Franklin Graham, sharp-edged son of the late beloved evangelist Billy Graham, advised his Twitter followers recently to “be aware of candidates who call themselves progressive” because they don’t “believe in God…and will likely vote against Godly principles….”
To appreciate fully what the “values” candidates favored by Graham and his ilk don’t get about values, let’s hear directly from an ilk. When Vice President Mike Pence accepted his party’s nomination for that office at the Republican Nation Convention in 2016, he famously declared, “I’m a Christian, a conservative and a Republican in that order.” What’s chilling about this isn’t so much that “Christian” came in first as that “American” didn’t even make the cut.
Pence and the values candidates for whom he’s the poster boy don’t understand what makes America the free society it is. What defines a free society is its bedrock commitment to a fair distribution of the secure social space within which competent adults are at liberty to live, not as others think fit, but by their own lights, their own conception of their good, consistent with the same liberty for others.
Your conception of your good is your personal vision of the best, most worthwhile life. It’s what you look to in deciding how to deploy your talents and abilities, how to treat others, etc. It’s a personal moral code, personal because it varies from person to person, depending on upbringing, education, accidents of history, and exposure to a more or less wide range of experiences.
What values candidates don’t understand is that election to public office subordinates their personal conception of their good, which may or may not be shared by all their constituents, to the impersonal, undivided public good that defines ours as the free society it is.
We recognize that the public good takes absolute precedence over elected officials’ private good by requiring them to affirm their allegiance, not to the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Analects of Confucius, the teachings of the Buddha, the tenets of Baha’i, the wisdom of Druids and Wiccans, or the musings of L. Ron Hubbard, but to the Constitution of the United States. Because of the absolute priority of the public good over an officeholder’s private good, the only honorable remedy when they conflict irreconcilably is for the official to resign from office and return to private life.
Candidates and officeholders who don’t understand all this subscribe to what I’ll call the Rick Santorum model of political life. When Santorum represented Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate, the New York Times Magazine published a profile of him and quoted him saying about some of his Senate colleagues at the opposite end of the political spectrum, “They’re out there because they really believe this. This is from their core. They’re true believers. God bless them. That’s what political discourse is all about. You bring in your moral code, or worldview, and I bring in mine.”
On the Santorum model, political life is a high-stakes game of capture the flag. Candidates for office and their supporters duke it out for possession of the machinery of government, and whoever wins is then in a position to deploy the coercive powers of the state to turn their personal moral “worldview” into public policy.
But that model subverts the bedrock value that a free society aims to realize. Since the difference between competent adults and children is exactly that the former are free to live their lives in terms of their own values and moral beliefs and children aren’t (yet), another way to look at this is to think of a free society as one in which competent adults need not fear being reduced to the condition of children.
On the Santorum model, though, being reduced to that condition is exactly what the losers in political contests can look forward to from the victors. That’s because the victors mistake the power to translate their personal moral ideas into public policy, to the disadvantage of the vanquished, for the duty to advance the undivided public good at the foundation of a free society, for the benefit of all. It’s that bedrock impersonal public good that’s compromised every time we elect somebody bent on making his or her merely personal “worldview” a law for others.