Monday, July 12, 2004
Are Politicians Who Fail to Vote Their Personal Beliefs "Wishy-Washy"? 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
Alas, A Blog has a thought-provoking post that begins by discussing the nature of political candidates' positions on moral/theological issues (namely John Kerry's somewhat vague position on abortion) and then brings up a broader essential question: are politicians and lawmakers required to legislate according to their personal - and religious - beliefs?

If they do not, and they vote in the manner they feel is best for their constituency, rather than a position aligned with their personal conscience and the tenets of their faith, are they evasive, wishy-washy, or - pardon - flippy-floppy? Alas, A Blog's Amp says:
I dislike the way [Family Scholars Blog writer] David [Blankenhorn] is conflating a reasonable, complex position with evasiveness - as if no politician is allowed to take a nuanced position on any moral question. In essence, all Kerry is saying is that his religion tells him that abortion is immoral, but at the same time he doesn't believe that all moral questions are best dealt with by a government ban. Rather, on some issues - including issues with a strong connection to religious beliefs, such as abortion - he wants all Americans to have the freedom to make their own moral choices, even if they make choices Kerry would personally disagree with.

That's a more sophisticated position than David's implied position (judging from this post, David apparently believes that legislators are required to legally ban every act they feel is immoral), but it's hardly evasive. In fact, it's the position that a large number of ordinary Americans hold on abortion, and on many other issues (pornography, alcohol, gambling, etc).

I say this as a partisan - although I am not a registered Democrat, I intend to vote for Kerry. Nonetheless, there is a tendency in politics - on both sides - to interpret any complex or nuanced position as evasiveness or flip-flopping. [read full post]
I think Amp hits the nail on the head here, pointing out that if we truly expected politicians to pass legislation banning every act that violates their personal religious beliefs, "[f]ollowing this logic, shouldn't we criticize Senator Lieberman [as being "wishy-washy"] for not trying to outlaw eating pork?"

Facetiousness aside, I agree that there is a growing, disturbing trend toward discouraging "complex or nuanced positions" in the political arena - which unfortunately, does nothing for the parties involved but burn bridges while simultaneously building walls. Personally, I have no problem with the "I don't believe in and wouldn't personally choose X, but I will support your right to X" stance, and I don't consider that evasive or wishy-washy. I feel this is a viewpoint that contains the essence of Americans' love of freedom and belief in personal responsibility.

For instance, if we say "candidate A's religion forbids X, therefore candidate A is immoral/flippy-floppy/wishy-washy for not enacting legislation banning X," we have clearly erased the line between Church and State. But: if lawmakers pass a law permitting X, it does not follow that I (or my family) will be forced to X. However, if a law is passed banning X, the government co-opts my personal choice and moral decision. Granted, the weighty sticking points depend on what word we substitute for X: abortion, or murder? Same-sex marriage, or destruction of society as we know it? Sodomy, or the right to love the person of one's choice? Working on the Sabbath? Pork-eating?

Do we want our political leaders to be our representatives, or "our brother's [and by extension, our] keepers"? A few centuries ago our predecessors wisely chose the former, knowing the latter can evolve quickly into another manifestation of monarchy. No, I don't think we should abandon laws and morality, but we should trust our finely tuned system of checks and balances to steer us from the slippery slope we so fear.

(In that regard, I was actually very encouraged by the Supreme Court's recent decisions on the habeas corpus rights of enemy combatants being held at Guantanamo Bay, Internet pornography, and the phrase "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. These decisions did a great deal to restore my belief that even over a span of years or a Presidential term or two, the Constitutional process does generally tend toward reason and restraint, by a series of cyclical steering corrections and approximations - barring certain exceptional events, and periodic scares. I hope I'm not wrong. Read University of Chicago Prof. Cass Sunstein's New York Times op-ed piece, "The Smallest Court in the Land")

Perhaps it is natural that during wartime we would want leaders to follow less "complex and nuanced" ideologies, ones that would bind us within a unified vision of personal and religious morality: if we make laws that compel all to follow a more restrictive, old-fashioned national code of conduct, we gain safety in numbers and defeat what could be called a "Tower of Babel" divisiveness that comes with cultural plurality. What's important to remember is that our country's plurality of faiths, creeds, nationalities and ways of life - and our slow, often begrudgingly increasing acceptance of such - is not the enemy. It is actually our greatest strength, and the democratic process is not necessarily the zero-sum game we're being told it is, where one interest group's victory translates into another's commensurate loss.

I think that a political leader's choice to not legislate against viewpoints contradictory to their private beliefs is neither politically evasive or deceptive. It is at worst political expediency; at best, an understanding that no one individual (or political party) can presume to know what's best for every member of a democracy, and that these important decisions are better left to the people one has been elected to represent.