Not a Kodak Moment

"Extremist." "Political Hack." "Flannel-shirted fraud." Do these insults sound familiar? That’s not surprising, given that we’re currently immersed in one of the most brutal presidential primary campaigns in history. On a personal level, the mudslinging saddens me. During my White House years I worked closely with three of the top Republican mudwrestlers I mean, presidential contenders: Bob Dole, Pat Buchanan, and Lamar Alexander. One hates to see old comrades attacking each other so viciously. But this shrill and angry campaign distresses me on a deeper level as well. I believe we’re witnessing not merely a spirited political debate, but the continued degeneration of the political process?one that’s linked to the overthrow of our long-standing moral consensus and the rejection of our Judeo-Christian heritage by cultural elites. What’s poisoned the polemic is the fact that we’ve lost our ability to carry on what philosopher Hannah Arendt called the "democratic conversation." She meant that in a free society, it’s essential for people to openly debate moral issues and arrive at some consensus of what they believe as a people?a consensus that can be reflected in their laws. And in fact that’s the kind of democratic conversation Americans used to enjoy. Politicians argued their positions by aligning them with normative standards. For example, you could argue that euthanasia or divorce or cheating on taxes was wrong, according to an absolute moral standard almost all people accepted. But with the rise of postmodernism and the retreat of Christian truth, we’ve seen a steady erosion in the belief that any universal moral standards even exist. Instead, we’re taught that all moral precepts express personal preferences. People who promote a moral perspective are accused of trying to impose their private morality on others. The results are public policies geared not toward the common good, but toward building what Catholic scholar George Weigel calls "the Republic of the Imperial Autonomous Self." That’s why we’ve witnessed the exaltation of choice over the common good, and liberty without restraint. It’s why parents’ rights have been reduced while gay marriage is promoted. As we lose the moral traditions we’ve shared for so long, citizens begin to feel as if they’re living under siege. And no wonder. As Notre Dame’s Alasdair MacIntyre observed, when we lose a moral consensus, politics becomes civil war carried on by other means. Postmodernists teach that holding strong moral beliefs amounts to bigotry. But now we have evidence that the opposite is true. It’s when we don’t have moral moorings that we end up with the politics of civil war. When political debate is drained of its moral content, words become bludgeons to hit people over the head with. People become shrill and angry because the only way to debate is to raise the decibel level. And that’s what our presidential candidates are doing today?and it’s why so many citizens are turned off by this campaign. Why not put this campaign’s mudslinging to at least one good effect: Use it to teach your children that this kind of fracas will always result if we as a society give up our commitment to a higher truth. Absolute morality is not bigotry. Instead, it’s the basis for resuming the "democratic conversation"?for reasoned public debate, which sustains free societies.


Chuck Colson


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