Revisiting the immorality of the religious right’s ‘moral high ground’

While looking for something else, I came across this post from just after the 2012 elections. Apart from the re-election of President Obama, that day also saw voters in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington state demonstrating their support for marriage equality.

This was a complete reversal from the context of the 2004 election just a few short years earlier. Back in 2004, Republicans in many states rushed to get anti-gay referendum questions on the ballot because, at that time, such measures were seen as a winning position and a winning strategy. They kept the focus on the so-called “moral” issues, and the conservative side had the advantage on such issues, where it could always claim the moral high ground.

This conservative claim of the moral high ground was asserted and widely accepted for years. Until it wasn’t.

Instead of just passively accepting this claim of the moral high ground, people began questioning it. And their questions never got a straight answer or a substantial answer or an honest answer. When called on to defend their assertion of the moral high ground, all the religious right seemed able to do was to repeat that assertion — without explanation, without justification, without evidence or argument.

Their claim of the moral high ground was exposed as a lie.

Three years later, the same thing has just happened in the Republic of Ireland, with two-thirds of voters in that nation affirming a right to marriage equality for LGBT people despite the opposition of that country’s religious right and its insistence that it was the voice of the moral high ground.

So I think what I wrote here after the 2012 elections is worth revisiting, because I think it applies again to the results of the Irish referendum:

The religious right lost because they are no longer perceived as having the moral high ground. For decades, the religious right has been pre-occupied with two issues above all else: abortion and homosexuality. And on both of those issues, they have wielded power and influence by claiming the moral high ground — claiming to represent the godly, “biblical” truth of right and wrong. Anyone who disagreed with them on these issues was portrayed as less moral, less godly, less good.

That claim — that framing of these issues as right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, biblical vs. unbiblical, moral vs. immoral — was asserted and accepted for most of the religious right’s 30-year run.

TheFourandIrelandBut not any more. That claim is still being asserted, but it is no longer being accepted.

Part of what happened on Tuesday was that millions of people rejected that claim on moral grounds. This was not just a political or pragmatic disagreement that preserved their essential claim of godly morality. It was a powerful counter-claim — the claim that the religious right is advocating immoral, unjust and cruelly unfair policies on both of its hallmark issues. Knee-jerk opposition to legal abortion and to gay rights weren’t just rejected as bad policy, but as bad morals — as being on the wrong side of right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, biblical vs. unbiblical, moral vs. immoral.

When Franklin Graham took out full-page newspaper ads declaring that “there are profound moral issues at stake” in this election, voters agreed with that much of his argument. Voters thought Graham was right that this argument about “the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman” is a “profound moral issue,” but they believed that Graham himself was profoundly wrong — that his opposition to marriage equality put him on the wrong side of a moral issue.

Voters in Maryland, Maine, Minnesota and Washington all rejected Graham’s opposition to marriage equality, not because it was too lofty a moral claim, or too sectarian in its “biblical” concerns, but because it was immoral, oppressive, unfair, unjust, unethical, unkind and unrighteous.

This makes for a new and fundamentally different argument. For decades, the religious right has been arguing that their purchase on the moral high ground ought to result in their political triumph. The political opposition to that used to be a form of “yes, but …” — yes, these political preachers are correct about morality and immorality, but other factors need to be considered, or other complications have to be accounted for, etc.

Opposition to the religious right’s agenda on Tuesday did not take the form of this “yes, but …” argument. It was simply, “No.”

It was not a disagreement about the political implications of the preachers’ righteous moral claims, but a denial of those claims, of their righteousness and of their morality. No, these political preachers are incorrect about morality and immorality. No, pretending that some “biblical definition of marriage” is a pretext for denying people their rights or delegitimizing their families is not good or decent or right. No, legal coercion compelling rape victims to bear the offspring of their attackers is not good or decent or right.

And that cuts to the core of the matter. That isn’t just a single defeat in a single election, but a fundamental rejection of the entire basis for why anyone, anywhere should ever listen to the religious right.

The religious right can no longer simply assert and assume that it has the moral high ground. If it wants to make that claim, it will have to argue for it, will have to explain why its absolute opposition to legal abortion and to civil rights for LGBT people is right or true or good.


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