I’m all for more serious moral debate in politics, and I support the right of all to display their conscience in public, whether it be red, blue, or purple. Yet, as an American who is both liberal-minded and entirely secular, I can’t help but wonder what we might be losing along the way.
For what it now means to say that poverty or health care are values issues is that evangelicals have started talking about them, and what it now means for liberals to take values seriously is to start talking about them as evangelicals do. As at the recent Compassion Forum among the Democratic candidates, faith and values are now running mates. Such thinking precludes the possibility of a public moral language that transcends sect and invokes the civic values we share as Americans and world citizens.
This would be a betrayal of a great tradition. The Judeo-Christian virtues of love, mercy and humility have a unique place in the moral heritage of the West. But no less important is the Stoic and neo-Stoic philosophers’ notion of universal human reason ”” a secular conscience ”” that reveals our earthly good and grounds our natural rights.
We Americans have our own civic scriptures. The American testament has its Creation narrative: Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, The Declaration of Independence. It has an Exodus: the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation and the New Deal. Its Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians is Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists; its Psalms, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The original moral values are enunciated in the Preamble to that American Talmud, the Constitution: justice, domestic tranquility, common defense, general welfare and liberty.