A Morality Bait and Switch

Conservatives are quick to point the finger on moral shortcomings, but quicker to forgive when one of their own strays.

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Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford speaks with reporters at Hay Tire & Automotive in Mount Pleasant, S.C., on Monday, April 22, 2013. (Mic Smith/AP Photo)
Former S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford speaks with reporters April 22 at Hay Tire & Automotive in Mount Pleasant, S.C.

If you were on Twitter Tuesday night, you found yourself in the middle of a lively debate about the meaning of Mark Sanford's victory in South Carolina's 1st Congressional District.

The progressive take was pretty obvious: maybe a GOP that elects someone like Sanford ought to be a little less sanctimonious about "family values." Conservatives, though, were less clear.

They didn't like what progressives were saying, that's for sure. But instead of defending the Sanford choice, their response was more likely to reference a liberal who had also engaged in some kind of moral turpitude. As Erick Erickson put it, "Mark Sanford's wife wasn't dying of cancer when he cheated on her but liberal hero John Edwards wife was."

Now, that is no doubt true. And it's reprehensible. But one is left to ask: how exactly is referencing John Edward's conduct responsive to the charge of conservative hypocrisy? The answer, of course, is that it isn't.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Let's think about conservatives and morality for a moment. Russell Kirk, one of the founders of modern conservative thought, considered fidelity to a transcendent moral code a defining characteristic of conservatism, something he found sorely lacking among the great unwashed who ascribed to more liberal ideologies. An alleged absence of traditional morality was at the heart of William F. Buckley's critique of Yale, academia more broadly and liberals as a whole.

By their way of thinking, conservatives recognize and are guided by universal truths, while liberals, lacking any such appreciation, are manifestly vulnerable to the passions of the day.

Now, I suppose if conclusions like these were confined to the way conservatives thought about themselves, little other than the occasional insufferable dinner guest might result. Of course, in reality, some conservatives apply their morality frame to just about everyone and everything around them. And this leads to more troubling results.

The most obvious implications operate in the social/sexual sphere. Morality arguments are often the bread and butter of those who want to undo Roe v. Wade, limit access to contraception, oppose gay marriage or even block policies aimed at offering women equal opportunities in the workplace. You can't do these things, they say, because they offend long established and traditional notions of morality – by which they usually mean: they so offend my sense of morality that it's not enough for me to live by my code, I want you to live by it too.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Conservative moralizing creeps into other fields as well. Take the argument that the only way to elevate disadvantaged families out of poverty is to inculcate them with the kinds of traditional values that have long been at the center of the American ethic. That's actually another way of saying: if you are doing less well in society it's because you are less virtuous. Or, in the alternative, if you are doing well, feel good about your wealth because it reflects your virtue. It's also a convenient argument against spending taxpayer dollars to help the less fortunate – if what they need are stronger values, rental assistance probably won't help much.

And then there are those conservatives who take their moralizing to rather breathtaking extremes. It was Dinesh D'Souza, for example, who pinned the blame for the 9/11 attacks on liberal depravity. And more recently on Fox News, Penny Nance, President of Concerned Women for America, cited a departure from the kind of morality to which she ascribes as the reason for the Holocaust. People who don't share the conservative view of morality are capable of the most horrible things, evidently.

To be clear, conservatives are entitled to hold such views and to attempt to shape public policy to comply with them. That's what democracy is all about. And morality, whether based on faith or something else, isn't partisan. Lots of people of varying ideological stripes make moral judgments based on a fundamentally common slate of criteria. And thank goodness they do.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Abortion Be Illegal?]

But what's also true is that if you engage in aggressive moralizing, and suggest that an adherence to long established moral norms is a distinctive characteristic of those who share your creed, then you ought to expect some blowback when you fail to live up to the standards that you so loudly proselytize.

Which gets us back to Mark Sanford. I'm not a fan and he wouldn't have gotten my vote. But it seems perfectly reasonable for a voter to say: I don't approve of his conduct, but I believe he will better represent my views in Congress so I will vote for him. Happens all the time on both sides of the aisle.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Tea Party.]

But once you make that decision – that moral failings are not that disqualifying to you after all (whether its Sanford or David Vitter or Newt Gingrich, etc) – then you can hardly complain when some suggest that what once sounded like an unimpeachable commitment to principle, now sounds a lot more political. And situational.

As Erickson suggests, there's no shortage of liberals who have displayed indefensibly immoral conduct. But a conservative who fingers those examples does nothing to blunt the charge that he himself is being selective about the circumstances under which he finds his moral code immutable and those times he doesn't.

In one way at least, all of this reinforces how much like the rest of us conservatives really are, how subject to appetites and failings, how frequently they fall short of their personal aspirations. That's no surprise to liberals, of course. But it's something conservatives may want to come to terms with.

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