As my late and dearly missed Professor, Dr. Otto Maduro, put it, “One mile from the courthouse, it’s complicated. One hundred feet from the courthouse, it’s not.” In that spirit, with just a couple of weeks until Nov 6, I submit that the mid-term election of 2018 is a referendum on morality – not a particular moral issue, but the entire principle of moral limits as a crucial element in a functional society. We are answering the question “Is morality itself still a thing?” Vote Republican, you are answering “No;” vote Democrat, you are answering “Yes.”
I must first clarify what I mean by “morality.” For some, it is about a traditional, hierarchical social order. The Almighty Father lays down the law and “No!” here means “No, you may not do anything I forbid, according to my will, regardless of your needs, including walking away from my authority and demands.” For most others, myself included, morality is about egalitarian, mutual concern for the well-being of all and a social contract obligating members of society to: a) not be mean jerks to one another and b) ensure those in need are basically cared for. “No!” here means “No, you may not trespass upon the integrity of others, nor may you walk away from your responsibility to them.” While many world religions have elements of the former version of morality, even the patriarchs generally have some obligation to social responsibility. The real heart of religiosity, though, is the mutual social contract, aka “The Golden Rule.”
Our current President was elected on a platform of “screw morality,” in the second sense. He said, “It’s all good to “grab ‘em by the p*##y,” and forget hiding your racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, etc. In fact, who cares if I commit murder on 5th Ave?!” And every time he has transgressed what used to be moral red lines, Republicans have affirmed that platform by not taking action to re-set the lines. Weak rhetorical protests do nothing, while the Republican misogynist moral void is belied most recently by the President’s mocking of Dr. Ford and the Senate’s decision to elevate an incredibly rude, sexist (possibly criminally so), entitled perjurer to the Supreme Court over legitimate calls – even by the Bar Association – for fair, in-depth due processes for victims of sexual assault.
This should not be surprising, as Republicans and the President have also chosen to purposefully strip small children from their mothers’ arms at the border and lie about it; to give a gargantuan tax benefit to the ultra-rich while attempting to yank basic food and medical supports from the poor and disabled; to cheat in elections through racist voter suppression; to vilify those exercising a sacred right to free speech; and to deny the very existence of human-caused climate change while opening up public lands to cheap mining rights for corporate profiteers, literally accelerating the bleak ecological future of all. None of these positions is morally defensible on the merits.
The moral order heralded by the 2016 election and upheld by Republicans ever since is: “Yes, you in dominant social positions may be predatory, mean jerks; and no, you have no obligations to respect or care for others, including ‘the least of these.’” Anti-taxation, anti-regulation, anti-immigration, anti-science, anti-press, anti-reproductive freedom, and anti-human rights for LGBT persons are now simply code for anti-morality.
Many may say abortion is such a moral atrocity that it trumps everything else. The problem – apart from implying that a human life exists prior to the female reproductive labor required to create it – is that these same people fight Democrats’ policies to make birth control and sex-ed more available, both of which reduce abortions. They also appear to be fine with the loss of human life associated with Republicans’ policies conducive to toxic chemicals in products, pollution, wars for access to fossil fuels, inadequate climate change response, toxic-masculine gun violence, lack of health insurance, andclosure of women’s health clinics.
Is the Democratic party one of moral saints? Uh…. No, not by a long shot. Have I ignored nuance in this jeremiad? Absolutely. But at present, voting Yes! Democrat down the line is the only way to collectively re-establish that NO!, we will not give up on morality itself. Once we do that, we can go back to haggling over relative subtleties.
Elizabeth Freese is a mom of two teen daughters and an ABD doctoral candidate in the Graduate Division of Religion at Drew University, focusing on Religion and Society. She is a member of the Board of Trustees at the Morristown, NJ Unitarian Fellowship, has taught Women’s and Gender Studies at Kean University, and has served as a Carter Center Intern and Editorial Assistant with the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion and Feminist Studies in Religion Books.