Moral outrage is a fundamental component of the American electoral system. Describe some inequity or injustice and call the people to act—that has worked time and again to put mayors, governors, senators, and presidents in office.
Slavery was the issue one hundred fifty years ago with its demand for abolition. Prohibition, suffrage, unemployment, war, and civil rights followed one after another in the following decades.
Today the issues are abortion, health care, and immigration. Campaigners and preachers are shouting loud and long demanding correction to these perceived injustices, and voters are listening. These issues will dominate as 2020 crawls toward November.
Abortion, health care, and immigration have strong religious components; meaning, religious values (expressed and implied) will remain at the center of election rhetoric.
Republicans will focus on abortion and immigration but in different ways. Abortion contradicts the right to life , and this is a powerful appeal. Few causes over the past half century have so inflamed religious rhetoric and moral outrage. Just this week, thousands gathered on the steps of the Virginia state capital in Richmond for a Right to Life march; they cheered when the entire Republican delegation of state legislators walked out to join the protest.
Such demonstrations are compromised, however, because Republicans have little sympathy for things that actually prevent abortion (contraception) and services that support babies (medical care and welfare).
Republican outrage on immigration, though, is less related to the safety and well being of immigrants and refugees; it is almost entirely constructed on the perceived threat immigrants pose to the safety of American citizens and the continuity of traditional American cultural. The religious component of this political position is weak; but it is sometimes buttressed by the contention that immigration undermines our heritage as “a Christian nation.”
Democrats focus on health care and immigration. They frequently appeal to religious values to justify political action: heal the sick, feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, and welcome the stranger—words straight from Jesus. This nurtures a strong case of moral outrage. Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and Elizabeth Warren are three Democrats running with this rhetoric.
Democrats are on the weak side, religiously speaking, of the abortion issue. The justification for the right to an abortion rest largely on grounds other than religion; which is why more than one Democrat—Jimmy Carter, famously in 2012—has appealed on religious grounds to restrict (but not ban) the public access to abortion.
In the last few years a new issue has arisen—religious freedom. Historically, this has meant the freedom to worship, to build houses of worship, and to write and speak freely in a religious setting. It has also been used to exempt people from military service—a category of the conscientious objector—or recite the pledge of allegiance.
But the contemporary framing of this basic right is related to three issues: abortion, contraception, and homosexuality. Certain religious people interpret their religious freedom as the right to deny service to other people who need an abortion or contraceptives or who are homosexual.
The Supreme Court recognized this right in two recent court cases: Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) and Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018). These cases raised the stakes on the rights of individuals and corporations to resist legal pressures to conform to cultural norms.
Interestingly, these recent “religious freedom” cases all relate in some way to sexual orientation or activity. I know of no case where this religious liberty assertion has been raised in relation to other situations, such as poverty, violence, or incarceration. An example might be the refusal on religious grounds to serve a person who carries a gun.
But underneath these new “religious liberty” claims is an even stronger, sometimes more emotional rationale: resistance to an all-encompassing, over-bearing government. And this justification is less religious than political (although it might play out different if the government in question was more “Christian”—mandating prayer in public schools, supporting churches, and prohibiting abortion, for examples).
The bottom line is this: religious convictions and values are all tangled up in political platforms and actions. It is not always easy to know where one stops and the other starts. And this, ironically, pulls the whole discussion very close to the emerging (and emotional) issue of Islam.
But I’ll save that for another day!