The Embarrassment of Morality

by Rebecca Bynum (May 2011)

There once was a time, not so very long ago, when Americans felt the need to express a moral viewpoint or to reach for the moral level in art, literature, popular entertainment and politics. Watching old movies or television shows from fifty years ago, one is immediately struck by the moral tone which then prevailed even when, or especially when, these stories depicted immoral acts. In the 1950’s parents felt perfectly safe leaving their children to watch the “Andy Griffith Show” or “Gunsmoke” or pretty much anything else on television. We didn’t need specialized children’s programming then. We were unified by our values. But perhaps by the time Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town, America was already passing out of what my 99 year-old friend calls “a simpler time.” I think what she means by that is a shared moral culture marked by simple moral striving: a time when self-respect was more important than material gain and “how the game was played” much more important than mere “winning.” These ideas seem quaint now, when business is marked by ruthless cunning and material accumulation is counted as the singular measure of success. Everyone gets away with what he can and those who stubbornly cling to moral behavior are thought of as naïve or old fashioned.  We've become the worst sort of cynics, expecting the worst of our fellows.

Our politicians no longer feel obliged to add a moral dimension to their arguments the way they once did, even on the gravest subjects of war and peace. Think of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and how each side quoted easily and readily from scripture in order to illustrate the indispensible moral dimension of their cause. Today, it is very difficult to find a political argument that goes beyond bare utility. Of course, one still hears appeals to compassion for the less fortunate and the like, but the age when making a moral argument in the political sphere was required appears to be quite past.

Of course, politicians are not above using the power of church organizations to help boost their bids for election, but they are not about to be used by religion or to see themselves as an instrument of God’s will, or to give up any element of personal prerogative as a sacrifice for a higher truth in the way George Washington or Abraham Lincoln did. We have a plethora of candidates with many good ideas they would like to implement, but few with high ideals they would like to live up to.

Pastor Terry Jones, perhaps, is such a person (almost on the order of John Brown, forcing the country to face unpleasant realities) and he is universally derided as a either a fanatic or a clown. Senate majority leader Harry Reid recently omitted the words “under God” from his recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. And though most, if not all, of our holders of high public office would readily affirm their own “firmness in the right,” few, if any, would qualify that statement as Lincoln did, with “as God gives us to see the right.” The idea that perhaps we cannot always apprehend “the right” through our own intellectual power is anathema to modern man – an affront to the sovereignty of his will and a curtailment of what he perceives as his freedom.

Orators and politicians of the past could rely on a shared moral and cultural vision of reality, a deep well of shared cultural experience from which they could draw understanding and support. Politicians seldom quote from the bible now. First, they cannot rely on their audience to be familiar enough with scripture to understand the allusion and secondly, they can count on a press generally hostile to religion to spin it as preachy, condescending or “out of touch.”

Bill Clinton demonstrated how a high intelligence coupled with low, or rather average, morality does not make for a strong President. The country then swung the other way in electing George W. Bush, a man perceived as having average intelligence but a higher moral character (higher than that of Bill Clinton, at any rate). Practically the entire argument for the election of George W. Bush was based upon character and the country bought the idea that both he and his wife, Laura, were “good, decent people” who embodied a kind of “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” ideal. No challenge could be so difficult that strong American morality and idealism could not cope. Unfortunately, this reliance on character (or rather the image of character) masked a decided lack of intellectual curiosity and inability to imagine the motivation of human beings whose world views are entirely different from his own. As Mrs. Bush wrote in her memoir, “Not only can’t I empathize with the mother of a suicide bomber, I can’t even imagine her.”[1] Neither George Bush, nor his family, nor his advisers, apparently, could imaginatively place themselves into minds shaped and conditioned by Islam. That would have taken a lot of reading (burning the midnight oil) and George Bush was no John Quincy Adams.

Lack of imagination was not the only problem. The following paragraph written by Laura Bush illustrates the sloppy thinking and overreliance on simplistic American notions of right and wrong that marred the Iraq operation:

In World War II, we knew that if we crippled the enemy in one place, other fronts would weaken and eventually collapse. During the Cold War, the United States could cede some countries, such as Cuba or Eastern Europe or Vietnam, or even Afghanistan up until 1979, to the Soviet’s sphere and still the fundamental balance of power would remain unchanged. Yet in this new type of war, against not an army in uniform, but a radical ideology [the “radical ideology” is undefined] bent on destroying the very framework of our shared civilization, we could not write off one country to the enemy. [The “enemy” is undefined, therefore the countries already “written off” are undefined. This blindness continues to prevent us from acknowledging the Organization of Islamic Conference as the hostile bloc it is.] Never before in history had such small numbers possessed the potential to inflict such horrific damage. [They are small in number only if we choose to disregard all those they represent.] So wherever the terrorists were plotting destruction, we had to engage them. [Notice “the enemy” has morphed into the even more generic “terrorists.”] And wherever terrorist cells might be trying to gain a foothold, we had to turn them back. [There have been “terrorist cells” in our own country for decades now and I know of little that has been done to “turn them back.”] It was a war of terrorist acts and a contest of ideology, and we could not win unless we met them firmly on every front. We could not let Iraq fail, or let the United States fail in Iraq. [Again we see the poor definition of words. Throughout the Bush administration, officials seemed to equate withdrawal with “failure” and therefore success becomes defined simply as the dogged entrenchment of our troops in that dreadful country.] We could never again allow a full-fledged haven for terror to flourish if we wanted to protect Americans inside the borders of our own nation. [Mrs. Bush might have been forgiven for spouting this rhetoric in 2001, but her book was written in 2010, long after it became fully apparent that “terrorist havens” may be found wherever there are sufficient numbers of Muslims. Britain has turned out to be one of the chief exporters of terror. The 9-11 plot was actually hatched in Hamburg. What are we going to do about that?] Nor could we give up on the millions of Iraqis who were hoping that the extremists would be turned back and a free society would have a chance to take hold. [Are there really “millions” of Iraqis hoping for a “free society?” How do they define “free society?” How does Mrs. Bush know those millions really want?] George chose the best way he thought to win, and we waited. And we prayed for the men and women who had pledged to fight for our country and for our freedoms.[2]

Eight years in Iraq, and we are still waiting for the glorious outcome promised: when Iraq would become our stable democratic ally. Our military can’t be expected to continue to fight for other peoples’ countries and other peoples’ freedom indefinitely. At what point will we realize that we cannot remake the Muslim world in our image? At what point should we insist Muslim peoples and polities face the consequences of their own making? At what point do we stop pretending these peoples and polities are Muslim copies of the 13 colonies and face reality as it is?

The larger problem, however, is the reluctance to confront Islam on moral ground which is its weakest point. The solid moral language of the past has evaporated. But cast the light of any other religion on Islam and it is shown as the false and destructive ideology it is. Spiritual peace and comfort are foreign to Islam. It produces pride, belligerence and disquiet among its adherents – keeping grown men in a perpetual state of frustrated adolescence. It lacks an overriding moral structure and the only “good” it recognizes is the physical triumph of Islam. It is only proper that we should look to other religions, actual religions, for guidance and inspiration. We have a rich spiritual heritage on which to draw.

Buddhism: Those who imagine evil where there is none, and do not see evil where it is — upholding false views, they go to states of woe. Those who discern the wrong as wrong and the right as right — upholding right views, they go to realms of bliss. (DhammapadaXXII: 318-19)

Hinduism: Man is made by his belief. As he believes, so he becomes. (Bhagavad Gita)

Taoism: True goodness is like water in that it blesses everything and harms nothing. And like water, true goodness seeks the lowest places, even those levels which others avoid, and that is because it is akin to the Tao. (Tao Te Ching 81)

Judaism:  Whoever sows injustice reaps calamity (Proverbs 22:8); they who sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind. (Hosea 8:7)

Christianity: Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. (Matthew 7: 15-20)

What would be easier than to delve into true religion and allow it to define itself and thus to show Islam to be wholly outside? Are not all true religions the province of value – of goodness, truth and beauty – and chiefly concerned with the correct apprehending of value so as to lead men to pursue it and thus, to mature? We need to regain our religious vocabulary: one that is sure and steady, but which need not be predominantly Christian. We cannot shrink from confronting immorality especially when it comes to us in the false form of religion. In the words of Lao Tse, “Knowing ignorance is strength. Ignoring knowledge is sickness.”


[1] Bush, Laura, Spoken from the Heart (New York: Scribner, 2010) pg. 286
[2] Ibid pg. 384


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