Analysis: How politics is shaping morality, and how religious voters might respond

shutterstock 1367578499 Pete Buttigieg campaigns in New Hampshire, April, 2019. | Shutterstock

As the 2020 Presidential race begins in earnest, between the two parties sits a growing number of voters motivated by faith and morality expressing little enthusiasm for what they perceive as the Hobson's choice that philosophical liberalism has offered them in recent decades.

For these voters, the disconnect between their moral compass and that of political candidates is marked and widening. European nations have already begun to learn what the U.S. may soon: those voices could, over time, dramatically reshape the electoral landscape.

While conventional wisdom has long held that culture sits upstream of politics, the lessons of recent decades suggest that politics can, indeed, shape culture. Major cultural changes on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage were catalyzed, or at least hastened, by changes to the law that were – at best – hotly contested.

Widespread social acceptance has often followed, not led to, changes in the law: In the months before Roe v. Wade, fewer than half of voters believed abortion should be legal in any circumstances; same-sex marriage became legal nation-wide in the aftermath of a vote in perhaps the most liberally-governed state, California, to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

In a democracy the law is meant to reflect the will of the people. But, intentionally or otherwise, legality is increasingly held to be a mark of moral acceptability, even endorsement, by some sections of society.

While politicians know this, many are wary of being seen to want to change the country's morals, even as they change the law with this end in mind. Their behavior often reflects this tension.

It is not uncommon for politicians to confidently assert their faith or morality when on what they perceive to be solid cultural and electoral ground. On contentious issues, candidates often insist on separating their "private views" from public policy, even as – perhaps because - those policies will surely play a part in settling the issue.  

Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Democratic presidential hopeful and Catholic-turned-Episcopalian, recently offered a neat case study of this kind of behavior.

Speaking on Meet the Press just over a week ago, Mayor Pete noted what he called the "unbelievable hypocrisy" of President Trump and his religious supporters over policies for immigrants and the poor which are "not consistent with anything that I hear in scripture or in church."

In the same interview, when asked about abortion, he said that moral questions were a matter of individual conscience and no for "a male government official imposing his interpretation of his religion."

Last week, Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey, a Catholic, put a similar philosophy into action, signing a controversial assisted suicide bill into law.

"While my faith may lead me to a particular decision for myself," Murphy said, "as a public official I cannot deny this alternative to those who may reach a different conclusion."

Murphy and Buttigieg stand in a long tradition of politicians for whom refusing to "impose" their morality to "deny" someone a moral choice is an article of liberal faith.

Mario Cuomo, father and predecessor of the current New York governor, was the first to offer the line of being "privately opposed" to abortion while very clearly acting to promote a particular moral worldview.

Republicans are also criticized by some people of faith for seeming to lack moral coherence: While failing even to end taxpayer support for abortion providers while in control of both houses of Congress and the presidency, the party instead has offered up endless versions of an economic platform which, many note, fails to find broad favor with voters of faith.

In his 2018 book "Why Liberalism Failed," Patrick Deneen observed the political orthodoxy of liberalism in both parties, albeit differently expressed.

Republicans hold out a distinctly liberal view of markets and economics, while exposing socially conservative principles on some life issues. Democrats, in turn, espouse deeply liberal principles on sexual morality, family, and life issues, while at the same time offering a more communitarian economic worldview.

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Those are the results seen as a false choice by some young religious voters, Catholics in particular among them.

Pro-life voters say they are frustrated when they are expected to choose between abortion and the death penalty, or when less government interference in the home and in schools is bound up with accepting similar minimalist intervention in the financial sector and on behalf of the poor.

These voters also say they are discouraged that taking a moral stance on healthcare reform comes at the cost of nuns under pressure to provide contraceptives and abortifacients. The unquestionable social evils of racism and misogyny are likewise presented as inseparable from the pseudoscience of gender theory, they say.

As ever-more radical abortion legislation is passed at the state level, entrenching the right to abort even while a woman is in active labor, polls show a clear majority of voters - even self-identified pro-choice Democrats – turning away from the principle of unrestricted abortion.

Proposed economic reforms and tax cuts from either party are often couched in the language of benefiting average families, but it is not at all clear politicians and voters share a common image of family.

There is widespread consensus among political leaders that the traditional family model of two married parents raising children, with only one working full-time, is at best an anachronism, at worst a form of social oppression or economic exclusion. Meanwhile, most Americans say they would prefer a full-time parent at home, and an increasing number of younger mothers are choosing to stay home despite economic penalties, reversing the trend of the previous generation.

The growing divide between the values of a liberal political establishment and voters is neither a new nor distinctly American phenomenon. And by some accounts, the divergence between the two has fueled a rise in populist electoral movements and results in Europe.

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In the U.K., Brexit was, in the eyes of most who voted for it rather than against it, a rejection of a political class characterized by some as "clericalist and apostate" in its manner and values.

On the continent of Europe, even as the European Union advances liberal moral norms on abortion and sexuality, voters, even younger voters, are at odds with the new orthodoxies.

The rise of reactionary parties like the AfD in Germany, Victor Orban's government in Hungary, the Forum for Democracy in the Netherlands, or the Swedish Democrats is most often cited as proof that, when offered no real alternative, voters will – if pushed – back even the most unpleasant disrupters.

The 2016 election delivered what was, for many in the political class, a still inexplicable result in the election of Donald Trump.

Many commentators have noted the inconsistency and often incoherence with which he appears to speak to a religious and moral section of voters who find no easy home in either party. Others have suggested that Trump functioned only as a temporary vehicle for such voters, because support for his candidacy was effectively one of protest, not endorsement.

If this diagnosis is correct, the extent to which there remains no obvious impetus to accommodate this bloc of voters within the establishment of either party could yet fuel more disruptive actors in the democratic process.

What remains to be seen is whether a coherent alternative, one that proclaims itself not bound to the articles of faith of liberalism in either markets or morals, can emerge to tempt voters.

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