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Morality and Politics: Separate and Unequal

The 2012 presidential election may be seen as a choice between the lesser of two evils. As American voters hold their noses and choose a leader, morality competes with leadership skills and experience as qualities they want in their politicians.

Image by George Cassutto
Copyright 2012
Used with permission

Here we are in the 2012 presidential race, sandwiched between the Gingrich victory in the South Carolina primary and the President’s State of the Union address to Congress and the nation on Tuesday. As I listen to my pastor read Matthew 19, where Jesus tells the rich young man to sell all he has to the poor to follow him, I wonder to what extent our morality informs our politics. When I say “morality,” I don’t necessarily mean “religion.” The Constitution explicitly keeps government and religion separate through the opening words of the First Amendment, but government is the birthplace of our laws, and our laws are based on moral precepts that are founded and grounded on Judeo-Christian principles found in the Ten Commandments and the in the New Testament descriptions of the life of Jesus Christ. It is difficult to discern how morality determines the policies and decisions of our leaders. In turn, the electorate of this nation makes its decisions at the voting booth based on the moral tenets that they claim are at the center of their faith. The trouble is that personal morality is as diverse as the national populace, which makes political decision-making fraught with conflict and finger-pointing.

Newt Gingrich handily defeated apparent front runner Mitt Romney in South Carolina because Christian evangelicals abandoned Iowa winner Rick Santorum and shifted their support to Gingrich, in spite of his less than stellar past as a husband who cheated on his dying wife. Fiscal conservatives failed to come to Romney’s aid, even though Romney’s wealth and record as a businessman used to be a model for Republican values that call for a capitalist system unfettered by government regulation. Gingrich has asked the electorate for forgiveness for his personal mistakes, and it seems they have, putting his leadership qualities over Romney’s business acumen. But the South Carolina voters also seem to have forgiven and forgotten that Gingrich was fined $300,000 for ethics violations as Speaker of the House in the 1990s, and the fact that he was forced to resign from that position.

Mitt Romney’s squeaky clean appearance, commitment to family values, and Mormon faith come across as being morally pure in contrast to his closest rival in Gingrich. But Romney’s wealth and business philosophy invokes the image of the rich, young man that Jesus told to sell all he has to help the poor. Romney has withheld his tax returns to date, most likely to shield the public from his overwhelming wealth rather than hiding something nefarious in the numbers of his earnings. In a political climate where the Occupy Wall Street movement has eclipsed the Tea Party, one major issue of this election is income inequality. Claiming a moral upper hand in the name of economic fairness, President Obama has consistently called for the closing of tax loopholes for big corporations and an increase on taxes for the wealthiest Americans. Romney’s disproportionate personal wealth may be a disqualifying liability because Romney appears incapable of understanding the challenges facing middle and working class Americans. The immorality of income disparity outweighs the morality of wealth creation in the minds of many voters who are not part of the wealth-owning class. Only those who wish to protect the interests of the “1%” would gravitate towards a Romney candidacy.

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