nomination for president in 2000 and courting the religious right in that pursuit, stated, "'We must never confuse politics and piety. For me, it is against my religion to impose my religion'" (Ayres, Jr., Drummond B., "Conservative's Shift Angers Backers," New York Times on the Web,, December 7, 1998.).

The framers of the Constitution recognized the need for government to refrain from privileging
particular forms of religious or moral life.  It allows persons to hold and teach their children their ethnic traditions, moral and religious views of choice, provided that they do not deny to others their right to do the same nor force their convictions on the populace.  Within such a conception of political order what is the business of government and our representatives?  Robert Nozick has suggested a "night-watch person" metaphor as an apt description of the state.  He wrote that, "Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights)....How much room do individual rights leave for the state?"( Nozick, Robert, Anarchy, State And Utopia  Basic Books, 1974,  p. xi.)  In answer he writes, "The nature of the state, its legitimate functions and justifications, if any... are... minimal...any more extensive state will violate persons' rights...and is unjustified..."( Nozick, Robert, Anarchy, State And Utopia  Basic Books, 1974,  p. xi.).  While Nozick is most concerned with property rights, a liberal government cannot allow the ethical and religious agendas of particular ethnic or religious communities to become the laws of the land to which all persons must submit.  To do so would deny persons those Constitutional rights to be free, to have privacy, and to pursue happiness.

Recent events would seem to suggest that most Americans would reject the notion that its legislative and judicial branches ought to be the place where proper moral views are defined and forced upon the country.  To indicate the nature of the difficulty that most Americans have with such efforts, think about the following:

Persons who see the role of government as including the regulation of private morality fail to recognize the ability and desire of most Americans to regulate their own moral lives.  Possibly even more problematic is their failure to recognize the profound belief held by most Americans that our form of political life grants them rights to various freedoms, including those of religion and privacy, and the right to pursue happiness.  Alan Wolfe, professor of sociology at Boston University and the author of One Nation, After All, suggests that Weyrich and others who now declare themselves among the moral minority have also declared "that Americans are too sinful to be trusted with liberty..." (Wolfe, Alan.  ", they have rejected the far right"  Morning Star, 2/25/99, 7A.)  In short, moral crusades are often viewed, except by the particular group of faithful who champion the crusade, as violating the basic freedoms afforded citizens of the Republic and as illegitimate uses of political power.  In rejecting the conservative and the Republican agendas, in the public responses to the many alleged scandals of President Clinton, Americans seem to have showed themselves far more committed to the right to be free to pursue their visions of happiness than in curtailing that right for others.

As the Nation heads into the Millennium the question of the relationship between morality and politics is unresolved.  Many Americans are too cynical about the political process and more concerned with their security in the future than with the private morality of elected officials.  Citizens struggle between their commitments to moral and religious tolerance within a pluralistic environment and their equal committment to narrower moral views based upon particular religious and ethnic communities.  Most Americans recognize each other's right to have conflicting moral views and they also see that such issues as abortion and capital punishment are so complex and ambiguous that they defy extremist conservative or liberal solutions.  In the next Millennium elected officials might rise above partisan politics, self serving and parochial interests, trust Americans to define and live by their own moral lights, resist the wealth of PACs and others, and, in so doing, do the Nation's business.  What is that business?  The preservation and extension of the rights that the founders of the Nation so generously granted to all citizens.