Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Democrats tend to suggest that Republicans are waging a war on women by restricting access to abortion and certain forms of contraception, while Republicans answer these claims by reversing the story: those who would grant access to abortion and birth control are the ones who really intend to harm women. To whit, Mike Huckabee declared:
It is time Republicans no longer accept listening to the Democrats talk about a war on women because the fact is the Republicans don't have a war on women. They have a war for women—for them to be empowered to be something other than victims of their gender . . . Our party stands for the recognition of the equality of women and the capacity of women. That is not a war on them, it is a war for them. And if the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it.
Predictably, Huckabee’s comments were not well received, particularly among feminist bloggers. They took him to task with special gusto, and concluded that this was yet another transparent (albeit fumbling) attempt to establish a warmer relationship between women voters and the GOP while operating under puritanical opinions of contraception.
All of this is likely true. But Huckabee’s comments also signal his role in a larger Republican rhetorical strategy, in which the ethical work of the Republican Party is elevated over that of the Democratic Party. Huckabee suggests that the state can, by nature of its strength and resources, project certain moral messages, which in turn are translated into ethical outcomes. In his vision, the Democratic party uses the extension of healthcare coverage to include birth control in order to project the message that women are fundamentally morally deficient, that is, incapable of sexual self-control. The ethical harm of such legislation, we are led to believe, is that women will actually practice less sexual self-control.
Thus his message implicates not only women and their sexual behavior, but the voting public as a whole: Will you support such a message, and thereby condone bad behavior? Or will you make yourself part of a better projection—the Republican one—and tell women by the withdrawal of birth control coverage that they can control themselves sexually, causing them to do so in practice?
The idea that the state’s actions inculcate moral messages into its citizens pops up often in Republican rhetoric, far outside the sphere of sexual ethics. Consider Bishop Shirley Holloway’s laudatory remarks about Representative Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty campaign against welfare as we know it: “Paul wants people to dream again. You don’t dream when you’ve got food stamps.” In other words, the extension of welfare benefits discourages aspiration, ambition, and industry because it creates a “dependency culture” encouraging unethical behaviors such as sloth, degeneracy, and shiftlessness. Political agents therefore have a choice: tell the poor that they cannot survive without welfare via the creation of robust assistance programs, and thus that they shouldn’t dream. Or, amplify the message that hope is positive and industry is good, and support the ethical goods of work, diligence, and independence.
This story is an old one, with a longstanding Christian pedigree. The notion that states have a unique standing to set moral examples arises among the earliest Christian writers who take up the task of understanding Christian engagement with the state.
Augustine, for example, surmises that God permitted the glory of the Roman Empire in order to encourage contemplation of greater glories. These glories, by nature of their belonging to God, surpass even the most valorous of states, though they’re commended by the gap: if Rome was truly great and God’s greatness is still greater, then His is a divine wonder indeed. And the contemplation of God’s glory, of course, cultivates virtue. Christian writers of the middle ages, such as the ninth-century Irish Biblical commentator Sedulius Scottus, associate exemplary power with the person of the king himself: “he who shines inwardly before the Lord with a devout will,” Scottus writes, “may also shine publicly before the people in word and action.” Even Martin Luther, famous for his break with the Catholic Church over the conflation of state and ecclesial authority, imagined the government to be capable of positive moral influence: the law, he writes, should “instruct, constrain, and compel [the otherwise lawless] to do good.” Through the just promulgation of such salutary law, the good ruler’s “job will be done right, both outwardly and inwardly; it will be pleasing to God and to the people.”
Such blithe prescriptions of faith are not politically tenable anymore. Yet in the age of liberal democracy, the sense that state authority comes with particular exemplary obligations remains remarkably stable, and it does not surprise me that avowed Christians such as Huckabee and Ryan are especially drawn to the idea. No other institution in society commands the same attention as the state: you can opt out of salacious TV programming and music, but you can’t turn off the police or courts, which underwrite the state’s idea of justice. So if the state has a particularly loud microphone through which it can communicate to people moral truths, why shouldn’t it say something good?
From a purely Christian ethical perspective, I don’t see any problem with the state tailoring its moral statements to the highest quality possible. I agree that state power is obligated to acknowledge its importance in guiding values. We can see it in practice: veterans, for example, are treated with special government care for their service, and we find cultural echoes of that treatment in the private sphere as well: priority boarding on airplanes, free drinks in some bars, and general respect from the public. The state both tells us that veterans are to be value, and models this through its unique concern for their needs. We, in turn, consider them to be valuable people. So it seems to me that the state does have the kind of potential for moral ordering that Huckabee seems to imagine.
But I also think the GOP is taking this philosophy for a pretty cheap ride.
Consider what happens when Democrats use the same ethical imperative to their own advantage. In President Obama’s 2013 inaugural address, he remarked that “the commitments we make to each other—through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security—these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers. They free us to take the risks that make this country great." Obama frames these welfare programs as commitments we make to one another as a society using all the hallmarks of the usual GOP strategy: the state is an agent of cohesion, one that models commitment and trust, which in turn results in strength and boldness. So far, so good. Riposte?
On The Laura Ingraham Show, Paul Ryan responded, “What [Obama is] trying to say is that we are maligning these programs that people have earned throughout their working lives. . . . It's kind of a convenient twist of terms to try and shadowbox a straw man in order to win an argument by default."
In other words, Ryan couldn’t dispute that modeling commitment to the sick and elderly is positive moral work. Instead, he insisted that Social Security in particular is not a welfare program by definition, since it is “earned.” In this way, the notion that the state’s moral messages matter remained intact. Ryan merely had to claim that Obama’s construal of Social Security was false (and to ignore programs such as Medicare and Medicaid) to get out of a sticky quandary: if the state can teach us how to be ethical by commending certain behaviors and bringing us along to commend them with it, why not support the sick, elderly, poor, and oppressed?
Ryan ducks out of discussing the moral dimensions of assistance programs that actually underscore the dignity of the poor. He avoids certain aspects of the moral example theory and selectively highlights others, which is incompatible with a totalizing Christian ethics—especially since the portions he underscores tend to ignore the material needs of the vulnerable. This suggests an overall cynical use of the moral exemplar theory he seems otherwise fond of. After all, in theory Obama’s point is pretty sensible under the GOP’s notion of exemplary governance: we should all be led to support those around us who are suffering from poverty, illness, and persecution. And if the state declares support for them, and we join in that declaration with our votes, are we not responding to positive moral examples by growing into more ethical agents ourselves? Moreover, consider the tangible benefits: as the state underwrites and garners public support for the impoverished and deprived, people’s circumstances really do materially improve—Social Security, for example, lowered the elderly poverty rate drastically.
Learning how to be a good person is a group affair. It is not done in isolation. And if we are going to say that states have some role in it, then our interest in the moral messages tucked inside policy proposals should expand far beyond how those messages will affect the policy’s target group. It would be disingenuous, for example, to imagine that how the state reflects on women’s capacity for sexual self-control should only affect women’s self-conception, and, likewise, it is promising to imagine that programs underscoring the inherent dignity and value of human beings—such as universal healthcare—could teach all of us, whether we use them or not. As archbishop Rowan Williams writes, “Where human dignity is least obvious, it’s most important to make a fuss about it.” For governments—and for all of us—‘making a fuss’ should translate into ‘making a difference,’ an example the state could easily set.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
How would I know / when I’m empty and quiet like breath?
Historian Gerald Horne has developed a grand theory of U.S. history as a series of devastating backlashes to progress—right down to the present day.
Reflecting on three monumental works of modernism—James Joyce’s Ulysses, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus—a hundred years on.