Answering Moral Questions: A Primer for Democrats

A top Bush appointee like Peter Pace puts his foot in his mouth, and so naturally it becomes a problem for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Get that? Me neither.

So let’s back up and take it step by step. How did Barack and Hillary screw up? What should Democratic candidates do differently in the future?

The Story So Far

First let’s get the facts straight. Last Monday, General Peter Pace, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was talking on the record to editors and reporters of the Chicago Tribune when he was asked about the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy towards gays and lesbians. He supported the policy by saying that homosexual acts are immoral, and that the military would be condoning immorality if it allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly. He compared the rule to the military’s policy against soldiers sleeping with each other’s wives.

So the press comes to presidential candidates with the question: Do you agree? Are homosexual acts immoral? Republican Sam Brownback has no trouble answering: Yes, they are. John McCain just refused to answer, and for some reason everybody seems to be OK with that. Rudy Giuliani apparently also has no comment. Thank you, Rudy.

Hillary Clinton on Good Morning America says a few of the right things: She’s against “don’t ask, don’t tell” because “We are being deprived of thousands of patriotic men and women who want to serve their country who are bringing skills into the armed services that we desperately need, like translation skills.” That’s a reference to the dismissal of gay Arabic-speaking translators in November, 2002 – just when we needed them.

But when pressed to comment on the “immoral” aspect of it, Clinton punts: “Well, I’m going to leave that to others to decide.” Then, after hearing responses from the gay community, she puts out an additional statement: “I should have echoed my colleague Senator John Warner’s statement forcefully stating that homosexuality is not immoral because that is what I believe.”

So the end result is that she managed to annoy both the gays and the anti-gays. Nice work.

Obama was a little better, but not much. His initial comment was only: “I think traditionally the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman has restricted his public comments to military matters. That's probably a good tradition to follow.” And then he also followed up Thursday with: “I do not agree with General Pace that homosexuality is immoral. Attempts to divide people like this have consumed too much of our politics over the past six years.”

The Problem

Whatever their actual phrasing was, both Clinton and Obama got translated as saying: (1) “I don’t want to talk about it because I’ll piss somebody off”; followed by (2) “Gays are already pissed off at me, so I have to placate them somehow.” Both came off looking spineless and calculating.

Even so, liberal critics are wrong to say that the question is simple and Democrats should “just say no” when asked about gay immorality. It isn’t a simple question at all, because it comes loaded with all kinds of invisible freight. An ideal liberal answer would: (1) say no; (2) unload the invisible freight; and (3) be short enough that the nuances wouldn’t get completely lost in the media coverage.

That’s not easy.

As a thought experiment, consider something a little less controversial than homosexuality: anal sex by a married couple. Imagine you’re a leading Democratic candidate for president and the press asks you about if it’s immoral. Your honest belief is no and you certainly don’t want to be quoted as saying yes. But you know that if you answer directly, everything else you’ve said today is out the window. The headline will read: “Smith Endorses Anal Sex”. Is that really what you want your message to be today?

So the desire to hesitate and waffle and hope nobody notices is perfectly reasonable. McCain and Giuliani got away with it, and I’ll bet they’re happy.

But liberals face a headwind: For decades Republicans have been repeating the charge that we have no morality. Every time a liberal dodges a moral question, that criticism gets validated. So liberals need to wade into moral questions. No matter how impossible those questions are, a liberal candidate needs to have a tone and manner that says, “I’m glad you asked that.”


Once you start into the minefield, you need to know where the mines are. The first mine has to do with respect. Another decades-old conservative talking point is liberal elitism. Millions and millions of people expect not just that a liberal will disagree with their views, but that a liberal will look down on them for believing what they believe. They are expecting an insult, so they will hear one if you give them any chance.

That’s why the very first line of your answer has to have the word respect in it: “I respect General Pace’s right to his personal moral beliefs, and I support every American’s right to speak freely.” If anybody said that, they didn’t say it loud enough to get coverage. And conservatives have jumped on that absence as evidence that liberals don’t respect a person’s right to express conservative beliefs. Paul Chesser wrote in The American Spectator: “Clearly for Pace to speak out ‘as an individual’ is an abomination in the homosexual Code of Behavior, whatever that is. Their oft-asserted claim to inclusiveness leaves a few colors out of the rainbow spectrum: Bible-literalness and relativism rejection being two of them.”

That’s the spin: Democrats are condemning General Pace because he expressed Christian beliefs in public. Don’t think that won’t have traction, even with some liberal Christians who ought to be voting Democratic. Now go back and read Obama’s initial statement. He walked right into it. Once you put his statement inside the conservative frame, it sounds like he’s saying: “Christians should just shut up.”


In your second line you get to throw in the appropriate qualifiers. It won’t get on TV, but you might get quoted in the newspapers. And you have to use some form of the word responsible: “But when public officials speak on the record in their official capacity, they have a responsibility not to substitute their personal opinions for public policy.” The end of that sentence repeats almost word-for-word the standard conservative line about “activist judges”.

Hit the point harder. The liberal view is the responsible one, while conservatives abuse their positions to impose their personal morality on the rest of us. “Military policies need military justifications. Qualified gays and lesbians should not be kept out of our armed forces because General Pace personally disapproves of their lifestyle.”

Now get to policy. Don’t ground your view in what’s best for gay and lesbian individuals; ground it in what’s right for America. This is where Hillary’s initial point comes in: “Militarily, don’t-ask-don’t-tell has been a disaster for our country. At a time when we are at war and our military is stretched thin, this policy has turned away thousands of volunteers and resulted in the dismissal of soldiers with valuable skills.”

Don’t be afraid to wave the bloody shirt. They’d do it to us: “At a time when lives may depend on our ability to quickly and accurately translate intercepted Arabic traffic, don’t-ask-don’t-tell has forced us to do without the services of many Arabic language specialists. We need to ask ourselves which is more important: Stopping terrorist attacks or regulating the private lives of our troops?”


Now you wait for the question: But do you agree with General Pace that homosexual acts are immoral?

We’re at the Smith-endorses-anal-sex point. Now the landmine to be avoided is this: The phrase homosexual acts by itself causes many Americans to imagine things that even you would think are immoral. (Picture Ted Haggard cheating on his wife by taking crystal meth with his gay prostitute. Are you OK with that?) If you just say no, they think that you’ve endorsed whatever disgusting things they’re seeing in their heads.

Don’t. Your answer needs to communicate not just that you disagree with General Pace, but that your disagreement is founded on a moral view of life. You’re not just counting gay and lesbian votes, you’re living according to your principles. That reasoning won’t convince the Falwells and Dobsons, but they weren’t going to vote for you anyway. Swing voters respect a principled politician even if they disagree.

Your principles don’t have to be religious, but if you have a religion this is the place to mention it. I do, so I’d answer like this: “My Unitarian Universalist religion teaches me that sex is primarily about relationships, not just physical acts. Our second principle commits us to ‘justice, equity, and compassion in human relations’. And that’s how I judge all relationships: sexual or non-sexual, gay or straight. Are those relationships just? Are they equitable? Are they compassionate? To the extent that they are, I celebrate them. And to the extent that they are not, I condemn them.”

Liberals are probably nervous about putting the word condemn into the answer. But some such word has to be there. Conservatives have successfully projected the anything-goes stereotype onto us. Many people honestly believe that we can’t condemn anybody for anything (except when we hypocritically contradict ourselves by condemning Christian people like General Pace for having moral standards). So if the picture in your head is Ted Haggard and crystal meth, I think it’s important that you hear a condemnation in my answer. Or at least something stronger than “Whatever, dude.” My moral standards may not be the same as yours, but I do have some.

The Take Away Points

So listen up, Democratic candidates: You have to wade into moral questions, even when you’d rather not. You need to look eager to answer them and not uncomfortable in the least.

You start by expressing respect for people whose honest beliefs are different than yours, but then you imply that your opponent’s position is irresponsible while yours is responsible. Your opponent is putting his personal views above his responsibility to the country, whereas you are asking what is best for America.

If you are pressed for personal moral views, ground them in principle. Your principles should be clear and direct. The nuances should be in the application of principle to a particular case, not in the statement of the principle itself. Your principles should not be empty, embracing everything and everybody.

And get it right the first time. Nobody is going to be impressed by your “clarifying” statement tomorrow morning.

You in the back – Hillary! Barack! – you got that?

Doug Muder
19 March 2007
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