On Public Morals – Two Sources

What kind of moral values are acceptable in the public square?

It’s an important question in the current political climate, already rife with discord between liberals and conservatives, and now thrown into a kind of perpetual chaos by an unpredictable president.

On the one hand President Trump seems willing to flout traditional public morality and moral norms in both behavior and speech, and on the other he derives power from a Christian evangelical base that would like to see their version of morality imposed upon the culture at large (and who see liberals as trying to do the same.)

So whose version of morality wins? By what standard are we going to determine which morals are acceptable in public life, i.e. as grounds for policy and legislation and the formation of a public shared understanding of our civic responsibility? Is there a way to talk about all of these values in a way that a majority of people (and not just a bare 51%) would support?

In conversations with conservative friends, I have had the strange sensation of ships passing in the night. We try to talk about the same subject but drift off into separate spheres quickly, because our value narratives are so different as to be almost alien.

For example, one person recently said the “values of human dignity found in the Bible” supported a capitalist, market-driven economy in the exchange of goods and fair accrual of money according to one’s work. I reacted with some sense of befuddlement, and only later realized why: I was confused because I see the value of “human dignity” as a universal value, not a capitalist, sectarian or an exclusively Christian one.

What my friend said in support of a Bible-based society, in other words, was actually not a statement about the Bible. It was a statement of ethics, a concept of Good. My friend spoke as though belief in the Bible entailed belief in an ethical concept of Good. 

The Bible does not always articulate a coherent moral philosophy, not does it always treat all people with inherent worth and dignity (I’m thinking in particular of the victims of genocide at the hands of God’s people in Joshua, the lack of condemnation of slavery in both Old and New Testament, and the language about unbelievers going to eternal suffering and damnation spoken by Jesus, to name three examples). But assuming “human dignity” is a value indeed found in the Bible, does that mean that our source concept “human dignity” is exclusively biblical or Christian?

I don’t think so. To the extent that we follow rules of fairness and dignity as a capitalist society it is not because those values are found in the Bible, but rather because they resonate as universal values that are accessible by everyone.

Such conversations with conservatives about values led me to compose the following premise, in an effort to clarify where some common ground might lie between liberals and conservatives:

PREMISE: Public moral values, i.e. values that can transcend the personal, private sphere and become an acceptable source of common discourse in the public square, must be a) secular, based on non-religious reasoning, or b) universalist, based on what is accepted by all religions.

In some cases such public values will overlap with both a) and b).

This premise, if accepted, would accomplish at least three things:

  1. Establishment of common ground on which to build arguments that can be heard by all sides, because they are based in values and language universally recognized.
  2. Prevention of publicly sectarian, divisive language that only seeks to judge those outside on the basis of narrow morals
  3. A re-alignment toward a vision of Good that includes a diversified religious and non-religious ethical and moral philosophy, one that is unified around common values.

Seeking consensus on secular and universalist values is not only a necessary step to any lasting and meaningful dialogue, it is a way to re-assert a rational process into a highly charged political environment and bring it to a healthier place. 

We need a more robust, universalist philosophy in the public square. It may be the only thing left standing as a bridge, after the devaluing of public morals takes its course. 


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An Appeal To Unity

On November 9:

  • We must come together
  • We must see ourselves as one
  • We must find Unity

On November 9:

  • We must separate our dearly held beliefs from our basic humanity
  • We must separate our dearly held values from our sense of self
  • We must separate our political ideals from our connection to each other

On November 9:

  • We must stop the hunt for revenge
  • We must stop criminalizing opposing views
  • We must stop intellectual imperialism (the view that says if someone’s view is different than mine it is either because they are either ignorant, or sinister)
  • We must stop letting fear govern

On November 9:

  • We must start listening
  • We must start learning
  • We must start taking more interest in each other
  • We must trust, in the wheel of life, in the universe, in God

We must do this regardless of who wins.

So that we can heal as a nation, and stop hurtling toward the chasm of radical divide that is opening farther and farther each day around us all.

Clinton, The Rational Choice

So I feel the need, as the final days approach, to say my piece about Hillary Clinton, and why she is the RATIONAL choice. I want to stay away from personal feelings here, and stand on the ground that there are actually certain facts that are verifiable.

1. Her record as a Senator is exemplary. She contributed to pass many bills and in doing so won over people on the other side like John McCain and Orrin Hatch. She could have adopted a more confrontational or grandstanding style, but she put her head down and worked. I challenge you to find a non-partisan report of her record as a senator and study it, to see what she actually did.
2. She’s demonstrated willingness to do the humble thing and reach out. There is actual recorded evidence of this, that’s not just someone’s opinion. She’s actually much better at it than Obama, who tended to be an army of one, “you come to me” style. And clearly better than Trump, who only talks of destroying political enemies and even jailing them.
3. For anyone who believes in hard work and earning your way, Clinton is again the logical choice. Since the time Bill Clinton left office, she has done nothing but earn her stripes working as a public servant. You know well enough that there are lots of people out there who would malign you in an instant just because they disagreed with you, without looking thoroughly at what you actually DID. Whereas Trump, the more you look at what he actually DID, the less he looks like a public servant. He defrauds people in business, he is a tax evader, he gambles other people’s money. That’s not honest, hard work! He represents the opposite of those values: elitist control of other people, not doing work yourself.
4. The evidence and the record point to competence in the public sector, knowledge of how it works, including on the global stage, for Clinton, not Trump. You may not agree with the policies Clinton carried out under Obama, but the fact is she carried out what the president wanted, again putting her head down and working for a former political rival. That’s something we haven’t seen practically since the Lincoln administration! That shows diplomacy and humility combined with shrewd strength, in actuality a rare combination of skill set and character.
5. Hillary Clinton knows business. She has been roundly criticized on the left, right, and center for her familiarity and connection to Wall Street. But look: both politicians and business people at every level know that you need to get to know each other and do each other favors otherwise no consensus is ever reached about anything. She knows how to do that, how to pull the levers. You may not like that she is shrewd and that the Clintons know how to pull in money. But there’s always a way to paint someone as evil. The reality is that real estate people in NYC won’t touch Trump because of his business failings, and his well-known lack of behaving as a respectable business person, and lack of interest in really listening to or working with anyone. Clinton is the rational choice for the businessperson, not Trump.
6. A great deal of the negativity surrounding Clinton, having to do with emails, Benghazi, being a public defender in a rape case, attacking women who came after Bill, etc., may have some merit, but I believe a large portion of it has been overblown. It is political theater. When you look up the details, you don’t come away with a surefire “she’s a criminal” conclusion that the hard right seems to. Chanting “lock her up” and talking about impeachment even before the election takes place? While the other candidate may actually go to jail for fraud, or child sexual molestation? That’s simply not rational.
Standing on the rational choice, I stand for Clinton.

To Strive and Strive

I am tired of striving.

We live in a world where striving is valued, almost above all other virtues. Take the Olympics, recently completed. What is that but a contest of striving? We admire the grit, courage, and determination required to get there. We draw inspiration from these athletes to go forth and do the same in our working lives; individuals, press on!

Except, I am tired of that. Like, bone-deep, world-weary, this-needs-to-end-now tired.

I am 43 years old. I have striven for my entire life. First in school, for good grades. Then in sports, so that my Dad would not think I was a wimp. Then in orchestra, because I needed a challenge. Then as an artist, because I wanted my work seen.

I strove in college to be a double major, because I was curious, but also because I wanted to prove I could. Then I strove after college to prove that I could be employed. I have striven in job after job after job, with varying degrees of success, because I needed money, but mostly to prove to others that I was responsible.

I strove in church to be good because, well, the best investments are the long-term ones, and what could be longer-term than eternal life? Stephen Covey told me “Begin With The End In Mind” (one of his Seven Habits). The Bible says that God is the goal and end of all things. That twin idealism led me to strive after being a pastor, to uproot my life and move many times to go through seminary and internship and become ordained and lead a church, because people all over evidently needed help living toward that End, and that End would reward all this endless striving.

I strove to stay married. Way, way longer than I should have. Because I had a script running in my head that said, this is what you do. I strove to build a life around that narrative, to fix up a house (mighty striving), to have in-laws (mighty, mighty striving), and to suppress some of my most important thoughts and desires (mighty, mighty, mighty striving) so that I could fulfill my vows, so that I could preserve and protect that contract.

In the end I didn’t preserve it. My marriage ended on nearly the same day as my pastoring. I found myself striving again, this time to see my children, and to find money wherever I could. I strove to gain legal footing, to get out from under a penal family law system that held me in arrears even before we started, to be recognized as a co-parent. Just to live near my kids took a heroic effort, but that was only the beginning. Oh the striving, to land in a new community and be treated as an outsider, to try to find work that would actually pay the rent and child support, to repair the career boat while sailing it out on the open sea in stormy weather.

Five years later, and I am finally back on my feet, with a modest income again, able to make consistent child support payments, and living with a committed long-term partner. Life feels stable again. The career boat is repaired and has entered calmer waters.

Yet I still find myself striving. To switch metaphors, if someone decided to come and give this Jenga tower of mine a little push, it would topple easily. I don’t have enough emergency savings, I don’t have enough income, I don’t possess enough to have any strength in any sort of legal conflict.

A significant consulting project, which lasted about six months, ended recently. It was a successful, peaceable exit, albeit an abrupt one. It involved a third party who was potentially able to cause me great trouble, legally and professionally. I’m relieved to be away from that potential source of trouble. But I’m also finding myself contemplating why it was that I entered the agreement, since it only meant more striving.

This is the reason: I want a better life, a secure life, a life where I can have my values and the freedom to live them without fear of someone taking basic necessities away. I want my partner not to have to work as many hours as she does just so we can pay rent.

I want society to recognize me, and everyone else, for the work we do and the contribution we make, by crafting a safety net so that we don’t live with this sense of constant anxiety that if we don’t strive, and strive, and strive, we aren’t any good, we won’t make it.

I want to be part of a community that believes that we create together out of a sense of wonder, rather than a stoic, individual Olympic-style sense of sacrifice. I want a religion that doesn’t involve an Individual Who Died To Be Resurrected, and instead has a Cosmos That Became Ever More Grand And Beautiful.

I want to birth a new way that is dynamic and where work has a place but does not involve our entire selves. I want a life where money flows but is not the whole river. Where relationships are good in whatever form they take and for the time they need, but we aren’t asked to strive for what they cannot give. I want a culture that pays for everyone to have certain basic care and basic needs met, without having to work three jobs or take no vacation. I want a legal system that is not so penal and retributive, and more assistance-oriented. I want my children to live in a world where art and music and love and sex shine as brightly as any office building they might work in or car they might drive, because they come from a place of goodness, wholeness, and natural morality.

I know these things are possible. In the real world, not some utopia, and not some 60s Woodstock. But I wonder, Who can help? Who else wants these things?

Can we feel this boat we are in together move along the water, without such toxic and dis-empowering sense of scurrying? Can we run without judging each other when someone isn’t able to keep up the pace? Can we worship without enthroning a cross-carrying mentality? Is there space for patient discovery and failure? Is there curiosity in exploration and navigation of our world? Is there time in which to rest and enjoy it, without having constantly to push it forward, forward, forward?

Is anyone else tired of the endless striving?