Right, Left and Center: The Tragedy of Morality’s Political Irrelevance (Ideas #127)

Several decades ago, the Revd. Jerry Falwell started a revivalist political movement aimed at bringing traditional morality to the fore of American politics. Although he certainly made serious inroads, the very name that this famed preacher gave to his movement betrayed its limitations. Falwell’s “Moral Majority” was founded on the premise that most Americans are committed to a traditional Christian viewpoint. While it is correct that most do see themselves as Christians and that an impressively large number of them take their religion very seriously, Falwell still overestimated how many would categorically support a traditional Biblical approach to morality.


But perhaps the name, “moral majority” is not as misguided as it first sounds. Is there not a majority of Americans (and not only Americans) who want to do the right thing? (Though some might immediately object and say that such a notion as “the right thing” is so amorphous as to be ultimately irrelevant, I would ask for their forbearance and request that they read further nonetheless.) One hopes so.


At the same time, it is not to be taken for granted. True, a very high percentage of people anywhere think of themselves as righteous, but that doesn’t translate into these people actually being righteous. If we define a moral person as someone who puts some serious moral vision at the top of his agenda (and true morality demands as much), it quickly becomes obvious that this is far from a universal norm. In fact, for many people, morality really ends up being a matter of convenience – when it is not overly demanding, it has the day. But when it is inconvenient or too costly, another way is found.


To take a fairly innocuous but very telling illustration, we turn to the classic game of Monopoly. Other ideological problems with this game notwithstanding, it does assume that players will be honest with the rules and with each other. Yet one well-known (and welcome) card tells the player to collect money as a result of a “bank error in your favor.” In other words, here is money that doesn’t belong to that player, but since he is the only one that knows that it is ill-earned gains, he should keep it anyways.(1) But let us not blame the authors of the game. In real life, we know that a great many people would keep such money, if they were certain that no one else would find out. Sure, there are many rationalizations for doing so, but at the end of the day one would be taking money that belongs to someone else.


Thus, though we may disagree about how to define “the right thing,” I would suggest that a more important division than this is between those that are prepared to do the right thing (no matter how defined), even when it is inconvenient, and those who are not. In other words, more significant than the split between left, right and center is the split between the theoretically moral and the actually moral.


Unfortunately, the potentially redemptive latter group is a “house divided against itself.” For better or worse, most people who put morality at the top of their agendas are highly ideological and resultantly believe that their own vision is the only legitimate one. Paradoxically, that means that they are not willing to work with others who have an equally idealistic alternative vision. Instead, they usually align themselves with political forces that are willing to compromise on such matters since they approach morality as a matter of convenience.


We are all familiar with the divisive Issues which separate competing moral visions, such as the role of women, homosexuality, nationalism and abortion. However, many are blind to the fact that there are at least as many issues that unite – the fight against global poverty and for peace, the need to eliminate corruption on every level, to encourage a more responsible approach to the environment and to minimize anti-social and otherwise destructive business practices form only a portion of what should be the shared agenda of a true moral majority.


Can such a majority ever come together? Based on the past, it is hard to be optimistic.(2) One of the biggest problems is the entrenched lack of charity that each side of the house divided has against the other. Were it only a conspiracy of political forces meant to keep the moral majority down, we would draw some solace. In fact, however, it is based in narrow-mindedness and in the inability to see things from a larger perspective. A common rejoinder which I imagine some might be thinking, is that the other side is not really serious about morality  – if they were, they wouldn’t do x, y or z. The hypocrisy of such a position comes out in the much more charitable attitude that the moral majority’s two wings have towards the morally mediocre.


In many ways, the Torah encourages us to realize that there is more than one way to look at something. In fact, some of the greatest sins committed are a result of an unwillingness to reexamine information from a new perspective. I daresay that even more than religion, politics suffers from this stiff-necked inability to rethink how we determine and subsequently pursue our points of view.


(1) It is true that in certain real life circumstances, the halacha allows keeping such funds. However, even in those cases, Jewish tradition is not coming to encourage this behavior. (See Babba Kamma 113a-b and Meiri ad loc and on 37b who understands this as limited to societies wherein such clearly problematic behavior is the norm.)


(2) In fact, a couple of elections ago in Israel, a political party was formed on an anti-corruption platform and was able to draw idealists from opposite sides of the political spectrum. However, this effort was short-lived, since the party could not even get enough support to clear the minimum required to elect one representative to the Knesset.