I’ve been thinking about public morality since writing a piece about Barr’s 2019 address to the Notre Dame law school. Public morality is the words and behaviors that are acceptable within public arena. Standards vary from arena to arena, but are always about what happens in public view.
There are two basic types of Public Morality standards: customary and legal. Legal standards are the laws that define and protect rights and safety, with enforcement through due process. I want to lay them aside and focus on customary standards of public morality.
Customary standards are “the way we do things around here.” Public arenas allow much freedom of expression, but it’s not unlimited. “The way we do things around here,” establishes social boundaries for what is acceptable and expected. Generations of sociologists have spent entire careers trying to catalogue them: their works are both informative and entertaining. The point is, customary standards establish boundaries beyond which one is deemed to have breeched what is acceptable public behavior. Enforcement is through various forms of social pressure from rude ostracizing to helpful mentoring, with the disapproving look of a mother’s glare in the middle. More violent forms of enforcement are recorded in our history and celebrated in today’s revenge-as-justice movies. It doesn’t take an academic to figure it out; just ask any high school kid how it works in their school. They’ll explain it to you.
The questions are: who has the ability to set standards; how are they enforced; who is entitled to be exempt; and how do violators earn redemption?
Customary standards of public morality exist at every level of community, which means they exist at the national level: What is the acceptable American way we do things around here? National standards for public morality are set most powerfully by the president and members of Congress as most often featured by the press and in social media. They influence the way things are done in Washington D.C., how the nation is perceived in the world, and give social license to the American public for the ways they can behave in public.
For instance, Sen. Joe McCarthy made it morally acceptable for Americans to engage in thoughtless red-baiting. Richard Nixon so violated the customary norms that he paid the price of being ostracized. Lyndon Johnson raised civil rights to a new definition of public morality that overturned two centuries of acceptable behavior. He also redefined what was morally acceptable in war and paid a heavy price, not unlike Nixon’s. Reagan made it morally acceptable to make corporate profits more important than middle class prosperity. Yet among all the good and bad there was a general sense of what was and wasn’t morally acceptable in the national public arena. It established the ideal, if not reality, of civility and integrity. Guided by the collective customary of national political leadership, it influenced what was and wasn’t morally acceptable public behavior at every level of society.
Then came Trump. He and his prominent allies in political office, aided by right-wing media personalities, violated almost every norm of public morality, and got away with it. It signaled the nation that the old standards of public morality no longer need be observed. Opinion untethered by a reasonable assessment of facts was deemed as valid as any other opinion; indeed, alleged facts became as good as verified facts. Theft and corruption became smart business practice. Personal integrity gave way to personality cult loyalty. Insulting bombast and macho chest thumping were signs of toughness. The virtues of our electoral system were held up to ridicule, and suppressing voting rights became virtuous. American ideals of the common good were abandoned for the good of the powerful, rich few.
It corrupted the national sense of public morality, and made it acceptable for leaders at every level of society to behave the same way.
GOP leadership buried the corruption of public morality under a campaign to regulate the private morality of individuals by targeting gender, marriage, family structure, and so on under the guises of religious freedom and the alleged corruption of personal morality. The party that boasts it stands for individuality and self-reliance would impose the full force of government on the private lives of individuals and families, depriving them of fundamental freedoms.
Restoring customary standards of public morality more attuned to the long cherished ideals of American democracy will not be easy, but it is necessary. Once decadent demagogy has been let loose, it’s hard to reestablish standards of civil decency because it’s no longer clear what those standards are or should be. The methods by which the nation used to work out new understandings have been so corrupted that they no longer work, and what will work is yet to be determined.
It is into this space that I agree, in part, with Barr. The church, particularly the mainline and Roman Catholic churches have major roles to play, no matter declining church attendance. The message from the pulpit remains a strong, influential voice declaring what public morality must be. The more that message can be aired by public theologians, the more influence it will have. In cooperation with other communities of faith, it is the way we can recover the “soul of America.”