Cokie’s Question

ABC commentator Cokie Roberts was frustrated, and it showed. On her program, "This Week with Sam and Cokie," the subject was President Clinton's alleged affair with Monica Lewinsky. Roberts was frustrated because so few politicians could bring themselves to say that if the president did commit adultery, that was immoral. "Can't they at least say, if this is true, it's wrong?" Roberts asked. They can—but they won't. Politicians appear to be terrified of being perceived as moral absolutists. But as one of our former presidents amply demonstrated, greatness in office demands a commitment to no less than moral absolutes. Writing about Abraham Lincoln in the New York Times, historian John Patrick Diggins describes Lincoln's "humility, self-doubt, and the need to know the right." By contrast, he notes that more recent occupants of the White House are defined by "slickness, self-righteousness, and the need to know the [poll] ratings." As an example of Lincoln's commitment to moral absolutes, Diggins cites his famous debates with Stephen Douglas. Lincoln declared that our country could not endure half-slave and half-free, and made reference to America's "core consensus of values." By contrast, Diggins says, "Douglas denied, as do many modern historians," the very idea "that America enjoyed a core consensus of values." Though Lincoln lost the election to Douglas, he was on his way to future greatness. At the heart of his greatness was the conviction, as Diggins puts it, "that the meaning of right and wrong is not relative and dependent upon time and place." He was, Diggins adds, "unswerving in his belief that natural rights are inalienable [and that] the Republic’s founding principles should remain immune to change." It was these beliefs that led Lincoln to write, "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the differences, is no democracy." As Diggins points out, this commitment to moral absolutes meant that during his White House years, "Lincoln was never a popular president, but he was a credible one." In common with America's Founders, Lincoln understood that the first order of leadership is knowing the difference between right and wrong, and ordering one's actions accordingly. Lincoln knew that self-government cannot survive if it treats morality as something we can ignore when it becomes inconvenient. Self-government is built on a foundational assumption that most people, most of the time, will do right thing without threat of coercion. But if we throw out morality, government has to step into the vacuum. Bibles, or bayonets, take your pick. You and I need to reacquaint our neighbors with the great moralist who preserved the nation. They need to hear that the very quality many criticize in Christians today—our insistence on moral absolutes—is precisely what made Lincoln great. It's a lesson our lawmakers need to relearn, as well. If they do, then they will no longer need to check with their pollsters before answering a simple question. They will be able to look people like Cokie Roberts in the eye, and say, "yes, adultery is wrong."  


Chuck Colson


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