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At Stake: The Soul of the Nation

At Stake: The Soul of the Nation

Music fans lucky enough to score a ticket for the eagerly anticipated October 12 opening of “Springsteen on Broadway” heard the iconic artist opine from the stage of the Walter Kerr Theater: “I believe that what we are seeing now is a bad chapter in the ongoing battle for the soul of the nation.” While it is seldom wise to rely heavily on show-business professionals for political analysis, these words of “the Boss” summarize the current plight of the United States as well as any. These are anything but normal times in U.S. politics; indeed, one great danger would be the normalizing of the regrettable behaviors and needless divisions that are roiling the waters of our polity. But what distinctive roles can professional ethicists play in these trying times? I will mention three.

One obvious option for moralists is to strike the posture of the prophet, denouncing travesties of justice and launching jeremiads against abuses of power. Speaking truth to power and scolding the selfish and misguided has, throughout human history, been necessary but (alas!) it is far from sufficient. It may be wise to reach into our ethics toolbox and select another method in our repertoire of strategies.

A second, considerably more demanding course of action is to assume the role of a policy analyst—the constructive critic who not only diagnoses a problematic status quo but offers realistic, practical, and ethically superior alternatives. This critique requires an effort to marshal data sufficient to persuade citizens (including our legislators) of the folly and death-dealing courses of action currently on display in the US—from the abrogation of complex international treaties and environmental regulations to the jettisoning of support for crucial relief measures (as in Puerto Rico) and health care subsidies that benefit low-income people. Only an ethicist who “does the requisite homework” is well positioned to propose public policy measures that will preserve the crucial values and human well being at stake.

The third and perhaps most distinctive potential contribution by the community of professional ethicists is to engage in a bit of meta-ethics—to invite observers of public affairs to see the big picture into which momentary opinions inhere. The work of meta-ethics can identify the forces that lie behind the “culture wars” and the sharp divergence of opinions on “wedge issues” that divide the nation into rival camps. Those who manipulate public opinion for cynical gain instinctively recognize the power of buzzwords and slogans, and ethicists should as well. One need not master the complexities of linguistic theory in order to appreciate that Americans mean a variety of things when they employ loaded terms like “freedom,” “justice” and “desert.” More broadly, as our most neuralgic “wedge issues” come to be “framed” in sharply divergent ways, meta-ethics could expose the ensemble of values and priorities held by those doing the framing. Ethicists have all the right tools on hand to unravel the complex bundles of opinions on key public affairs. I will mention two issues to illustrate the point, though many more could be cited as examples of the potential for ethicists to make a distinctive contribution to the debate.

The urgency of gun control was driven home by the tragedy of the October 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada. As a nation, we are once again pondering the meaning of the Second Amendment’s guarantee of the right to bear arms, the challenge of accommodating the intent of the Founders in this age of automatic weapons, and the horror of thousands of lives lost each year to gun violence. Sensible firearms legislation will depend on how activists on each side frame the issue of gun control. Meta-ethics would question: Does a supposedly constitutionally protected right trump all considerations of social responsibility and practical provisions for public safety? As meta-ethics acknowledges, the vocabulary terms used in the unavoidable discussions ahead will largely determine the likelihood of any reform. Progress toward decision-making will be stalled until we recognize, for example, how the gun lobby skillfully frames the issue, employing the attraction of easy access to gun ownership as a proxy for a range of resentments and suspicions of governmental authority. Can we ethicists succeed in framing, with equal deftness, this vital issue in terms of the Founders’ intents and the radically different context of the twenty-first century?

A less urgent but still divisive issue is the headline-grabbing difference of opinion on National Football League players kneeling during the playing of the national anthem before games. Looking beyond specific recourse to this protest action (e.g., President Trump proposes that players participating be fired summarily), it is clear that the differences of opinion are, as above, largely generated by the words we use to describe the controversy. Is the brouhaha indeed about disrespecting the flag and the nation? Or is it about asserting freedom of speech? Too often lost in the scramble to frame the issue is the purpose cited by (suspiciously now unemployed) athlete Colin Kaepernick, who inaugurated the practice in 2016: to protest unjustified police violence against people of color. Sadly, debates over the First Amendment protected free-speech actions of these athletes have been a proxy for larger cleavages in the culture wars that have roiled our nation for decades.

Many other controversies could be cited, as precious little terrain is not hotly contested in this contentious and divided nation. Through it all, ethicists may find it hard to do much more than insist on civility and basic respect for one’s opponents. But I hope that we can provide some clarifying light regarding the framing of these and other issues of concern. In so doing, we will be fulfilling our common mission to serve church and society by fostering mutual understanding and keeping alive realistic hope for the soul of the nation: genuine reconciliation of good people who, knowingly or not, are divided by words and ideas that fail to heal our body politic, but rather tear it further asunder.