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The McCarthyites of Virtue

by Paul Kurtz


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 19, Number 1.


So much has been written and said about the Clinton-Lewinsky morality play - what can we add at this late date that is new? Perhaps that the situation vividly illustrates the deep Kulturkampf between two contending conceptions of morality engulfing America.

The Clash of Two Moralities

Humanism expresses the core ethical values of large sectors of life in American and Western civilization. Coming to fruition in the modern world, humanistic morality prizes individual freedom and autonomy. It believes that individuals should be allowed to express their unique talents, needs, and desires without undue repression by the state or society. The goal is the enhancement of the good life: happiness and well-being for the widest number of individuals.

A key humanist ethical principle is "the right of privacy," which states that society should respect the right of an individual to control his or her own personal life. That includes a person's body, possessions, beliefs, values, preferences, and actions - so long as they do not intrude upon or deny the rights of other individuals.

The principle has been applied to the right of confidentiality, private sexual preferences (between consenting adults), the right to birth control, abortion, euthanasia, and informed consent concerning a person's medical treatment. This entails the principle of tolerance: one need not necessarily approve of the diversity of life styles; one simply permits them to coexist.

This does not deny that there is a public sphere; nor that society does not have the right to regulate conduct or to enact laws consonant with the public good. But there is the recognition that there should be limits to undue intrusion into the private sphere - and this applies to beggars and kings, ordinary citizens and presidents.

Humanist morality holds that individuals have responsibilities to others; it emphasizes the virtues of empathy, compassion, and altruism, and it encourages rational dialogue and the negotiation of differences. It is also concerned with social justice. The good society is one that maximizes the opportunities for individuals to make their own choices. It seeks to change conduct by education and persuasion rather than legislation and compulsion.

The above is consonant with the democratic ethic that has evolved over three centuries. Humanist morality in this sense permeates modern culture. Interestingly, these ethical principles have been shared by liberals, conservatives, and libertarians, all of whom cherish the preciousness and dignity of the individual and the right to self-determination.

A second conception of morality that contends today is premodern. It has its roots in historical religious traditions. This morality is biblical (or koranic); it is guided by a set of absolute moral commandments. Thou shalt not commit what is considered to be sinful: adultery, abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, etc. Some advocates of this morality would call upon the state to legislate moral conduct. They would censor pornographic literature or the arts. They would invade the bedroom and define the physician-patient relationship. They think that some kinds of behavior are so depraved and wicked that the behavior ought to be prohibited by society. Interestingly, social conservatives and left-wing communitarians have often shared a similar agenda about private morality, wishing to codify and confine it. This is given a special meaning today by the emergence of the Christian Coalition in the United States and of fundamentalist religions in other parts of the world. They are intent on overthrowing humanist morality and imposing a puritanical inquisition.

The Starr Chamber: Prosecutorial Inquisition

No doubt the underlying ethical issue in the Clinton-Lewinsky impeachment drama is the clash of these two conceptions of morality. The new Puritans insist that the president should have no private life; since the White House belongs to us, he is not permitted to do anything immoral in his goldfish bowl. He must be a Paragon of Virtue. Clinton, for them, has committed two unpardonable sins: adultery and lying.

Leading the pack of wolves of the new inquisition, of course, is Judge Kenneth Starr, whose prosecutorial zeal allowed the pornographic report of his investigation to be released to the public. The McCarthyites of Virtue express the conservative religious traditions of American society, including a wide range of different denominations. William Bennett functions as the vindictive and imperious U.S. gauleiter of Vatican morality. Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich are defenders of the official Baptist biblical line: If the Bible condemns homosexuality, it must be wrong. William Kristol and David Frum in the Murdoch-sponsored new conservative ideological journal, Weekly Standard, defend a form of Judaistic Old Testament morality. The anti-privacy judge Robert Bork believes that we live in moral chaos (see his Slouching Towards Gomorrah) and that we need to return to an age of censorship and prohibitive legislation. Senator Orrin Hatch adds the Mormon defense of absolutist morality. There are others in the coalition: Reverend Richard John Neuhaus, a former Lutheran prelate, now a Roman Catholic priest and editor of First Things, argues that the empty public square should be filled with the sacred. James Dobson seeks to instill traditional biblical conceptions of the family in the entire society. (The Old Testament is patriarchal and anti-woman. In the New Testament Jesus is anti-family, for he never married and he bade his disciples to leave their families.) Last but not least is John Whitehead, head of the Rutherford Institute. Whitehead funded Paula Jones's lawsuit against President Clinton. What is intriguing for secular humanists is the fact that two decades ago Whitehead led a legal crusade against secular humanism, arguing that secular humanism was a religion and that it had to be extirpated from the schools and all aspects of social life.

Regretfully, the anti-privacy McCarthyites of Virtue have many allies in the media, which have spewed forth anti-Clinton verbiage day in and day out. The most egregious examples are Rush Limbaugh and Laura Schlesinger, who host today's two most popular syndicated radio shows. Any standards of fairness have been abandoned. A similar spectacle can be seen on 24-hour television and cable networks, where the large hallelujah chorus bleats forth daily, with very few dissenting voices.

As of this writing, it is difficult to predict whether the Republican-dominated House Judiciary Committee will proceed in its impeachment proceedings. The recent congressional elections suggest that a significant sector of the American public is fed up with the charade. It is also apparent that many of those who wish to impeach the president also wish to fundamentally remake all of our institutions: their long-range goal is to solidify their control of Congress, the presidency, and the courts. In my view, they pose a real threat to the very fabric of our democratic society. Hence, I reiterate my call in the last issue of Free Inquiry for a new humanist political coalition, involving liberals and libertarians, social democrats and conservatives - all those who believe at the very least in the separation of church and state and the right of privacy.

What we need to make clear in this Kulturkampf is that humanist morality has genuine historic roots within our culture, and that humanism is related to the secularization of values going back to the Renaissance. Central to American democracy is the First Amendment, and the respect for the rights of individuals. To seek to impair these cherished principles would constitute a radical assault on our democracy. Hence a danger signal has to be raised high if we are to defend and preserve our liberties against the McCarthyites of Virtue.


Paul Kurtz is the Editor-in-Chief of Free Inquiry Magazine.


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