I’ve been taking a look, lately, at what power can do to morality, and it’s not a pretty sight.
In a wise and fortunate society, ruthless and amoral forces are kept out of power—blocked by good constitutional checks backed up by the moral capital to endow its elites with a genuine love of the greater good.
America, regrettably, is not now in that fortunate position. And nowhere is that clearer than in the way our present rulers are working to bend and distort those “Christian” moral values they love to trumpet.
If one knew nothing of the Gospels, but learned of Christian values only from our current ruling forces, one would think that Jesus’ moral concerns focused on sex. But the red letters in my Bible show that he had almost nothing to say about sex. The moral issue that seems to have concerned him most were not such private matters but how the rich and powerful treat the poor and vulnerable. “The least of these, my brethren.”
A truly Christian morality would be a huge obstacle to the abuse of power. That’s why, ever since Christendom first arose, unprincipled power has worked to pervert Christian morals.
Certainly, sexual issues are relevant to a moral life. Sex is a powerful force, with socially disruptive potential. And the circumstance of life’s creation is serious stuff, with the destiny of the new generation at stake.
But sex is just a piece of a much larger moral terrain. And when it comes to the leader of the world’s greatest power, the destiny of the nation –and indeed of all life on earth– depends a whole lot more on how he uses his power than on when he unzips his pants.
And so it is that our present ruling powers seek to divert the attention of people who care deeply about morality away from the uses and abuses of power onto other areas peripheral to the rulers’ own lusts for riches and domination.
They hoist the banner of morality over the question of whether people of the same sex can marry, so no one will notice how they are plundering the treasury to enrich their friends—all part of an unholy marriage of dominant economic powers and those who govern our supposedly democratic polity. They raise a hue and cry over the exposure of Janet Jackson’s right breast so that no one will notice how they’re removing from Mother Earth the protections which previous American leaders have wrapped around her.
And they whip up hysteria over poor Terri Schiavo in the name of a “culture of life”—a laudable value, but one that again they narrow into a concern only about intimate family matters, as if a sense of the sacredness of life had no bearing on how eager one should be to go to war, or on the morality of gutting the Clean Air Act in a way that will hasten the deaths of thousands of Americans each year.
By such old tricks has power freed itself of moral constraints—claiming to “restore integrity to the Oval Office” because there’s no intern with a stained blue dress. But meanwhile, power is systematically subverting the common good.
America’s greatest challenge at this moment in its history is to make sure that it is morality that controls power—and not the other way around.
Andrew Bard Schmookler has just launched his website NoneSoBlind.orgdevoted to understanding the roots of Americas present moral crisis and the means by which the urgent challenge of this dangerous moment can be met. Dr. Schmookler is also the author of such books as The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution (SUNY Press) and Debating the Good Society: A Quest to Bridge Americas Moral Divide (M.I.T. Press). He also conducts regular talk-radio conversations in both red and blue states. Schmookler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org