“All this will I give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’ ”
– Matthew 4:9
WASHINGTON – The prospect of Sen. Roy Moore has been both horrifying and clarifying. It would be difficult to design a more controlled, precise test of the moral gag reflex in politics.
In this political lifeboat dilemma, Republicans are being asked what principles they are willing to throw overboard in the interests of power. A belief that character matters in politics? Splash. A commitment to religious and ethnic inclusion? Splash. Moral outrage at credible charges of sexual predation against teen girls? Splash.
Those remaining in this lightened boat display a kind of shocking clarity. They value certain political ends – tax cuts, a conservative judiciary – more than ethical considerations. When it comes to confirming judges who oppose Roe v. Wade, the vote of a statesman is no better than the vote of a sexual predator – or, presumably, of a drug dealer or a murderer. This type of calculation admits no limiting principle.
So, in this view, it does not really matter that there is (as Ivanka Trump put it) “no reason to doubt the victims’ accounts” in Moore’s case. It does not matter that Moore’s explanations have been shifting and slippery. It does not matter that Moore has said that homosexual behavior should be illegal, or that he compared resisting gay marriage to resisting the Holocaust, or that he referred to Asians as “yellows,” or that he doesn’t believe President Obama is a natural born citizen, or that he believes there are communities living under Shariah law in Illinois and Indiana.
Those willing to swallow all this – all the ignorance, cruelty, creepiness and malice – have truly shown the strength of their partisan commitment. A purity indistinguishable from mania.
The Moore test has been useful in its own way. It has exposed corrupt leaders. President Trump’s eventual endorsement of Moore was predictable, given his personal interest in discrediting the credible accusations of exploited women. The support of the Republican National Committee revealed a political party with no judgment, no standards and a cloudy future among the young and morally sentient. All Moore’s allies and enablers have marked themselves as unfit for leadership. The untainted – among them Sens. Mike Lee, Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, Cory Gardner, Susan Collins, Thom Tillis, Lindsey Graham, John McCain, Steve Daines, Bill Cassidy and Ben Sasse – are far and away the best positioned to play positive roles in a Republican recovery.
The Moore test has exposed corrupt arguments. All those who say “Let the voters of Alabama decide” are applying popular sovereignty to a matter of basic morality. Abraham Lincoln would not be amused. If Republicans have any remaining ties to the great man, they will not count votes when fundamental principles are at stake. We do not let the people decide on the rights of minorities. And the people do not decide on the rules of morality.
And the Moore test has exposed corrupt institutions. The basic argument here – that ethics can be ignored in the process of doing great work in the world – is precisely what brings institutions into disrepute. The Catholic Church covered up sexual predation on the justification that it was otherwise doing great work in the world. Some evangelicals are now publicly downplaying credible charges of sexual predation for the same reason. And they are doing tremendous damage to the reputation of the Christian church in the process.
Though I probably don’t say it enough, many evangelicals are doing great work in the world – feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and welcoming the stranger. But a self-selected, highly visible group of politicized evangelicals is engaged in a remarkable project. Once they were known for harsh moralism – for being eager tutors in our national sins. Now they argue that character doesn’t count and the ends justify the means. The moral majority has somehow lost its taste for decency.
The hope for American politics is found in the reverse, the photographic negative, of all these trends. In leaders who affirm and exemplify the nobility of the political enterprise. In arguments that elevate principle above expediency. In institutions that shape character, confront corruption, take the side of the exploited and echo the newly pertinent question: “For what shall it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.