Last week, we all had a good laugh at Ted Cruz’ expense. He, or someone who manages his Twitter account, “liked” a link to a pornographic video. They quickly removed the like, but not before quick-minded Twitter users took screenshots and spread them all over the internet and the news media. It was hardly a career-ending moment, but the jokes spread far and wide, and I’ll admit I made a few myself. This wasn’t the first time a politician’s staff has caused his embarrassment. Ba-dum-DUM!
Of course, some of Cruz’ political opponents shouted “Gotcha!” To many, even with a morally repugnant troglodyte like Mr. “Grab ‘Em by the Pussy” in the White House, the Republican Party and the conservative movement are closely associated with the Christian Right and social conservatism. From “family values” in the 90s, to its pro-life stance and opposition to gay marriage, the GOP counts on evangelicals for support at the ballot box.
And that’s a problem.
In a free society, government is a secular institution that reflects the values and ideals of the people it represents. For many, every political argument is a moral argument, a question of right and wrong, even for the most corrupt among us. Our laws and regulations reflect those judgements, and when they fall out of sync with society as a whole, as they sometimes do, we elect new representation to put them in line.
However, moral values evolve over time. American history is, to a large extent, a history of how our values have changed in things both large and small. From the revolution itself to the struggle to free the slaves, our fight against fascism in World War II, and the civil rights movement – these were all struggles to correct wrongs. Even changes that arrived with far less drama and violence, such as the sexual revolution and the feminist movement, are stories of evolving values.
Many social conservatives view these changes with alarm. They see more and more Americans living lifestyles at odds with traditional Christian values. They speak of the United States as a country founded on Christian principles, and while it is true that many some of the founders were devout Christians, they believed their faith made entirely different demands of them; not to impose a state religion like the countries of Europe, but to enshrine and protect individual liberty:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Thomas Jefferson writing those words for King George in the Declaration of Independence ranks among the most important moments in human history. There is a lot to unpack in those two sentences, but the biggest takeaway is that the only legitimate purpose of government is to protect the rights of the individual – rights we were born with that exist outside of government. It’s a tool instituted by the people, collectively, to protect their lives, liberty, and freedom to pursue happiness.
Of course, what can protect can also destroy. The founders also recognized that government is the biggest threat to freedom. It’s a necessary evil that must be checked. Jefferson continued:
“…whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Those of us who believe in individual liberty should always err on the side of freedom when we make political judgments of morality that affect the freedom of happiness of others. We should ask ourselves hard questions about whether our personal freedom and safety are really at risk before we ask the government to act. In most cases not involving theft, destruction of personal property, or physical violence, the answer is no.
When we do ask the government to act, whenever possible, it should be in the cause of expanding freedom. Government should impose burdens only when the lifestyle choices of others cause direct harm to the safety or freedom of others.
However well-intentioned, those who mistakenly believe the proper role of government includes protecting values rather than people have much in common with authoritarian regimes throughout history and around the world. Religion and morality are personal matters. Government’s role is to protect our ability to make those decisions for ourselves, not to protect one set of values over all others. Turning America toward conservative Christianity, if that is one’s goal, is only possible through the church and personal proselytization. Using government is a lazy shortcut, perhaps even an admission of failure.
This is why it was a mistake for conservatives to cozy up to the Christian Right in the first place. While they certainly have the right to participate in the democratic process, their political agenda is antithetical to the values of Jefferson and our founding fathers. Those of us in a philosophical movement that enshrines the ideals of limited government and individual liberty should have had the strength of our convictions to tell them so a long time ago. Pandering is an ideological sellout.
It also leaves Republicans subject to gleeful accusations of hypocrisy whenever one of them fails to live up to socially conservative ideals, as so few do…which brings us back to Ted Cruz. Seriously. This is the age of the internet. Let him who hath never watched porn cast the first stone.