Dangling Conversations

Published October 6, 2008


Between “gotcha” questions and the ubiquitous gaffe-watch, there hasn’t been much serious moral debate in the endgame of this presidential campaign. In fact, there hasn’t been a serious exploration of the moral kernel of so many of today’s contested issues since the forum at Saddleback Church in August. In the hope that it’s not too late to raise the level of a public discussion too often conducted in sound bites, here are some urgent moral questions to be pressed on those who would lead us.

1. This past April, Pope Benedict XVI spoke at the United Nations of the “duty to protect” and described it as the litmus test of political legitimacy. Does the United States have a moral obligation to act, alone or in concert with others, when governments manifestly fail in their “duty to protect”?

2. Religiously-shaped moral conviction plays multiple, dynamic roles in 21st century world politics. Very few people at the Department of State, the Department of Defense, or the Central Intelligence Agency understand this. What will you do to change that?

3. Forget the chatter about “preemption.” The correct term, within the classic just war tradition, is “the morally justified first-use of armed force.” Do you think the first use of armed force is ever morally justifiable? Is so, when? If not, why not?

4. What role does distorted religious conviction play in creating the dangers we face from terrorists? How can American public diplomacy address those convictions?

5. What is the responsibility of the United States to help ensure that the new Iraq is safe for all its religious communities? What is the moral responsibility of the U.S. government toward displaced Iraqi Christians, many of whom have fled the country?

6. Do you consider homosexuality the equivalent of race for purposes of U.S. civil rights law?

7. Is any public defense of classic biblical sexual morality a de facto act of intolerance and discrimination against gays?

8. Should Roman Catholic and evangelical social service agencies working with orphans be legally required to consider gay couples on an equal basis as foster-care providers? How about as potential adoptive parents?

9. Does the increasingly assertive role played by federal courts in adjudicating hotly contested questions of public policy threaten the moral fabric of American democracy, by taking serious decisions out of the hands of the people and their elected representatives? Are we becoming morally lazy in allowing the courts to decide so many issues for us?

10. Are you at all concerned that the trajectory of Supreme Court jurisprudence over the past six decades risks driving religiously informed moral argument out of our public life?

11. What is the moral balance to be struck between sensible work on climate change and the aspirations of the Third World poor, many of whom live in countries dependent on high-carbon-emission technologies for economic development?

12. How would your administration foster a culture of savings and personal financial responsibility in the United States?

13. What role, if any, should Washington play in elevating our national cultural life? Does it bother you that pornography is a major American export, and if so, what might be done about that?

14. What, if any, is the moral difference between a Supreme Court decision that puts unborn children outside the protection of the laws and a Supreme Court decision that once put black Americans outside the protection of the laws?

15. Does the ability to reprogram adult cells so that they function like embryonic stem cells change the moral character of the debate over stem cell research?

16. For what are you willing to risk your popularity, and perhaps your re-election?

17. Are you prepared to dismiss a subordinate who may be a friend, but who is manifestly not up to the requirements of the office to which you appointed him or her?

18. Can you live with able subordinates who are prepared to tell you, “Mr. President, you’re wrong”?

19. There are things a president cannot tell the American people. But are there circumstances in which you would deem it your responsibility to mislead the American people? To deny what you know to be true? To affirm what you know to be false?

20. Who are your moral heroes?

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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