Unapologetic progressive. Fearless activist. Plucky liberal.

The many kinds of morality

I’m tired of conservative Christians trying to impose their moral values on the rest of us.

Conservatives act as if their way is the only way to live. They’re right, you’re wrong. However, there are many ways to live a moral life that don’t mesh with conservative principles. You can be an atheist or an unmarried mother or a gay preacher or a sex worker or a yoga instructor and still be a moral, productive member of society.

Conservatives also like to imply that liberals and progressives are responsible for the “moral decay” in America. I beg to differ. I am a liberal feminist, and my family is the most important thing in the world to me. I say prayers nearly every night. I donate to charity and contribute to Goodwill. I recycle. I donate blood. I support organ donation. So don’t try to say people like me aren’t moral just because we don’t agree with you. There is more than one way to live a moral life.

Is premarital sex, one of the hot topics in conservatism, in the strictest sense of the word, “wrong”? I think a strong case can be made that premarital safe sex between two consenting adults harms no one. You may believe that it’s wrong because that is what your religion tells you. But belief in something does not make it a fact.

Some acts are wrong no matter how you look at them.

Rape. Murder. Theft. Assault. Abuse. Torture. Kidnapping.

Why are these things considered crimes? They do harm to others.

Some things, however, aren’t so cut and dried. A practice that’s acceptable to one culture–such as eating pork–is unacceptable to another. Other examples might be marrying for love, exposing one’s hair, shaking a stranger’s hand upon introduction, living with a same-sex partner, eating with only one hand, etc. The merits of these customs can be debated, but on the whole they don’t hurt anybody.

That’s why I take exception to people who try to force their values on others. Newt Gingrich opposes same-sex marriage, even though his own sister is gay. He would deny rights to couples like Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, lesbians who were together for 56 years, while his own personal life looks like this:

Here’s a summary of Gingrich’s family life: 1) Gingrich marries his high school teacher, Jackie, who was seven years his senior; 2) Jackie puts Gingrich through college and she works hard to get him elected to the House in 1978 (Gingrich won partly because his campaign claimed that his Democratic opponent would neglect her family if elected — at that time it was common knowledge that Gingrich was straying); 3) Shortly after being elected, Gingrich separated from his wife — announcing the separation in the hospital room where Jackie was recovering from cancer surgery (the divorce was final in 1981); Jackie Gingrich and her children had to depend on alms from her church because Gingrich didn’t pay any child support; 3) Six months after the divorce, Gingrich, then 38, married Marianne Ginther, 30; 4) “In May 1999, however, Gingrich [55] called Marianne [48] at her mother’s home. After wishing the 84-year-old matriarch happy birthday, he told Marianne that he wanted a divorce.” This was eight months after Marianne was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; 5) In 2000, Gingrich, 57, married ex-congressional aide Callista Bisek, 34, with whom he was having a relationship while married to Marianne.

A recent Esquire profile on Gingrich quotes his ex-wife with this exchange:

He asked her to just tolerate the affair, an offer she refused.

He’d just returned from Erie, Pennsylvania, where he’d given a speech full of high sentiments about compassion and family values.

The next night, they sat talking out on their back patio in Georgia. She said, “How do you give that speech and do what you’re doing?”

“It doesn’t matter what I do,” he answered. “People need to hear what I have to say. There’s no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn’t matter what I live.”

It must take some mental acrobatics to reconcile what Gingrich says in public and what he does in his private life. And Gingrich has every right to lead his life however he sees fit. He can belong to a church that opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, as is his right. But to inflict those beliefs on others is the height of hypocrisy when he can’t manage to follow them himself.

He’s far from the only conservative who can’t practice what he preaches. Mark Sanford criticized Bill Clinton’s affair—and we all know he wasn’t really hiking the Appalachian Trail. Sarah Palin wants to criminalize abortion—even after admitting she thought of having one herself. Ted Haggard campaigned against gay marriage—at the same time he was having sex with a gay escort. Rush Limbaugh touts the benefits of “traditional” marriage. He should know, after being married four times. They are all critical of President Obama, who has the most stable home life of any of them. He has been married to the same woman for 18 years, raising two well-adjusted daughters, and he lives with his mother-in-law. Which party platform espouses family values, again?

I know someone will play devil’s advocate by saying that I’m trying to impose my own version of morality on everyone else. What I’m really trying to do is champion a way of life that could be described as “live and let live.” If you believe abortion is immoral, don’t have one. If you believe premarital sex is wrong, by all means wait until you’re married. If you don’t approve of public schools, send your kids to private ones. Just don’t try to make everyone else live the same way you do. For one thing, you’re guaranteed to fail. Do you really think you can get all 300 million people in this country, let alone the 6 billion people on the planet, to see morality the same way you do?

For another, “do as I say, not as I do” has backfired pretty spectacularly for conservatives. Why not try a different tack and actually live a moral life as an example for others to follow?

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Comments on: "The many kinds of morality" (4)

  1. Amen, Sister.

  2. Uncle Dave said:

    This is a wonderful article; Imposing one’s moral views on others is not an American
    value, if you think about it ! Being free to worship; believing in others rights as long as they
    do not harm others and pursuing happiness are American values – Let’s not forget every
    person deserves their own peace and allowing others to do the same.

    Thanks, Molly for a great article !

    • I agree. I don’t know why so many people feel the need to dictate to others instead of leading by example. Preaching morality doesn’t work unless you can walk the walk.

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