Democratic candidates in recent years as a rule haven’t felt comfortable talking about values and faith. (This may be an aversion to make “judgments” or a recognition that many, but certainly not all, segments in the Democratic coalition are relatively secularized.) The mainstream media does not have a high quotient of devoutly religious people. (It’s also excessively urban and now almost entirely college-educated.) As a result, the talk of values outside the religious right has been muted in national politics.
That has changed, in part because the evangelical community has thrown values and decency overboard to support President Trump, and in part because Trump’s conduct, more than any recent president, shocks the conscience. Be it bragging about sexual assault, implementing a policy that rips toddlers from their parents’ arms or continuing the drumbeat of racist remarks, Trump has managed to get a very high percentage of voters to agree he’s no role model.
When addressing a scandal like the Trump campaign’s willingness to accept Russian help or his interference in the investigation, we too often default to talking about illegalities. That’s a mistake, because we need to set a standard for public life, especially for the president, that is higher than “didn’t break federal laws.” (Democratic Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California was exactly right to say there has been ample evidence of the campaign’s interaction with and encouragement of a hostile power bent on interfering with our election, which, if not a federal crime, was an immoral and unacceptable betrayal of one’s country.)
In this regard, Democratic contenders have begun appealing to voters’ sense of moral indignation. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) often says, “We are better than this.” Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., has perhaps gone the furthest in this regard. On Sunday, he appeared on “Meet the Press”:
CHUCK TODD: You said something rather strong about the president, that you said, “It’s hard to look at his actions and believe that they are the actions of somebody who believes in God.” How do you square that assessment with the fact that the evangelical Christian community is so devoted to his candidacy?
BUTTIGIEG: Well, it’s something that really frustrates me, because the hypocrisy is unbelievable. Here, you have somebody who not only acts in a way that is not consistent with anything that I hear in scripture or in church, where it’s about lifting up the least among us and taking care of strangers, which is another word for immigrants. And making sure that you’re focusing your effort on the poor. But also personally, how you’re supposed to conduct yourself. Not chest-thumping, look-at-me-ism, but humbling yourself before others. Foot-washing is one of the central images in the New Testament. And we see the diametric opposite of that in this presidency. I think there was perhaps a cynical process where he decided to, for example, begin to pretend to be pro-life and govern accordingly. Which was good enough to bring many evangelicals over to his side. But even on the version of Christianity that you hear from the religious right, which is about sexual ethics, I can’t believe that somebody who was caught writing hush-money checks to adult film actresses is somebody they should be lifting up as the kind of person you want to be leading this nation.
We should underscore a few points.
First, Democrats cannot solely or even primarily run against Trump’s awfulness. They have to present their own vision. However, one argument for dumping Trump and adopting their agenda should be that the latter is more humane and more decent. Democrats should argue that their policies work better and are more in keeping with our values.
Second, unlike the religious right that has used religion as a club to bludgeon opponents, progressives who speak about values and faith in this way can provide reassurance to disaffected Republicans who are leaving the party precisely because they find Trump and his enablers to be morally repugnant. In fact, Buttigieg’s views on faith and civic responsibility are far more “conservative” than anything coming out of Trump’s mouth.
Third, in our hyperpolarized, politically toxic climate, we certainly need to have a conversation about and a commitment to what we used to call civic virtue — respect, tolerance, humility, honesty, empathy and the rest. If we want to pull back on the impulses to engage in one political brawl after another, the conversation about values had better start in the campaign.
Finally, there is a case to be made for giving voters the opposite of what they currently have. Just as Jimmy Carter’s promise to never lie to Americans was the perfect antidote to Watergate, so too may a call for decency in public life be just what voters are looking for after a president unique in his cruelty, immorality and dishonesty.