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Left, Right, & Wrong

What?s missing from the debate over values in America

SOME TIME AFTER ELECTION DAY and the equivocal Thanksgiving that follows, I receive a call from a woman in my community, the kind of troubled, searching- for-some-answer call I used to get when I worked as a minister, though I am not doing that work now, and the woman never came to my church when I was.

The woman is not dismayed over Blue States and Red States. The woman is dismayed that yet another local kid has died in an alcohol-related car crash. By my count, this makes five in seven years, an alarmingly high number for one rural county in northeastern Vermont. The woman is dismayed by people who want the surviving driver, a young single mother who's "come a long way" since the accident, to serve a stiffer jail sentence than the one she received. The woman is also dismayed by neighbors who neither know nor seem to care about what their children do on the weekends. Finally, she is dismayed because this annual blood sacrifice has come to seem like a basic fact of life, another form of the "shit" that "happens."

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I share all of the woman's concerns -- in addition to one of my own: the way the current Republican rhetoric of "traditional values" speaks to tragedies of this kind, to that gut need we all have for a palpable catharsis and a culpable face. Not least of all, to the need we feel for order when our world starts falling apart. I try my liberal best to speak to the larger picture, the corporate policies that have decimated agricultural communities like our own, the connection between the low price of raw milk and the high sales of cheap beer. But I am speaking a language of things unseen. The woman is speaking of what she sees with her own two eyes on her own dirt road. Most of all, she is speaking of her struggle to protect what she values, which is partly her community and partly its youth and absolutely her teenage son.

If there is anything the left fails to appreciate, and that politicians on the right exploit with unerring tact, it is the nature of that woman's struggle. I mean the class nature no less than the moral nature. You may call it universal if you wish, because it is common to parents everywhere and, in fact, to anyone who loves anything at all, but the struggle to preserve what you cherish becomes especially acute when you live in poverty, or close to poverty, when your well-kept prefab sits on its half-acre lot a quarter mile up the road from the shack with all the dogs. Or, tougher still, when you live in the shack with all the dogs and try to teach your kids not to treat animals like the little sadists up in the prefab house. Sophisticated people of independent means can afford to be disdainful of lower-class attempts at "respectability," chalking it up to religious prejudice or provincial narrowness, but when their own kids come anywhere within the smell of social dysfunction, they have the private-school applications in the mail. To be sure, the private school they choose will be very "diverse," which is to say, diverse according to every criterion but class. There will be that very nice boy from the Philippines, but there won't be any rough boys from Podunk.

Those without the privilege of mobility must learn instead the rigid disciplines of standing still, that is, of making a stand. There are things we do in this house and things we don't do, things the rednecks do or the gringos do that are not for us. Often those engaged in this kind of struggle will turn to religion. Though I served a small and not very moralistic (Episcopal) church, I saw this more than once. People go to church for all kinds of reasons, but the main reason that people of a certain age will start going to church is that their kids are starting to overdose on the dominant culture. They go to church hoping to find solid ground. Sometimes they go to the polls hoping for the same thing.

"You know where I stand," George W. Bush said any number of times before his 2004 electoral victory, and I certainly did: on the wrong side of every issue. But did voters know where the Democratic Party stood or, more to the point, on what it stood? Did it stand on anything? If the question offends you, permit me to ask another. Had Howard Dean been an evangelical Christian with an evangelical Christian base, would his followers have deserted him because his Iowa holler made him "unelectable"? Or would they have closed ranks behind him because his stand on the Iraq war made him right?

"THE REAL PROBLEM OF OUR TIME," George Orwell wrote in 1944, "is to restore the sense of absolute right and wrong when the belief that it used to rest on -- that is, the belief in personal immortality -- has been destroyed. This demands faith, which is a different thing from credulity." It also demands conviction, which is a different thing from wanting to win at any price. The real problem of the left in our time is to restore those absolutes and to find that faith.

Of course, Orwell was not talking about religious faith. Nor am I. Ironically, one of the treasures bequeathed to us by the world's ethical religions is the self-effacing hint that the basis of morality does not have to be religious. "Whatever you would have others do to you, do to them." In other words, the most reliable sense of right and wrong comes from your own skin, your own belly, your own broken heart.

That said, religion can provide some useful insights, if only to debunk a few of the notions that are being foisted upon us in the name of religion. The Christian right preaches an extremely selective version of its own creed, long on Leviticus and short on Luke, with scant regard for the Prophets and no end of veneration for the profits. Its message goes largely unchallenged, partly through general ignorance of biblical tradition and partly because liberal believers and nonbelievers alike wish to maintain a respectable distance from the rhetoric of fundamentalism. This amounts to a regrettable abandonment of tactics. One of Saul Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals" was "Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules" -- a tough act to pull off if one doesn't even know the rule book.

To be sure, we have good reason to be leery of moral absolutes in political discourse and of religious language in a secular democracy. Thoughtful people were justifiably appalled at Bush's "axis of evil" speech, but the reaction itself bears witness to the enduring relevance of moral language. In other words, it bears witness to the laudable belief that it is evil to speak of nations or persons as though they were embodiments of evil. The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas said that nothing in existence is evil because everything God created is good. Like Augustine before him, Aquinas defined evil as an utter absence of good, basically as a dangerous nothingness. Name one good thing about the utter absence of love that is racism, and I'll never use the word evil again.

For now I refuse to give it up simply because Bush uses it. Tell me what else you would call the predicament of 9 million American children with no health insurance? An oversight? Is a preemptive war in which thousands of innocent people get blown to pieces simply "a mistake"? Are the annual and largely preventable workplace deaths of nearly twice as many Americans as died on September 11 merely a glitch in human evolution? Does anybody do anything wrong anymore -- or is everybody just doing the best that they can, in which case isn't the most progressive course simply to go with the flow? Perhaps if we wait a billion years, Dick Cheney will be the Dalai Lama.

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