How Bernie Sanders, Pope Francis are Reclaiming Moral Values for the Left

Since the early 1970s when the US Supreme Court recognized a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, the right wing opponents of that decision have mobilized under the banner of “moral values” to oppose it and a panoply of other issues raised by the progressive left, from keeping a strict separation of church and state, to more recently gay rights. From movements like “the Moral Majority” and the “Christian Coalition,” one by one conservatives were lining up for the proposition that if you are a Christian, a vote for a Democrat was a vote that put you in direct contradiction with your faith. This assertion went largely unchallenged until about a month ago.

President Carter could keep those forces at bay by his personal biography, as no one could possibly impugn his commitment to his religion.  After that however, the assertion went mostly unchallenged in the 1980s. In the following decade President Clinton, always the triangulator, couched his pro-choice rhetoric as that of a necessary evil where abortions should be safe and legal, and rare. While that is a perfectly reasonable and correct argument (banning abortion wouldn’t end abortion, it would just move it from clinics to back alleys) its purpose was to mitigate the right’s claim to moral values, not to change their narrative. The nineties too came and went, without many attacks on the claim that the GOP was the Party of God.

The first hints of an attempt to make that change came from former Presidential candidate Gov Howard Dean, who appeared on Meet the Press about six months after George Bush narrowly beat John Kerry in the 2004 election, when polls showed voters’ concerns about “moral values” played a pivotal role to give Bush the edge he needed.  While that narrative has subsequently been disputed, it had nevertheless entered the High Temple of Beltway Wisdom and was frequently repeated on corporate media, on which few Democrats back then dared to push back.

Governor Dean, who had become DNC Chairman at that time, made himself an exception when he proudly proclaimed: “we’ve got some pretty strong moral values in my party, and maybe we ought to do a better job standing up and fighting for them.  Our moral values, in contradiction to the Republicans’, is we don’t think kids ought to go to bed hungry at night.  Our moral values say that people who work hard all their lives ought to be able to retire with dignity.  Our moral values say that we ought to have a strong, free public education system so that we can level the playing field.  Our moral values say that what’s going on in Indian country in this country right now in terms of health care and education is a disgrace, and for the president of the United States to cut back on health-care services all over America is wrong.”  Neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton followed through with this narrative in the following presidential election because for starters, they were facing John McCain, a candidate who was not a darling of the Christian Right, and because the 2007-2009 recession made it much easier to prevail among voters on an economic message.

That brings us to this election when a combination of Bernie Sanders and Pope Francis, two people who have made economic justice a centerpiece of their public image. Let’s be very clear, Pope Francis is not going to persuade many right wing protestants who do not recognize his authority on Christian doctrine, but Catholics, who now make up the largest denomination of Christianity in the US do. Historically, Catholics voted Republican in the Reagan/Bush Sr era even though they supported Democrats for Congress but after 1992 returned to vote majority Democratic. While the Pope has not taken back his opposition to abortion or same sex marriage (although he did announce that priests could forgive abortion to Catholic women without special dispensation from a bishop), he has just as forcefully argues that the issues of income inequality, climate change, the plight of immigrants and reducing poverty were also moral values. For the first time, Republicans and their demands for cut social spending on the poor, tax cuts for the wealthy and climate change denialism find themselves of the wrong side of the moral values debate, which removes the moral values monopoly they have claimed.

Many Democrats, both elected officials and rank and file will struggle with this message, mostly because they are quite uncomfortable mixing religion and politics. However, as a matter of political calculation they should make every effort to do so because the religious vote is key to the GOP. Without religious conservative issues, Republicans will find it impossible to stitch together majorities for their trickle-down-eliminate-welfare agenda. However, the Pope will not stand for the Presidency this year, so it is up to Democratic politicians to run the second half of that race.

Enter Bernie Sanders, who created headlines with his speech at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. The Pope could only announce the inclusion of economic justice issues into the moral values agenda, but only Bernie Sanders thus far has announced a political formula how to turn those words into political action. In speaking to the student body at Liberty, Sanders make it clear that he didn’t intend to change their minds on abortion or same sex marriage, but he did tell them that they can make common cause on issues of income and wealth inequality, with bible verses to support one’s Christian duty to such.

He may not win many at a hardcore university like Liberty. But America is a country where a large majority self identify as Christians, and a country which now has majorities to support same-sex marriage and abortion. Therefore, there are a lot of Christians who break ranks with religious doctrine on these two issues. The pope’s message that there are other things besides those two issues which define Christianity’s moral values, combined with Bernie’s political formula to offer disaffected Republican religious voters a way into the Democratic coalition, is the winning message to finally put an end to our half century old culture wars.

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