Harold D. Trulear: Where is the Moral Vision?

The 2010 election results have some declaring that the United States has taken a hard right turn. Others, including many African Americans, see the outcome as a racist rejection of African-American leadership. I choose to view the results through a different lens—that of a Christian ethicist amazed at the lack of moral language available during both the campaigns and the post-election analysis.

post01-trulearmoralvisionAfter a strong effort in 2008 to highlight the values at stake in the presidential campaign, the whole issue of moral vision evaporated this year in a humid, overcast sky of personal discontent. Apart from health care, policy issues found no hearing. The economy received less attention than jobs, and both major parties grabbed for the “we’re on your side” issue of lower taxes with no discussion of those things on which tax dollars should or should not be spent.

Recent national elections, presidential and otherwise, saw candidates reach for moral grounding. Organizations such as Sojourners pressed voters to consider poverty as a moral issue, and discussions about abortion and war drew on moral and religious discourse, as did 2008’s call for “hope” and “change.” But vision is out and reductionist self-interest is in. The struggle for America’s soul in past elections disappeared, replaced by a tug of war over who sides best with middle-class interests. Outside of a few buzz words such as “too liberal,” or identifying ad hominem similarities between current candidates and unpopular current or former office holders, Republican and Democratic campaign commercials were virtually indistinguishable. It is as if America no longer has a soul. The collective fear factor loomed so large it eclipsed sound moral reasoning and any need for real policy debate.

Yet, under the radar screen, the role of religion in public life goes on unaffected. Congregations such as First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, New Jersey, featured in the CNN documentary “Almighty Debt,” continue working at the intersection of the American economy and moral values. Collaborations between the faith community and government in such areas as prisoner reentry, fatherhood, and marriage and family go unexamined. Discussions about abortion and interfaith cooperation sponsored by the current administration’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships are mostly unnoticed. Consideration of religion and morality is postponed while angst and anger born of fear receive central attention.

It has been almost 20 years since Stephen Carter lamented the trivialization of religion in the public square in his book The Culture of Disbelief.  The ensuing years witnessed a rise in the public engagement of a variety of faith traditions, enriching civic life and making citizens more intentional about drawing on moral values to frame their lives together. Barack Obama’s appeal to hope in 2008 reflected the cresting of that important wave. Sadly, in 2010 it seems to have gone back out to sea.

Harold Dean Trulear is associate professor of applied theology at Howard University in Washington, DC and director of the national faith based prisoner reentry initiative Healing Communities.

  • Paul

    Call me a cynic, but I think all modern elections in this country are about various interests acquiring or maintaining power. The interests are composed, not of secret groups to fear, they are us! The state, (rightly or wrongly) having inserted itself into the economy, health system, etc., it is now a major battle for who gets the “goodies.” The moral issue is whether the populace can break its old habits of looking to the state as the source of happiness. ( the Great Society, War on Poverty, etc– all failed) We elect people to govern us, who in turn bribe us with money we give them!

  • Robert Tonn

    A wonderful article, but unfortunately moral visions can not compete with concepts of economic, greed, and fear.
    Both parties should hold debates on moral issues rather than merely attempt to destroy the repuation of opponents. America talks big about religion and fails to realize that their conversation is not about the virtues that is basic to most religions. Compassion, Compassion, Compassion.

  • Dick De Witt

    I haven;t heard anyone say our country has been sold out when our government allowed and aided the sell-out of all of our major and minor industries. We have nothing left but farms and natural resources…and many of them have been sold out. to foreign nations. In the meanwile all our resources and dollars are being wasted in a nine year mideast war against a growing enemy fighting for the freedom of their countries against us, a foreign invader without any no possibility of achieving a successful conclusion. When we leave all of our deaths and expenditures will be for nothing. …and we all know it!

  • Doug and Jan Parker

    An excellent piece.

    We believe what happened during this year’s elections represents the bankruptcy of melding politics with religious rhetoric. Witness the fear mongering featured by such prominent people as Glenn Beck, Rush LImbaugh, Sarah Palin and others on the right…as well as the “sky is falling” rhetoric from Alternet and other sources on the left; both couched in religious language designed to attract disaffected voters with the idea that voting for a particular agenda somehow is endorsed by the Almighty.

    Prominent in the “debate” this year was the focus on American Exceptionlism, a concept rooted in conservative theory for well over a century. Unfortunately, this concept has no true moral basis, and fuels no moral consideration. Instead, it has been manipulated for political gain by both politicians and conservative religious figures. This allows for endless aggressive warfare, reckless exploitation of the environment, oppression of the “forgotten” people in our society (the poor, the immigrant, the outsider) and now, an endorsement of race baiting.

    Where is the outrage from people of faith? Where is the outcry about political leadership which engags daily in hate-speech? Where is the anger that both parties jockey for favor and money from an insidious lobbying industry, meanwhile announcing to the electorate that they will abidcate their responsibiity to govern and instead, focus on creating failure in every avenue of government, while the middle and lower classes suffer?

    Is American Christianty a sham form of faith in which the Cross has been replaced by the Flag, and the Bible replaced by the Constitution?

    America has become the clashing cymbal of this century, full only of noise which is not pleasing to God.

    Jesus weeps for our nation!

  • Doug Lass

    The election of more Republicans to replace Democrats in Washington DC only proves one thing. That these two political parties are out for one thing only, to screw up our nations economy with their own ideology. Both parties practice it, but only for their own political agenda, not that of the American people. Both parties are saying that their own party is the only way to “salvation” and the other party will doom us to Hell. Neither party is willing to compromise on issues that will help the nation as a whole,but only if their particular platform is approved. I think that neither the Republicans or Democrats are looking to help the American people, just their own special interests and how much money they can get for themselves and keep the American public as poor as possible!

  • danderson

    It seems that Prof. Trulear is first and foremost a partisan person, one who laments the loss of the Democrats at the polls. Does this mean that America has lost its moral vision? Didn’t that start along time ago? The Democrats, contrary to what Sojourners would have us believe, do NOT have a lock on moral vision. They too often kow-tow to groups such as NARAL and Planned Parenthood. They do not talk about personal responsibility and what role the lack thereof has played in the break-up of the family unit.

    I would respect the good Prof. a lot more if he would be a bit less partisan…

  • harold dean trulear

    Sorry to disappoint danderson, but I am a Republican and have been since the 1970′s. My lament is to the loss of moral vision on both sides of the aisle, as others have rightly discerned in their comments. My points of comparison are both to the welcome addition of moral issues by Democrats in the 2008 elections and the ongoing consideration of moral questions withn my own party. As one who directed much of the research that helped create President Bush’s Office of Fath Based and Community Initiatives, my concern for faith as a ground upon which to stand in public discourse in assuredly non-partisan. And, as noted above by Doug Lass, and written eloquently by Stephen Carter in 2000 (God’s Name in Vain- inspired by C.S. Lewis’ essay God in the Dock), all particular authentic religious faith stands above partisanism.