Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice
Alan Wolfe, author, Professor of political science and Director, Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, Boston College
Wendy Kaminer, Affiliated Scholar, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and columnist, The American Prospect
Peggy Steinfels,Editor, Commonweal and Co-director, American Catholics in the Public Square project
Terry Teachout, contributor to Time, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and National Review; and music critic for Commentary
E.J. Dionne, Jr., Co-Chair, The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, and Senior Fellow, the Brookings Institution
MR. DIONNE: I want to thank everyone for coming today. I’m always very excited when Alan Wolfe graces this building, and we’re grateful to have him here today. This event is co-sponsored by Brookings and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Just so you know, at 1:00 today in this very room, the Pew Forum is sponsoring a discussion of the Good New Case — the decision handed down in the Supreme Court yesterday on access to public schools by religious groups — and that should be a very good discussion, so if you want to go grab some lunch and come back you’ll be very welcome back here today.
As I said, it’s always a great honor to have Alan here. Alan knows that I think his book, Whose Keeper, published a decade ago, is one of the most important books of the last couple of decades. Even though our event is not on that book, I try to plug it every occasion I get, so I urge you to take a look at it.
Today we are talking about Alan’s book, Moral Freedom. Alan has been a very important voice on the whole debate of whether there is a culture war going on in America, and I will here take the liberty of putting words in Alan’s mouth. It does seem to me Alan has been urging against the notion that there is a broad culture war. If there is a culture war, it doesn’t go on between individuals. It actually is going on within individuals in their hearts and minds, in their consciences. And his book, One Nation After All, based on an extensive series of interviews, sort of laid out that case. In Moral Freedom, he really picks up the argument from One Nation After All, and asks the question: if Americans want to be moral and committed and non-judgmental, how do they pull off that mix of attitudes? In some ways Moral Freedom can be seen as an effort to explain this aspect of American life. I think one of the many powerful things in Alan’s work is that he actually listens to the people he interviews, which is always a good rule to follow in social science, but is not always followed in social science.
So Alan will begin by giving a brief presentation and then we have a really excellent panel. And again, I’m not flacking our event, I just happen to admire all these people.
Peggy Steinfels is the Editor of Commonweal Magazine. She is co-directing a Commonweal project on American Catholics in the Public Square. She is the author of Who is Minding the Children: The History and Politics of Daycare in America. She’ll be the first respondent to Alan.
I’m so glad Terry Teachout could join us today. He is the music critic for Commentary magazine and a contributor to Time. I particularly appreciate that he was a former editorial writer for The New York Daily News. He writes on jazz and dance in a lot of publications — The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, and The National Review. He comments on NPR’s Performance Today. He is here as well because he too has written powerfully on the culture wars theme and on the notion of the United States as a culture divided, and so I think he’ll be an interesting counterpoint to Alan’s point of view.
And lastly, we’re very honored to have Wendy Kaminer. One thing I forgot to mention is that Alan’s book got an excellent review in the New York Times. That review was actually written by Wendy Kaminer. She is affiliate scholar at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, a columnist for the American Prospect, a contributing editor at the Atlantic Monthly. And I particularly appreciate all the work she has done on religion and public life issues over the years.
I think what we’ll see as we progress down the panel are a series of contrasting perspective on Alan’s work. It’s a tribute to Alan that he is going to provoke that sort of discussion. I welcome Alan Wolfe.
MR. WOLFE: Thanks. I’m not going to summarize the book because I really think the purpose of our getting together is to have the critical commentary that I’m so much eagerly anticipating and looking forward to. But maybe I can just kick it off by telling you a little bit about how I came to do this book and what I think its essential message is. As E.J. says, I’ve been interested in some time now in talking to Americans about the big questions that intellectuals usually address, but intellectuals often address primarily by talking among themselves. It does seem to me that in a democracy where we ask people to make decisions about their vote, that it is also important to ask them about some of these larger and more contentious issues that we who are scribblers for a living are constantly engaged in.
One of those issues is somewhat related to the culture war theme that E.J. emphasized — but I think it has an independent existence, as well, although clearly overlapping. And that is the whole literature of moral decline that we’ve had in the United States that has been embodied in books such as the one written by the former law school professor and almost-justice of the United States Supreme Court, Robert Bork, books with a similar message by Alan Bloom, William Bennett, and a number of others which — Gertrude Himmelfarb — the list could go on — which depict the moral state of the United States in essentially negative terms. Picture it as a kind of decline from an era where things were more morally wholesome in the country with respect to a series of very, very important concepts of what morality consists of.
Of all the literature, the one that is my personal favorite, and the one that is the seemingly the personal favorite of most readers, was William Bennett’s blockbuster bestseller, The Book of Virtues. It is a book which manages to convey its message beautifully and artfully with a carefully cultivated selection of essays and tales and fables and poems from primarily the Western tradition, emphasizing the importance of a number of virtues and leaving the implication that is sometimes stated explicitly and sometimes stated implicitly, that when compared to periods when the virtues were much more honored — Ancient Greece, the early Christian period, the 18th century Republic of the United States — there has been a significant decline in the quality and quantity of virtue in the United States.
That’s essentially the question I wanted to explore with Americans in Moral Freedom by asking them: What does virtue mean to you? Is this a word that is important? How do you try to live by it? And so on.
One idea that was introduced by yet another sort of serious and thoughtful commentator who argues for problems with respect to mortality and virtue in American life – the Catholic writer, Michael Novak – is that we are so distanced from earlier ideas of virtue that the word virtue is no longer in American vocabulary. It is no longer a word that people use. They don’t even know what it means. It has kind of disappeared. Since this notion is so central to the construction of a free country in the United States, it was so central to the theorists of the Constitution, and so on, the absence of the word itself poses serious problems for our society. Now, that struck me as an idea that, to use a bit of social science jargon, was immediately testable. Do people know what this word means or don’t? It should be pretty easy to answer that question.
So my first observation is that I now have an answer to Novak’s question. And I can tell you that Michael Novak is, on this issue, absolutely and one hundred percent correct. The word virtue has indeed disappeared from people’s vocabulary. When I sat down with people and I said, “Well, there is this word ‘virtue’ that people use a lot. What does it mean to you?” I would get just absolute blank stares. The very first person I interviewed scratched his head and said, “I don’t know. What does it mean to you?” And then he sort of coughed and said that he wasn’t a very literate person and so he didn’t know the meaning of the word. He actually was a literate person. The interviews didn’t get off to a good start. “Virtue is returning library books on time,” someone said, which is actually not a bad way to begin.
But vice got a little better response. People knew about “Miami Vice.” Students I interviewed in the University of North Carolina at Greensboro — that was the first thing that came into their mind was the television program “Miami Vice.” The people – mostly gay and lesbian – that I interviewed in San Francisco, they knew what vice was. Vice was vice squads, and they didn’t have those any more in San Francisco so they were glad about that. But virtue and vice were just not at the center of people’s vocabularies.
Before concluding, however, that the Republic is in danger, it struck me that it was more important not to talk about virtue, but to talk about the virtues. And so the book takes four virtues — loyalty, honesty, forgiveness, and self-discipline — and it turns the conversation over to Americans to talk about these much more concrete and less abstract ideas. I chose these because they are very practical things. They are part of what it means to live in a modern complex and dynamic society. How do you deal with issues of loyalty in workplaces and marriages, in communities, to your religious faith? What does it mean to be honest? Can we follow an injunction of a very, very strong commitment to honesty in a society that is advertising in political campaigns that are not always subject to the highest standards of honesty in their presentation? Forgiveness and so on.
I think probably the best way to end this quickly is I’m just going to say one thing about just of these four and then conclude.
With respect to loyalty, I think the single biggest thing I discover is that there isn’t that much of it in the sense that it’s not a value or a virtue that would rank all that highly in the way Americans think about the right and proper and good way to lead life. But then again, how can that be surprising? We live in a capitalist society that emphasizes self-interest. We live in a primarily immigrant society where people were disloyal to another world in order to come here. We live at a time when I think most people understand and recognize that the way to get ahead is to not always to be the most loyal person you can be in the institution in which you work. The institution in which I work, a Jesuit institution, takes loyalty enormously seriously. Boston College has a reputation that if you ever work there for one day you have a job for the rest of your life. And all of that is true. It is a place of phenomenal loyalty. But like every academic institution, if you want a better salary you go somewhere else, get an offer, come back and talk to your dean. You commit an act of disloyalty in order to advance. So loyalty is not that widely regarded. But in a society where the largest investment banking company calls itself Fidelity, but can only do so by getting people to take all their money out of their local savings accounts and put it in this big anonymous firm, what else can you really expect?
Also I would say that honesty is not, at least as an absolutist command, an ideal that people feel that they can honor. Whether it’s best in St. Augustine’s notion that any lie is a violation of God’s commands and a sin, or whether expressed in more secular terms by Emmanuel Kant, the idea of a very high and stringent standard for honesty is not one that has strong resonance the way Americans talk about these things. For one thing, there are other virtues, virtues in which I didn’t ask people directly, that came out in interviews, that people thought were in some circumstances much more important than honesty. Alan Bloom says in The Closing of the American Mind that the one word he would use to describe his students is “nice.” And he didn’t mean it that nicely. (Laughter.) I find that niceness is probably the most important and powerful virtue in America. Everyone wants to be nice. And being honest is often in conflict with being nice, and when there’s a conflict between being honest and being nice most people would much rather be nice than be honest.
One of the interviews I will never forget was with a woman in San Francisco, a therapist who said that in her view there is a kind of vice in honesty, that honesty has a kind of sadistic quality to it, and she would not consider a person to be of good character if they used honesty to inflict deliberate cruelty on other people.
Some of the gays and lesbians I talked with in San Francisco told me that loyalty did not rank very high on their list of virtues. A number of them, in fact, said you know that stereotype of gays as very promiscuous? Well, it’s true. We don’t form stable relationships. We like sleeping around. Loyalty is not important. But honesty became tremendously important. Whereas most Americans would rather be nice than honest, for many of the gays and lesbians I interviewed in San Francisco, the act of coming out and being honest about your sexuality was actually very hurtful to their parents and the people in their immediate circle, but it was much more important to them to be honest than be nice. So these things come out in different ways depending on people’s circumstances and opinions.
I was especially interested in forgiveness because in Bennett’s book there are twelve virtues, twelve chapters – courage, honor, loyalty, etc. – but forgiveness is not one of them one. There is no chapter on forgiveness in William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues. Now since forgiveness is an idea we often associate with Jesus Christ, that might lead one to conclude that there isn’t much of Jesus Christ in William Bennett’s Book of Virtues. I hate to tell you this, but it’s true. There isn’t much of Jesus Christ in William Bennett’s Book of Virtues. There is a great deal more about Homer in the book than about Jesus Christ. Virtue, the word itself, has a lot in common with the Latin word “viril” and Bennett’s conception of the virtues is very manly. Battle is where the virtues really come out and are important. And what we might think of as perhaps maybe a more feminine virtue of forgiveness actually doesn’t make much of an appearance in the Book of Virtues.
The one virtue Americans probably don’t lack is forgiveness. That they probably have too much of. I spent a lot of time talking to people about capital punishment. I did not talk to them directly about Timothy McVeigh, although one of the women I interviewed in Texas had a brother who was killed in the bombing in Oklahoma City. But I did talk to people a lot about the case of Karla Faye Tucker and there was very little sense that she should be forgiven.
Finally a word about self-discipline, the Protestant ethic, the idea of self-denial. Self-discipline is usually considered a virtue and its contrasting vice is usually thought of as self-indulgence.
The self-discipline, self-indulgence thing for me was really captured by — this sounds almost too trite to be true — a 40-year-old software person, a Chinese immigrant, very wealthy who had created a company and really saw the company grow. When I talked to him he said something roughly like, “Well, for the first forty years of my life I’m going to be a workaholic. I’m going to be completely aesthetic and self-disciplined, and I’m going to accumulate as much money as I possibly can. And then for the last forty years of my life I’m going to spend it all and enjoy every moment of it and indulge in the finest of wines and travel and so on.” That to me embodied a way of seeing self-discipline and self-indulgence not as so much polar opposites but as things you put together.
Americans, in other words, put the ideas of virtue together. They don’t approach the virtues with a kind of pre-arranged kit in which this is honesty, this is courage, or whatever they are, and my job is to sort of fit my behavior to some pre-established idea of what virtues means.
The book is called Moral Freedom because its essential argument is that a society that has economic freedom and political freedom will find it very, very hard to resist moral freedom; that you cannot tell people, “Go out, make as much money, be an entrepreneur, find your own path economically,” and in that sense enjoy economic freedom. “Vote for any candidate as you want, have as much free speech as the Supreme Court will allow, be free to practice your religion as much as the Supreme Court will allow,” and have, in that sense, political freedom, and then say, “Here’s economic freedom, here’s political freedom, but when it comes to morality, then you have to obey the commands of a tradition that has been established for two thousand years, you have to turn your autonomy over to a hierarchy that ‘s going to tell you what morality is.” It strikes me that’s an almost impossible thing to ask of people. It’s essentially, though, what I think our political leaders do ask of people. I’m not sure this can continue for very long.
We do have a kind of conservatism in America that celebrates laissez-faire in economics, but also celebrates a kind of regulation in morality. And we have a kind of liberalism in America that wants to see a lot of planning overtaken by the State in the economic sphere, but wants people to be completely free in the expression of their civil liberties. I think there’s tension in both traditions in so far as this idea of moral freedom cuts against them both and presents challenges to both of them. I’m anxious to hear what my critics have to say, and I’ll just simply stop and turn it over to you.
MR. DIONNE: Thank you very much. In journalism, some of you may know, there are things called “shorts,” and that’s a temptation to follow the rule when you have to simplify. And as Alan was speaking I decided the great over-simplification of his talk was we are not particularly loyal, we’re not particularly honest, we are pretty self-indulgent, but we are nice, we’re very forgiving, and we’re not in moral decline. (Laughter.)
I was also struck by his point — which I’d love for him to come back to — that Bill Bennett’s virtues are Roman and Greek more than they are Christian because I think there’s a lot in that and not just about Bill Bennett.
I’d like to turn to Peggy Steinfels. Welcome.
MS. STEINFELS: Thank you, thank you. I feel like I follow Alan Wolfe around, that someone from Commonweal is always at him saying, “Oh, you really don’t mean that.” Isn’t that true, Alan? (Laughter.) He very kindly turned up at another Pew project a couple of weeks ago. On a Sunday morning, no less, to preach to the converted. And so, as is the Commonweal habit, I might say we start out with “huh?” “how?” and “compared to what?” Which I think were the questions they asked about One Nation.
My points are fairly general ones, and I begin by saying that I happened to have been in Minnesota last week, which of course is the embodiment of radical niceness as a state of the union. And yet I was also impressed by the fact that these radically nice people seemed to exercise a certain kind of deeply set of virtues. Since I happened to be visiting, among other people, Commonweal’s printer, in St. Croix, Minnesota, I was extremely impressed by what I would call a fairly old-fashioned work ethic, a desire to meet the customer’s needs, and since we had billing disputes, a real effort to be honest about what was at stake here. Of course, Alan has spent a great deal of his life in New York as well as Boston, he knows radical niceness is not a set of virtues that any true New Yorker would ever want — it would be insulting to call a New Yorker nice. (Laughter.)
I want to point a little bit to, perhaps, certain kind of regional variations. Although you visited a number of places around the country, there is a certain way where there is a sense of homogenization in the characterization of people — although people certainly have their own voices in the book. Tipton, Iowa, is not Fall River, Massachusetts, is not, obviously, San Francisco. And we tend, I think, in the overarching thesis of the book to lose sight of that fact.
The other question of course, is if Alan Wolfe showed up at your house to ask you questions, wouldn’t you want to be nice to him? I mean, wouldn’t you – (laughter) — appear to be reasonable and tolerant, et cetera?
I think the other element which always intrigues me in these kinds of studies is the reflexivity of social science itself. People have read enough of these studies, they’ve heard reports of them in the newspapers, and of course they have their own views about things, but they want to appear to an interviewer, reasonably enough, as reasonable people and tolerant people, and this phrase, “Well, I wouldn’t do that, but I wouldn’t judge what other people do. I would never get divorced, but obviously some people have to.” It would be interesting sometimes to kind of parse out what that non-judgementalism actually consists in, and I guess it is certainly related to people’s own behavior.
Then I get to my question, “In comparison to what?” And as I was reading the chapter on lying and honesty, et cetera, I was taken back to 1947, second grade, St. Edith’s Grammar School, where of course we had reached the state of reason in Catholic psychology — (laughter) — and morality and we were being instructed in various intricacies in this sort of thing. The one place you could never, never lie was confession because in effect you were lying to God. You also should never lie to your parents. But then you sort of moved out of the intimate circle of God and family, and while it was perfectly clear that you should never lie to Sister, it was also true that the local custom required that you not snitch on people, so that while you would never lie to Sister about who did what, you might not reveal the complete truth about this.
The other admonition — which I suspect if I went looking I could find in St. Thomas Aquinas — is if you can’t say something nice about somebody, don’t say anything at all. (Laughter.) Now, this is in the realm of honesty in the sense that there is this set of social mores that you are not to be directly nasty about people and to people. The absolute moral norms that Alan sketches as the background against which he sees moral freedom emerging are not as absolutist or galvanizing as he or most of us would probably like to think they were. People always have to choose in some sense and always had to choose. Now maybe what they chose to do was not possible because they were constrained by race, or sex, or something, but I think we need to take account of, number one, casuistry — and since you are in a Jesuit institution, you are surrounded by experts in this subject — and conscience, the fact that people may always choose to move outside the constraints of moral norms because they see they must do something greater or different or obviously always the possibility of doing something bad and evil. And of course, you know, one thinks of people like Thomas Moore, Joan of Arc, people who actually got burnt or killed for what is in a sense passing outside the moral constraints and moral norms of their own society. I don’t want to go back that far, though.
Alan has this phrase in his book — the defining characteristic of a moral philosophy of the Americans can therefore be described as a principle of moral freedom. And what is moral freedom? Moral freedom means that individuals should determine for themselves what it means to lead a good and virtuous life.
Now, I think something we might talk about here today and I think needs some parsing is what does “determine for themselves” actually mean? I don’t think we are talking about blank slates of people who sit and choose among various courses of action depending on whether they are virtuous or less virtuous, or full of vice or evil. I mean, we are all social creatures and we embody certain values. We come from certain families, we come from certain parts of the country.
I think this notion, which may or may not be built into that phrase, “determine for themselves,” kind of miscasts what total, absolute, moral autonomy seems to me — a philosophical and actual impossibility because we come to adulthood in some ways formed already in the practice of certain virtues and vices.
Which brings me to my last two points which Alan raises in the book and I think are extremely important whether we completely accept the findings or not. I think he points to two real problems. One of them is character formation. How in this kind of society do you actually create a space for children, who in a respect are still unformed, and how do you create places where they can be formed in a way that would presumably make them more virtuous rather than more vicious. That’s a very complicated question, and the schooling question is certainly an important part of that. Family configuration is an important part of that question. I think that is one of the biggest issues that the book raises — is there a way to do this that preserve the so-called moral freedom of adults while actually, in a sense, forming children – and you cite the word “formation” as the real problematic in American education, and I agree. I think that’s why people do homeschooling. I think that’s why they take children out of public schools and put them into religious schools, or even into private schools that aren’t particularly religious but promise a certain kind of discipline and a sense of serious education.
And then that feeds into the other problem you raise — and I completely agree with you — the role of institutions as upholders of moral norms in the past. The church and the government are two institutions finding themselves, I think, in a very weakened condition as a source of authority of any kind, to say nothing of moral authority. In the case of our own government, it’s full of the biggest liars in history, in some sense. You mentioned Johnson, we could go on to Nixon, and I’d certainly add Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. The notion that the leader of the country is somebody who has purposefully misled the citizens of the country cannot help but, I think, undermine not only their authority as leaders but the authority of the government. That reverberates throughout the society. If your premier people are doing this sort of thing, what standards should other people set for themselves, and I’d say the same thing about the churches to some extent.
And of course, the Catholic Church, of which I am a member, is still reeling, in my view, from the pedophilia issues which, of course, may still be lying there below the surface. When you talk to people about the church, it’s very often not the questions about abortion, birth control, and everything else that people think are problems with the Catholic Church. The mistrust that people have over the fact, not that pedophilia occurred so much, but that the Church did not address the thing directly – that they sent people to other parishes, that they covered up, the Bishop lied, et cetera — I think that remains a kind of open wound in the Catholic Church. And I think other churches have these kinds of scandals, as well.
So if the sources of tradition moral authority have — at least in these two cases: the government and the churches — proved unreliable I do think you have a serious question of where if not moral authority comes from, where moral examples come from and what do you base your own moral scrutiny on if the leaders in leading institutions of your society have themselves failed in a fairly dramatic fashion.
MR. DIONNE: Thank you, Peggy.
I was thinking how much unemployment there would be if one consistently applied the rule, “If you can’t say something nice about someone don’t say it,” — campaigns are out, congressional debates, lawsuits, panel discussions, book reviews, dance, music, theatre review, journalism generally, most of publishing, academic political theory, social science, economics — and I stop there when unemployment reached about fifteen percent. (Laughter.)
MR. DIONNE: Terry Teachout. Welcome.
MR. TEACHOUT: I was thinking about Alan’s observation that Jesus Christ doesn’t figure very often in The Book of Virtues. Undoubtedly this is because Bennett didn’t want to get it banned from high school libraries. (Laughter)
It is, I think, significant, that after Jesus Christ and Emmanual Kant, the individual most frequently cited in the index to Moral Freedom is Bill Bennett. At regular intervals throughout the book you run across reference to a group of people whom Alan various describes as diagnosticians of America’s moral decline, nostalgic conservatives longing for a return to a more wholesome time, and — my favorite — those who believe that America could use a bit more of Victorian morality. These references are for the most part studiedly neutral, though I emphasize the adverb, since the whole point of Mr. Wolfe’s book is to suggest that such folks have missed the boat of history.
As you may have gathered from E.J.’s introduction, I’m one of those folk. To put it more precisely, I’m a Christian and a moral anti-relativist, which sounds nicer than moral absolutist. (Laughter.) Be that as it may, I come not to bury Alan, but to praise him – later. (Laughter).
Before I get to the praise, though, there are a few other things I want to talk about first. What I don’t want to do is preach a sermon, so as the lawyers say, allow me to stipulate that I really do think all those conservative things to which Alan makes such frequent reference in his book, though I might have described them rather differently. I disbelieve passionately in the concept to which he attaches the seductive label “moral freedom.” What he thinks inevitable I think inconceivable, or at least inconceivably bad.
But this is not a debate. We are here to talk about, and I hope shed a little light on, an exceptionally interesting and provocative book. So let me try to do so. One of the things that struck me about Moral Freedom, virtually from the outset, is that I wasn’t quite sure what it was — the book, I mean, not the content. The dust jacket describes Alan as a social scientist, and goes on to say that the book consists of his findings. The overall tone of the book, the atmospherics, you might say, leave something of an impression that through scientific research Alan has arrived at a set of scientific conclusions about the way we live now. At the same time, he makes no secret of his methodology. Moral Freedom is based on interviews with 205 randomly selected Americans living in eight non-randomly selected communities, each of the latter specifically chosen in order exemplify what he calls a particular slice of American experience, with Alan Wolfe doing the slicing.
To quote him again, “Because America is as diverse as it is large, we should seek out Americans whose views we suspect gravitate toward the extremes. Their views may not be representative of much of anything except themselves, but because their views are often deeply and tenaciously felt, they establish the parameters of a proper way to live in which everyone else makes choices.”
Now whatever else that is, it isn’t scientific. One might in fact be tempted to call it wishful thinking. But I would prefer a less pejorative term. I’d call it journalism. In fact, let’s be a little bit pejorative and call it advocacy journalism. These are unrepresentative samples of eight communities, the latter picked to prove a point. Moral Freedom, in short, proves nothing about anything. And if I were a belligerent soul, I would stop right there. But I’m not, and I’m also not suggesting that Alan has in any way intentionally misrepresented the nature of his labors, except perhaps a little bit in the tone of his final chapters wherein he suggests that it is possible to draw convincing general conclusions about America from all these not-quite-random interviews. Journalists do that sort of thing all the time and we forgive them for it, usually. We also, if we are wise, take their findings with at least a grain of salt and sometimes the whole shaker.
The reason why I am not so inclined to casually dismiss Moral Freedom is because a good deal of what Alan says rings true to me, to a point. We’ll get back that, but I’m not quite finished raising red flags. I want to hoist one more.
Implicit in the text of Moral Freedom – and sometimes explicit – is the notion that America has changed in some profound and fundamental sense from the way it was at some unspecified time in the past. Once upon that time we were all moral absolutists. Now we fill our plates from the post-modern moral cafeteria, selecting a virtue here and a vice there, adding seasoning to taste with my requirement that we eat our brussel sprouts. Again, I think there is something to be said for this description of our current condition — to a point. What I wonder about is the extent to which our current condition represents a true break, a discontinuity with America’s moral past — what Alan refers to in the book at the norms, traditions, beliefs, and practices of yesterday.
In reading Moral Freedom I often get the feeling that he thinks of pre-modern America as a morally absolute and uniform regime, a place where everybody read from the same page, in the same edition of the same hymnal, or if they didn’t, they kept quiet about it. In fact, it sounds positively Catholic, this vision of arcadian America, organically unified in its pursuit of virtue. Of course, it was nothing of the kind. In fact, it was in one important sense exactly opposite, and in that specific sense America is the least Catholic country in the West. We are rather a land of Protestant enthusiasts. And I use that last word in its earlier religious meaning. Never before has there been a great country whose citizens were so individually motivated. That motivation is as deeply rooted as it can possibly be in the specific form of Protestantism that has always dominated American religious life. I say “form” and “has” but of course I mean “plural.” We are the great forcing bed of Protestant sects. Beyond the basic tenants of what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity,” these sects have always had just one thing in common. They expect their members to pursue the inner life, not submit to hierarchical authority. Moral freedom in that sense has been around for a long, long time in this country. You might even say it was one of the foundation stones of America.
It struck me reading Alan’s book that a great many of the phenomena that he describes with apparent surprise have not only been around for an amazingly long time, but were actually made possible by the extreme doctrinal diversity characteristic of Protestant enthusiasm in a country with an open and moving frontier where most Christians understood themselves to be full-fledged members of what Protestants call the “priesthood of believers,” charged with a responsibility of interpreting God’s word for themselves. Now this doesn’t mean that America was ever morally invertebrate, or that all of America could now be described in that manner, but I think it does mean that when Alan purports to find common moral ground between San Francisco and Tipton, Iowa, he might possibly be finding something else. But then, he is a man with a thesis. He thinks America is one nation after all.
As E.J. pointed out earlier, I have a different thesis. I looked at the electoral map of America last November and saw two nations: a Republican nation and Democratic nation, evenly split on cultural, ideological, and geographical lines, increasingly impatient with one another’s pieties, and decreasingly disposed, in the words of Rodney King to “just get along.” Nor have any of the events of the last six months, not to mention the past two weeks, led me to change my mind.
Again, this isn’t a debate about the two nations thesis so I won’t reiterate it or explain at length what most of you already know, which is that, to sum it up in a headline that appeared a couple of months ago in The Washington Post, “Voter Values Determine Political Affiliation.” But I will read one paragraph from that insufficiently noticed story by Thomas Edsall. “Pollsters are finding that one of the best ways to discover whether a voter holds liberal or conservative value stands is to ask ‘How often do you go to church?’ Those who go often tend to be Republican. Those who go rarely or not at all tend to be Democratic.” Or to quote Michael Barone, “Americans increasingly vote as they pray, or don’t pray.” Which brings us back to Alan’s book. He thinks, if I read him right, that in some meaningful sense the culture as a whole is reasonably well united and we are living under a regime of moral freedom. I think we are culturally disunited, that the fissure between the two nations is widening, and that the entity I call Republican nation is distinctly different from Democratic nation in its moral philosophy and self-understanding.
Unlike most Eastern journalists, I actually spend a lot of time in the heart of Republican nation and know something about it. I was born in Southeast Missouri in a small town in the middle of a county that used to vote Democratic and now votes Republican. Most of my close relatives still live there including my mother, my brother and my brother’s family, and I go back there three or four times a year. When I’m there I try to do more listening than talking, which is easy, since people who live in small Missouri town aren’t all that interested in hearing about what life is like for a music critic who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. (Laughter.)
I hear two things. One is this: the language of moral freedom, moral relevancy, has worked its way into the lives of Republican Americans. Now they don’t do self-esteem — not yet, anyway. But they are at great pains to assure you, in all times, in all places, that they are not being judgmental.
The other thing I hear is this: The people who live in my old corner of Republican nation, it turns out, are just as judgmental as ever. They just don’t want to call it that. They go to church. They own guns and believe in the death penalty. They do not support the legalization of drugs. And they are hell and death on crime. And, they vote Republican in growing numbers every election cycle.
Now have they changed since I was a boy back in the sixties? Oh, some. There’s a little more wiggle room. More people, for example, are getting divorced. But people were getting divorced back when I was a boy, and they were not expelled from nice Christian society when they did. That, I think, has more to do with pragmatism built into American Protestantism than it does the post-modern notion of moral freedom posited by Alan. The notion of wiggle room itself presupposes a generally acknowledged central position from which to wiggle.
The moral freedom I see in my corner of Republican America is the kind in which everyone agrees on the ultimate goal that all are expected to pursue them in their own way. And I suspect it was always like that, pretty much. Mind you, the available wiggle room has increased, the rhetoric has changed and the question is this — which is more significant? The difference between Republican nation now and Republican nation fifty years ago, or the difference between Republican nation now and Democratic nation now? I think the latter. Alan thinks the former. He may be right. He is certainly right to say that there has been a profound change in the moral philosophy, self-understanding of Democratic nation. As for me, I would not hesitate to say for a moment that the concept of moral freedom, as Alan describes it, is a correct portrayal of the moral philosophy of part of America – maybe half, maybe more than half. And I would also agree that to some unknown extent this concept has begun to worm its way into moral discourse of the other part of America, with results as yet unfathomable, which means that Alan Wolfe and I agree on quite a few things — perhaps a few more than you expected.
MR. DIONNE: Thank you very, very much. We, among others, are grateful to have heard from a music critic who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
MR. TEACHOUT: Plus Republican!
MR. DIONNE: I was going to say that. Every single time he casts a ballot he strikes one small blow against his thesis that there are two nations. (Laughter.)
Wendy Kaminer, welcome.
MS. KAMINER: Well, I don’t think my mother ever read Thomas Aquinas, but she did say to me repeatedly when I was growing up that if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
The lesson didn’t take. (Laughter.) It may tell you something about the effect of proselytizing young children. I don’t know.
But I do have some nice things to say about Alan’s book. I think one of the great virtues of the book, for me at least, was that it challenged a lot of prevailing stereotypes about people on the right and people on the left simply by talking to them and by listening to them.
We tend to think, or at least we are encouraged to think of the right as being morally authoritarian, especially the religious conservative right, and the left as being the kind of permissive, different-strokes, anything-goes culture. And yet, as anybody who has spent any time on a college campus in recent years knows, the left can be quite authoritarian. It’s the left that gave us speech codes on college campuses. The left is anything but morally relativistic on questions about racism or sexism or homophobia or offensive speech towards oppressed groups, I could go on.
I think that a lot of our stereotypes about moral relativism and moral absolutism are just that. I think everybody is a moral relativist to some extent, and everybody is a moral absolutist on some issues. It just depends on the issues you care most deeply about and feel most deeply about.
I greatly appreciated that part of Alan’s book, and I think that one of the things that it demonstrated and one of the things that his thesis that the culture war has been greatly overestimated reflects is that popular culture is homogenizing. Culture is like the weather. You just can’t escape it even if you homeschool your kids, even if you do everything you can to control what they watch they television. Unless you really try to exile yourself from the culture like the Amish — and even for the Amish the culture tends to seep through — its very, very difficult to be unaffected by it in ways that you may not even understand.
Peggy says that Alan seems to homogenize the people in this book. To a certain extent that may be true, but I think that a lot of that homogenization is being done by the culture to which we are all exposed, and I think that there are also a couple of forces in that culture that come together in unexpected ways. One of the things that connects right and left in ways that people aren’t really aware of are the commonalties between established religious practices and beliefs and the ethics of popular therapy. Now it’s not surprising in a way because AA comes out of some traditional religious movements. But if you pay attention to the theology of a lot of popular therapeutic movements, it borrows quite generously from some traditional American religious beliefs. The ideology of the twelve-step movement was basically the ideology of salvation by grace. You see it in Alan’s book in the way people right and left talk about addiction — that comes right out of popular therapy. Popular therapies, of course, come out of religious. So it’s not surprising that people share some of the same concepts about them.
I recently read a book about exorcisms, which are, according to the author of the book, practiced fairly widely in charismatic Protestant and charismatic Catholic communities. I think he may have exaggerated how much they are practiced, but I think it is a kind of phenomenon. And what was most interesting to me about it was listening to the way people talked about exorcisms and the way it was described. It sounded just like codependency — this notion of being possessed by a demon, that people are being exorcised of demons of lust and demons of sex addiction and demons of overeating, and the whole concept of what it means to be possessed by a demon has been trivialized in the way, I think, of the concept of what it means to be possessed by a serious substances abuse addiction has been trivialized. People talk about it in similar ways. So I think that there are some reasons, aside from Alan’s own biases, that give us this kind of merging of ideas about moral values and virtues.
Now, that being said, what was also very interesting to me was the gap between what people say about moral values and moral virtues and the public policies that they support. I think Peggy mentioned that people always want to appear nice when they talk to surveyors, so you can’t always take what they say at face value, and you can’t take them as a reflection of what it is that they really feel. And I think to be fair to Alan, he is acutely aware of this and he talks about it and says of course people don’t always practice what they preach. But still it’s interesting to know what they do preach. It does matter what people think or what they would like to think even if they don’t always act on their beliefs. I think the question becomes why is it that people aren’t acting on their beliefs? I don’t think its simply because they are hypocrites and because they want to say something nice. I think the gap between what people believe or would like to believe and the kinds of policies they support is an information gap.
You see this most clearly in the difference between the kind of ethic of forgiveness and non-judgementalism that people hear from a lot of people right and left, and our incredibly punitive, draconian criminal justice system. I mean it is quite startling to hear all these people talk quite forgivingly about drug abuse and about addiction, and Alan takes it, as I recall, as one indication that there’s a belief out there that people are fundamentally good and so they somehow get overtaken by their genes or they get overtaken by some physiological inclination to become addicted, but it’s not that they are bad people with bad characters. But how do you put that together with the fact that we put people in prison for ten and fifteen and twenty years for minor, non-violent drug offenses? I mean, those two things just don’t compute. It’s very interesting. If you didn’t know anything about our penal laws and you just read Alan’s book and then were asked to describe the kind of penal system this nation might develop, it would look completely different from what we have now. It would be the opposite of what we have now. And Alan does explore this somewhat in the book, mostly in discussions around the Karla Faye Tucker execution.
Karla Faye Tucker, as you may recall, was a young, white woman. She was in her mid- thirties. She was executed in Texas a couple of years ago for a murder which she clearly and admittedly committed, but in the course of her prison term she became a Christian. And there were even calls from people like Pat Robertson to grant her clemency because she had been, in a sense, reborn. For the most part, Alan’s respondents were not, as I recall, all that sympathetic to that view. They didn’t want to take forgiveness that far. They had this sense that we’re forgiving and it’s good to be forgiving, but the criminal justice system really has been too forgiving. Now that’s just a misimpression of what the criminal justice system is. It is many things. It is often inefficient. It doesn’t get the right people; instead it gets the wrong people, so I suppose you could say it’s too forgiving of the wrong people who are never caught because they are too busy prosecuting the innocent people. But you know, if there’s one thing you can say about the criminal justice system, that it is completely untrue. It is not too forgiving.
Now I don’t think that a lot of the people that Alan interviewed really believe that we ought to put people in prison in life for shoplifting. But in fact, we have laws that make that possible, and we have people serving very long prison terms because they committed a couple of minor, non-violent felony offenses, and the third offense was something like shoplifting and getting into a tussle with a security guard. That’s not, I think, what people want. But it’s what people don’t know about.
One of the reason they don’t know about it is that the political sphere is not governed by the situational ethics and the occasional moral relativism and the desire to understand and be forgiving and compassionate that Alan find when he talks with people. The political system is governed by what I always think of as the “Crossfire” model of debate. The political system really is governed by an exaggeration of the differences between people.
And so I think that we can argue about whether or not there is a culture war. There is in some ways and not in others. But I think what we respond to most often is the political war, and I think that politics tends to distort more than it reflects what it is that people really believe about moral values and virtues. People are susceptible to that because they often don’t have the information that they need to evaluate what it is that they are hearing from the politicians.
I’ve always thought in reviewing books that you have to let a writer choose his subject, and I think that Alan has chosen his subject and has does some very interesting things with it, and it’s a book that I really would recommend to you. Just listening to these people talk as they deliberate these issues its really quite engaging.
But I would be interested in seeing Alan tackle the hard questions about the gaps between what it is people say, what it is that they believe or really want to believe, and how they operate in the political world. As I’ve said, I think the clearest place where you see this gap is in the criminal justice system, but I think you would find it elsewhere as well. I suggest to Alan that that might be in interesting topic for him to consider next.
I think that there is a taste for moral freedom, for figuring out your own idea of what it means to be a virtuous person, but I think right and left that that moral freedom operates within limits. I don’t think you’ll hear anybody right or left saying that if you think being a virtuous person includes pedophilia that you can be a virtuous person. So there are absolutes that limit this search for moral freedom.
MR. DIONNE: Thank you very much. I do want to turn to the audience.
I really appreciate that point about bifurcated morality — we’re nonjudgmental and punitive at the same time. I once covered the New York State legislature and saw a bill that was co-sponsored by one of the most conservative members who was a leading supporter of the death penalty, and one of the most liberal members who was a leading support of gay rights bills. And I went up to both of them and I said, “The only thing I can think that this legislation does is apply the death penalty in cases of discrimination on the grounds of sexual preference.”
Now proving American politics is often about money, it was an obscure securities issue that they both had an interest in and so did the securities industry. But I think each of them understood the irony of their own sort of participation together on any bill and understood the irony of this punitive side in both parts of the culture, the sense in both Republican America and Democratic America.
I want Alan to be able to reply, but I would like to go to the audience first. There are some seats up front. Academic panels are like churches and houses of worship — people always start out sitting in the back. So anybody is welcome.
Q: Good morning. My name is Sabrina Neff, and I’m with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. I’d like to thank you all for coming today. I’ve really enjoyed this.
My question is specifically for Dr. Wolfe. In light of what Ms. Kaminer has just said, is it possible to make the American culture more aware and more inclined to act in accordance with the moral virtue that you outline in your book if they become more informed? And if this is the case, what do you think or I’d like you to speak to the idea of character education in American public elementary schools.
MR. WOLFE: I think Wendy’s right to identify a gap here between what people say and what policies they support or even how they act. It’s one that puzzles not just me, but lots of people.
There are easy answers to the question you pose that I don’t think cut deep enough in the sense that voting on policies is more and more something that fewer Americans are doing. So it’s quite possible for public opinion to represent the voting public, which is a tiny portion of the American electorate. The people who essentially vote in primaries in increasingly party loyalists who therefore determine who the legislators are. Some astonishing figure of five or ten percent of Americans actually participate enough in politics to determine who gets to make all those policies.
So 90 — 95 percent of the people I talk to aren’t active enough in politics to have any impact on policies, and in a sense, whatever their views are, they’re just not being registered in some way. I do think that there is a kind of bias in the political system due to the changes in the nature of fundraising, changes in the nature of two very, very increasingly ideological, polarized political parties who have to depend on their core activists. And those core activists are so much at the extremes of both political parties that the great opinion in the center gets washed out. But that’s a technical explanation, and I don’t think it gets at the heart of really what you’re saying and what the questioner was asking. And as Peggy Steinfels said, it is a big, unanswered question, both in the book and in American society, about character and what character is and how it ought to be taught.
The one area of life where I personally am anything but an advocate for moral freedom is in the classroom. I’m one of those old-fashioned kind of people who believes that teachers teach because they actually know something and that students take classes because they don’t. If you at all think that because the book is called Moral Freedom, and because I do have something of a tendency to say that it’s inevitable, that I’m one of those people who put my feet in a circle and we all share our experiences — it’s the exact opposite when it comes to teaching and education in general. You couldn’t find a member of the Catholic Church more hierarchical and authoritarian in approach than I tend to be.
So here’s one area, education, where I’m of the personal opinion that moral freedom may not be the most appropriate way to achieve it. Can it work, though, with respect to teaching about character? That’s where I’m not so sure it can. I think the teaching of character is done as much by example as by didactic lesson plans. Many of the formal attempts to emphasize character education don’t seem to me to cut very deeply in our culture in part because there is sometimes an ideological agenda associated with it. People often can perceive that ideological agenda and react against it, in part because of an overly didactic character to it, and in part because the educational system being what it is, if you turn anything over to educators these days they will fail at doing something good with it.
I think we need a different kind of way of thinking about the teaching of character that has to kind of be more trusting of the voices of individual people, and that approaches these things in a kind of “let’s lay it out there” sense, and it’s an important thing to lay out there, but some room has to be built into the way we think about character education for people to grab it themselves and not just to receive — to receive a lesson.
MR. DIONNE: Before we go to the next question, I want to get to Terry’s point in this two nations thesis. On the one hand, from the election returns clearly something is going on — you have to look at the map not only by state but even by county.
MR. TEACHOUT: Particularly by county. That’s where it’s interesting.
MS. STEINFELS: Looking at it by state can be a little deceptive.
MR. DIONNE: Right. And particularly a rural, metropolitan split.
On the other hand, I am struck by these church-going numbers where people making the two nations case tends to take two categories: those who go to church or synagogue or house of worship at least weekly or more, and those who never go at all. And it struck me that Alan Wolfe’s people aren’t in either of those camps. Alan Wolfe’s people probably go to a house of worship maybe a couple of times a month. In other words, they neither reject religion nor are they, in Terry’s terms, enthusiasts, and in fact, that is a very large group of Americans. So that both things can be true at the same time, but to look at those sort of boxes at either end can reveal something but also distort something. I just wanted to toss that out.
MR. TEACHOUT: No, no, that’s right. Usually if you’re doing work on people to find out whether their religious belief had any effect on anything else, you have to take people who are going to church at least once a week, otherwise the numbers aren’t starting to move. Those are certainly not fifty percent of all Americans. They might be fifty percent of the people in Republican nation. I don’t know. The notion of this kind of divide is new enough that there hasn’t been a lot of empirical work done on it.
MR. DIONNE: But there is empirical work in the sense that house of worship attendance questions are nuance questions. People don’t have just the option, do you go every week, or do you never go. And people in the middle categories tend to split up in their politics more evenly, so that clearly at each end there is a strong secular minority and a strong extremely intense religious minority. But there are a lot of people who are religious who behave in a reasonably religious fashion who don’t necessary fall into that absolute box at the end.
MR. TEACHOUT: Yes. I don’t want to fall into the trap of trying to summarize something I wrote. That never works, but when I wrote it what I said was it wasn’t any one of these features that was striking. It was the coincidence of the political, ideological, geographical and cultural indices all starting to separate in pretty clear lines at around the same time. You could take any one of those things and point out, as you do, that there is this large amorphous group in the middle. But when all the tendencies produce this two-colored county map where you can explain very easily why the colors fall in the way that they do, then at least to me it seems self-evident that there is something going on and that we happen to live in a country that has two parties. And that automatically sorts people who vote between one or the other of them. But again, you get into the realm of factor analysis when you try to tease out how the people in these different categories divide into two things.
MR DIONNE: Terry’s piece, for your information, ran in Commentary magazine in January of this year, and it’s a very good piece. Maybe we can put it on our website. Wendy.
MS. KAMINER: You certainly can’t measure religiosity or the depth of religious belief by how often people go to church.
MR. TEACHOUT: No, it’s a metafactor.
MS. KAMINER: Maybe. It may tell us something, but I’m not sure it tells us anything interesting. It may tell us that there is a certain amount of politicking going on in these churches people are going to. It may tell us that churches have become for the Republican party what labor unions used to be for the Democratic Party — a kind of locus of organizing — maybe not in any overt, illegal, political sense, but just in the sense of the kinds of communities and connections that they form for people.
I’m not sure what that really tells us. There is so much religion and so much religiosity in this country on all sides of the debate that I think it is virtually impossible to try to look at religious belief or religious commitment in any kind of partisan terms.
MR. DIONNE: I just want to make one footnote here. You also have to look at this by race. This is very much a discussion about white Americans because church-going African-Americans are overwhelmingly Democratic and more likely to vote.
MR. TEACHOUT: And then there’s the odd disconnect between their party affiliation and their expressed views on social issues that don’t connect up with a very small range of policy choices. That’s why the Republicans are always thinking of this mirage that they can make inroads into that voting group. So far it has been nothing but a mirage. But it makes sense why they would have the illusion.
MR. WOLFE: Two points, quickly, because I know that people want to say things.
I don’t doubt that there is a Republican nation and a Democratic nation in the sense you’ve described it. But the differences are about politics where we’re supposed to differ about politics. We’ve always differed about politics and rural areas have always differed from urban areas about politics. Indeed, if you looked at that famous electoral map of the year 2000, you might remember that there was another election in North America in the year 2000. There was an election in Canada, and if you looked at the results there and just drew the map straight up, you’d actually find the exact same results — the heartland voting for the more conservative party, the coast voting for the more liberal party. There’s nothing surprising in all of this.
What my point is is that underlying those political differences there are certain moral similarities. And these moral similarities increasingly emphasize the kind of individual self-discovery that Wendy says is sort of part of the therapeutic culture that unites right and left in America.
The best example of that I can provide is that when I interviewed born-again Christians in the heartland and they talked about the experience of being born again and what it meant to go through that experience, and when I talked to gays and lesbians and they talked about the experience of coming out, I couldn’t see any difference in the language they were using. I saw a tremendous difference on the political differences. Some of the people in Iowa and Texas think that gays and lesbians are sinful, and horrible people who don’t really deserve the rights that the rest of Americans do, particularly the rights against discrimination; whereas the gay and lesbians thought that, you know, many of the conservative Christians were people who were out to get them and would if possible burn them at the stake.
So the political differences, which are very powerful and very strong, clearly would lead one to vote for one party and one group to vote for the other. But both were on journeys, and those journeys both involve sort of looking into yourself and rejecting the tradition of your parents. Being born again means in that in some way the religion you were born with the first time you were born isn’t the right one. The one that you are born to the second time may be identical to the first one. You may have been grown up a Baptist and be born again into Baptist, but you have to go through that journey of self-discovery and choose it for yourself. And that’s very much the language of sexual identity as well.
We all know the Bush Administration is pretty strongly convinced that if it can reach Catholics the way it’s reached evangelical Protestants, it will pretty much have an electoral lock on the United States. How do you do that? Do you appeal to Catholics in America by emphasizing a kind of conservative and traditional morality while you are passing a tax cut that violates some of the most basic, economic, papal principles of Catholic solidarity? Which way will Catholics go? Will they go toward an Administration that appeals essentially through the hierarchy on the basis of a image of Catholicism that in many ways is no longer the way most American Catholics think and act, or will you alienate them by seeming to violate central principles of solidarity? I think it is a very, very interesting test case that will tell us a great deal about religion in politics over the next ten years.
MS. STEINFELS: Of course Commonweal is up in arms over this, but several things strike me about the strategy, and one of them seems to be visiting every bishop they can get hold of in the United States. And if there is one thing I can, I think, predict with some confidence is that trying to get the bishops to be on your side is not going to put most Catholics on your side. (Chuckles.) I mean that they will decide apart from the tendencies of the religious leadership, and perhaps that’s no great surprise that New York Catholics certainly went for Gore despite the fact that the week before the election they had a letter from their archbishop strongly suggesting they vote in the opposite direction. I think there is that tendency in Catholicism.
It’s very hard for me — partly because I live in New York — to sort this out about the rest of the country and what Catholics in southwest Missouri are doing. Are they more like their Protestant neighbors in really fixing on a personal morality is the issue, in which case maybe it is the abortion question that they vote on, or are they more like Catholics in general who have a long tradition of supporting communal and social solidarity movement including social security and pensions, immunization, et cetera? And that’s very hard to sort out.
MR. TEACHOUT: Well, my impression from talking to some of the Catholics who are involved in the Bush Administration’s attempt is not that they think they are going to bring along the Catholic Church, but that they have drawn the conclusion about the Church, which is that there are, if you want to put it this way, two kinds of Catholics, and that they can maybe get one kind. You could call that a religious wedge issue if you want, but another way of looking at it is to say that it acknowledges the fact that different parts of this Catholic Church have moved off in different directions. It may be more logical for this other half — the right side of the Church — to identify more readily with the Republicans.
MS. STEINFELS: The other thing to remember here is that the growing proportion of American Catholics are Hispanic, and if you look at the vote, it is certainly the case that Bush did not win either the Black Catholics, which is a smaller vote, or the Hispanic Catholic vote, although I guess he had a slight edge on the white Catholic vote.
MR. TEACHOUT: White male Catholic.
MS. STEINFELS: White male Catholic vote. Thank you.
So, I mean, insofar as this is an increasingly Hispanic church, and depending on how Hispanic, Latino voters go, that may be a big element. But I think the other thing in which E.J. may know is Catholics went for Clinton, and they did not go for Gore this time for perhaps all the reasons that a lot of Democrats didn’t go for Gore. And I would not be surprised that Clinton’s own sexual peccadilloes may have played some role in the vote of Catholics who are otherwise perhaps tolerant and non-judgmental but just thought that this was too — this went too far. This was the end.
MR. DIONNE: I want to go to the audience. As a factual matter, Catholics essentially split this time, and the white Catholic vote mirrors the vote of the whole country because Catholics are more Democratic than white Protestants, less Democratic than African-Americans or Jews, and therefore we tend to be the perfect sort of representative of the total vote. So the Bush folks are going after this vote not because they can get the whole block, but because Catholics have moved around a lot for twenty years and there’s probably twenty to twenty-five percent of the vote that can be in play at any given time, and so their strategy is to try to move not the whole block but to create a Republican majority that’s big enough to carry them through.
MR. TEACHOUT: They also think they succeeded because they actually tried to shape their rhetoric in terms that would make sense to conservative Catholics.
MS. KAMINER: Although there are a lot of people who thought his Notre Dame speech was just sheer hypocrisy.
MR. DIONNE: Let’s talk about that after. Let’s take a lot of comments. This is very good. Why don’t we start over at this side?
Q: I’m Colleen McLaughlin, at the Center for Visionary Leadership.
I’ve seen a lot of these discussions on religion and how it informs politics or political choices, but it seems to leave out, by the nature of the question how often do you attend a church or a place of worship, many people and their particular approaches that don’t attend a church. I think of Buddhism as one of the fastest growing religions in this country. It’s very diversified, it’s not hierarchical, and people practice meditation daily rather than attend the church service, and there’s no way that a question reflects that, as well as the huge twelve-step programs where you basically affirm a belief in a high power, and again, they may not attend any churches. So with some of those people when you ask the same questions, their political choices might be different than you would expect because the questions aren’t asked. So I would like to know why do we define religion in such a narrow way? Why isn’t a broader definition of spirituality used rather than just traditional attendance in specific churches or synagogues?
MR. DIONNE: Hold that question — and the lady right next to you.
Q: Yes, my name is Patricia Carly (sp). I work for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, but I’m actually here in my capacity as a theology student majoring in moral theology.
I wanted to ask Mr. Teachout if you would comment on Mr. Wofe’s contention that there is an inherent sort of disconnect or contradiction between — and I’m using labels and generalizations, of course — conservative support for free market, free enterprise, sort of pursuit of self-interest, and many what are conservative interpretations of Christian moral virtues. Specifically in the past twenty years, free enterprise in the broadcast media, for example, has discovered it can make a lot more money by appealing to people’s basest instincts — cheap, stupid sex — than by offering intelligent, edifying fare. So I’m just wondering if there’s a way in which this unmitigated free enterprise that’s championed by conservatives is part of the problem for the public morality that conservatives claim to want.
MR. DIONNE: Excellent question, let’s keep on going. Father.
Q: – from the Woodside Theological Center, and I think this may contribute also to Patricia’s question a little bit but in quite a different direction that may complexify the matter.
I’m wondering why some non-Americans weren’t interviewed about American morality and American moral practice? Now, granted, there would have to be, I think, a lot of interpretive essays or many essays done in a certain sense, like what projection and counterprojection might have to be watched for and so forth, but I found very illuminating in Ambassador David Newsome’s recent book called The Imperial Mantle, which is about the consequences of decolonization and so forth, one Indian grad student in the States who was asked, “How do you look upon the USA now?” And he said, “It’s the new East India Company.” In that respect some moral questions come up, I think.
Q: This question is for Alan Wolfe. I’m assuming there is some implication of the moral consensus that you’ve identified for public policy, and I would imagine that there may be times when there is a discrepancy between public policy and the moral consensus that you describe. Is that the case, and if so, how do you account for public policy being discrepant from the moral consensus?
MR. DIONNE: A couple more if we could.
Q: Hillel Fradkin of the American Enterprise Institute. I have a question and an observation, both of which were inspired by Peggy Steinfel’s remarks.
The question is this — I’m very puzzled at how the issue of character formation comes up. If, as Alan argues, our principles are going to be formed, our orientations formed by self-interest if it’s capitalism, self-expression if it’s liberalism, in what way does character formation play any role whatsoever except to inform children that this is the orientation they will have when they are adults. And that we seem to do actually pretty well already.
And that leads me to the observation about Peggy Steinfel’s honesty then and now. It seems to me that the divide between absolute and relative is not particularly helpful in the case of the example you offered, but it seems to me that you came to a very sensible conclusion; namely – honesty: you should always tell the truth but not necessarily the whole truth. Both things have in common the fact that you were doing your duty to God or to the priest and also to your colleague, your fellow student. Honesty as it was described earlier in contemporary sense is really just about not doing any duty to someone else but rather avoiding any pain yourself. You don’t insult anyone else because then you won’t get insulted. Even if they wind up in the same place, the orientation seems to be a little different.
MR. DIONNE: And one more. This gentleman has been very patient.
Q: I was wondering if anyone had given thought if there is anything revealing about leadership among Republicans and Democrats, if that says something about the parties and about the country as a whole – not only the recent stories about the substance abuse of George W. Bush and his family, but reports of the questioning of the leadership of J.C. Watts — the fact that he had fathered children out of wedlock, and going after Tom Delay for questionable fundraising — but this in the tradition of those with significant moral flaws — whether you are talking about Newt Gingrich, Bob Livingston, Rudy Guiliani, Bob Dole. And then we are looking at the Democrats — you’ve got on that side the religious piety of a Jimmy Carter and a Joe Lieberman, and on the other hand, the indefensible secrets of a Bill Clinton and a Bob Kerrey.
I think Al Gore was much more morally disgusted by Bill Clinton than anyone really knew. And my own belief is that if he had been much more open about that moral revulsion — instead of being politically correct, if he had been morally correct, I think he would have fared much better politically.
MR. DIONNE: Thank you. I think that last comment goes to Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous statement that original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian church. (Laughter.) We went through the whole list on both parties.
We have a lot of questions up here, but could I take one quick crack at that first question on the survey data? This is actually something we’ve puzzled about at the Pew Forum in terms of our own survey work. The fact is that while this these groups –Buddhists, and other especially Eastern religions — Jains, Hindus — are growing groups, they are still too small to get at in the survey data. Most people you are going to get in a national survey — outside of a place like California where I think you are going to begin to be able to do better survey work on these groups or if you consciously go after members of these groups – still fall into Catholic, Protestant, Jew and now Muslim.
You’re correct that church attendance is not by any means the only measure, and there are surveys that ask questions about prayer and meditation, and about people’s spiritual lives, as well as their formal religious life. But the fact is that these other groups still bulk large enough that this is a useful though not exhaustive category for survey research, putting aside all the other issues entailed.
But I want to throw all those other good questions to the panel. Maybe we could use this because we’ve gone overtime a little bit. Is there anybody with a burning issue they want to raise because we could use our responses to all these questions also as a set of conclusory remarks.
MS. STEINFELS: I’d just like to respond to the question in effect about American foreign policy and moral freedom because it has increasingly struck me that, as the last super power and in fact as a very powerful nation, Americans are essentially either ignorant or agnostic about the role that their government plays in places like Latin America, Central America, India, Pakistan, et cetera. And it just gets to something that I found really interesting — among other things — in Alan’s book. The fact that political freedom has not ended in an educated and participatory citizenry, but in a great degree of cynicism and nonparticipation. That disconnect, I think, is to be seen in the way our foreign policy is conducted, both the open part of it and the covert part of it. It’s extremely unfortunate given the role we in fact play in the world. I guess the question here is, does moral freedom go the road of economic and political freedom as you have sketched it out, which is to say non-engagement in some very serious and destructive levels.
MR. DIONNE: Can we go up the panel? I was particularly taken by the couple of questions on the theme of, you know, in a sense, free enterprise on one side and free love on the other — how the attitudes towards economics relate to attitudes on moral questions. Wendy, why don’t you start out?
MS. KAMINER: Well, that’s a question I deal with a lot as a very active member of the ACLU. The ACLU, as a civil libertarian organization, is very concerned with what we think of as the fundamental human rights which basically involve person activities, whether it’s sexual activity, sexual orientation, the right to have an abortion, great concern about discrimination issues. We tend to be libertarian on those kinds of issues and rather anti-libertarian when it comes to questions of whether or not you ought to have a regulated marketplace. If you want real libertarianism across the board you have to go to the Cato Institute. And so there is this funny split between people on the right and people on the left around civil liberties and civil rights. On the one hand, government is the good guy when you want civil rights protection, and on the other hand, the government is the bad guy when it comes to criminal justice or abortion prohibitions or privacy violations. I’m not sure that inconsistency is a bad thing.
Let me just say one more comment about the inconsistency that some of us have talked about — somebody asked a question about the discrepancy between moral values and public policy which I think is quite glaring. I think part of what that reflects is that people are everyday moral philosophers, as Alan suggests, when you go to them with a question and you ask them to think about it, and you give them some time, and you listen to them, and they really make an effort to kind of think it through. But they are not moral philosophers in the sense that they are out there trying to devise consistent moral principles that they are going to be using to guide them — not just in their personal lives but in their civic lives — that they are going to be using to come up with policy prescriptions. They are not moral philosophers in that sense. They are not coming up with systems of principles and beliefs and ethics. They are coming up with a thoughtful, nuanced response to a particular question at a particular moment in time.
MR. TEACHOUT: The question, as it was specifically put to me, was did I think there was anything striking or inconsistent about what the questioner said was a disconnect between the moral authoritarianism of conservatives and those of them who were drawn by market forces to take actions that were inconsistent with that.
Well, if you ask me, do I see any inconsistency here, the answer is yes, I do. But one reason for it which people often overlook is that the term conservative, which is what you used, is actually a meta-category that takes in a number of different groups of people with philosophical ideas that don’t come from a common same root. There are classical liberals and the more extreme form of that – libertarians — who really are totally market-oriented and don’t bring a moral perspective to this, and are perfectly willing to see that the market prevail — not just the economic market, but to apply market models to every part of people’s lives.
But there are also other kinds of conservatives with other kinds of attitudes who don’t feel that way or do feel a conflict or confused about it. And them there are gross rank hypocrites who really just don’t care, who are conservatives as long as it serves their purposes, and I won’t name any of them, but I’m sure you can come up with some answers very quickly.
My biggest answer to your question is that there is no one such thing as a conservative. It’s a very fissure group of people.
I think if, in fact, the Bush Administration is trying in some serious way to — as I think they are — to engage with Catholic thought on these matters, then the conservative Catholic position is – at least as I understand it — is that although you should be a conservative, it should be a conservatism that is mitigated by an understanding of the effects of uncontrolled markets, rather than one that has a libertarian flavor to it. So it might be interesting to see how that dialogue develops over time.
MR. DIONNE: Let me just press you for one second on that. Bill Bennett gave a speech a couple of years ago where he said capitalism is a problem — not a problem for production, but a problem for values. It strikes me as interesting challenge for conservative traditionalists, and lots of conservatives struggled with that question. I’m curious where that struggle is now because you hear it occasionally in a statement like that from Bennett, but in some sense you don’t hear it as much as you did in the early days when the sort of conservative and libertarian tendencies were coming together to form modern conservatism, and will there be a recrudescence of that debate among conservatives? Or is it there and I’m missing it?
MR. TEACHOUT: I think so, and I’ll tell you why. Because now that the Cold War is over, now that the glue that to a great extent cemented the conservative coalition no longer exists, the conversation among conservatives is moving into cultural areas. That’s what they are thinking about, that’s what they are talking about, that’s what they have to come to grips with. The older ones are not good at this, and you run into a lot of older conservatives like Jack Kemp who don’t know what a cultural question is at all.
But for the younger ones, especially the ones who came up around the time of the end of the Cold War, this fissure is getting wider and not narrower. Libertarians are feeling much less comfortable under this umbrella than they used to, and by the same token, the people who are holding the umbrella are much less ones who look the other way about certain of these inconsistencies. And yes, I think this is going to come right to the center of the conservative conversation. It’s on the way there now. When Bennett says something like that, that’s a trumpet.
MR. DIONNE: Alan.
MR. WOLFE: Just to thank you for your patience, and thanks for the discussions, and thanks to E.J. and all the people on his staff for doing this. It’s been a great experience for me to be able to hear these very, very thoughtful comments both from the audience and from my co-panelists.
I’ll just say that if what I’m calling moral freedom does result in a kind of moral libertarianism, a kind of absence of any sense of duty to fill out questions posed, I think it would be a disaster in the future for America. To the degree that this hope expressed in my book is based on the idea that once people experience this notion of moral freedom that they will use it for the purposes of reconnecting themselves to their institutions, to their religious traditions, to their political system; that it will turn out to be a step toward a kind of greater maturity on the part of our institutions that will then reestablish between individuals and their freedoms and institution and their requirements a fairer balance than has existed in the past. And that’s a much more hopeful scenario. Now which one will it be?
Well, you know, I just wanted to underscore something that Peggy said. She talked about pedophilia and what she saw as a big hole in the Church. I found that. I did some interviews in Fall River which –
MR. DIONNE: My home town –
MR. WOLFE: — but the second most famous thing every out of Fall River, out of the diocese of Fall River was a scandal involving a priest. And it had just a huge impact. I mean, everyone talks about it in the interviews. They are very concerned about it. It was exactly as you said — it wasn’t that there was one bad apple in the priesthood. It was the way the institution came together to defend him rather than to reach out to the victims that left a very, very bad scar.
Now, in terms of the question you raised — at some level I love to see it when conservative moralists who are preaching about family values are found to have violated those values. But really I wish it didn’t happen. I don’t need more scandal. I don’t need to be told that there are more and more right-wing Republicans who have done awful things in their lives. I just wish the sort of whole cycle would come to an end in some way because I just think that the deep disaffect that a number of you in the audience have talked about between what people say in these surveys and the way they think, and then the way it doesn’t get translated, is connected to just a pervasive sense of alienation from politics and alienation from the political institutions, even more than the religious institutions. It’s as if you take the pedophilia scandal and broaden it out of the church to a big political tent — the skepticism and the cynicism towards politics is just so overwhelming, and the people I interview believe in a kind of desperate longing for some kind of leadership that can break through that cycle and actually talk to people in a sense where they are in a way that I think people would overwhelming respond to positively.
Now I happen to believe that that there was a politician in American who go exactly the right idea about how to talk to Americans. And believe it or not, I think his name was George W. Bush. I think compassionate conservatism as it first was articulated was exactly where Americans were at, that Mr. Bush had an opportunity, through this language, to heal some of these deep fissures in the United States that a sense of conservatives but even more a sense of compassion is pretty much the heartland position in American. And I thought that when he started talking that way he was on a path not only to the presidency in a real victory and an uncontested victory by overwhelming margin, but to doing something with his mandate, to actually being able to speak to the great American middle.
I have no reason to know or even begin to understand why he chose not to do that, why he choose to make compassionate conservatism just a bunch of words that had nothing to do with environmental policy, that had nothing to do with his social welfare policy.
There are some technical reasons, again, that have do with appealing to the hardcore base that sustains political parties. But just I see one more opportunity lost in this country to provide that kind of feeling language. So what I see coming out of all of this is the basic idea that I think one nation after all is right and I think Terry Teachout is right. I think the culture is a culture that is very much centrist, very much moderate, very much unified, very much longing for healing, and a political system that is deeply divided of a cycle of attack and challenge that just doesn’t stop.
The actually dynamics of the 2000 election just couldn’t have been worse from the view point of one who wants to see the policies and the politics have more to do with the culture. It couldn’t have been a worse outcome. But I think it’s made even worse by an administration that has a kind of hard-line element to it and that decided to go in that direction.
Is that going to lead to Democrats to then to come back with another hard-line and are we’re going to have strong, enormous disagreements over judges that will polarize the political climate even more and lead to more alienation out there in the country — I sort think that ‘s likely given the way politics has developed.
I don’t see any immediate solution for Washington going one way and the rest of the country going another. But maybe in a longer term perspective we can somehow get out of this cycle then Americans will feel that they are actually being represented in the voices that they articulate to people like me who come around and talk to them. It’s at that point, I think, that moral freedom could become a more constructive idea.
MR. DIONNE: I’d like to thank America’s leading compassionate conservative, Alan Wolfe, for his — (laughter) – remarks.
I want to say three things in closing. I want to thank all our panelists. That was a wonderful discussion. First, I want to thank Andrea McDaniel, Staci Simmons, Melissa Rogers, Ming Su and Amy Sullivan for helping put this together. (Applause.) Staci did this despite being sick, and she should be in bed today.
Second quick point — I was very struck in the beginning when Wendy Kaminer talked about the Amish. Our family goes to Lancaster County every spring, and my kids were very taken when they saw this group of Amish teenagers in a McDonald’s. We were trying to think of how a culture survives, if you are what you eat. Is McDonald’s the first step on the way to MTV? Or for that matter, ESPN? But then, in thinking about McDonald’s, I also thought of their slogan, and it struck me that the marketers for McDonald’s have read Alan Wolfe’s book because “we love to see you smile” may be a perfect summary in some ways of the ethic that he describes.
And lastly, I want to just praise Alan for using survey research, an unlikely tool, for really forcing us to deal with one of the oldest questions of political theory which is you need virtue to maintain moral freedom. Can a regime of moral freedom perpetuate virtue? And I think he’s got us back into this deeply important discussion and I thank him for it. Thank you.
[APPLAUSE AND END OF EVENT.]