Waiting for Jeremiah

12/19/2010 08:07 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Two stories dominated the news this past week -- the passing of Elizabeth Edwards and the agreement between the President and Congressional leaders to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for all Americans coupled with an extension of unemployment benefits and a payroll tax "holiday." The juxtaposition of these two stories offers a sharp contrast. One story spoke of moral courage in the face of death, of devotion to one's family (even husband) in the most difficult of times, of the personal strength of a remarkable life. The other story spoke of the inability to grapple with our need to stop hemorrhaging public debt; it was a story of much more limited moral courage as each side got much of what it wanted -- at the expense of future generations.

At the heart of each of these stories is a message about, in one case, the vales that we think should drive American and the other the values that seem to predominate in our public life. Last May, 82% of Americans said that "the overall state of moral values in this country today" was "only fair" or "poor," and 71% said "the state of moral values in this country" was "getting worse." This is not new to the American experience. Neither is what will come next.

Since John Winthrop told his Massachusetts Bay colonists in 1630 that they comprised a "city upon a hill," Americans have called upon themselves (with quite notable lapses, of course) to take a moral high ground. We believe we should hold ourselves to tough standards of private and public behavior. We believe that the American experiment is intended to demonstrate that people can be trusted with self-government. But self-government absent strong moral values is bad government.

When Americans have failed to live up to their self-promise, they have been taken to task by an American Jeremiah and asked to change. Indeed, the jeremiad has been a hallmark of political discourse at critical times in our history. Like the prophet of old, Frederick Douglass chastised us in 1852 with his speech "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" and he predicted the whirlwind. Abraham Lincoln issued the greatest American jeremiad just over a dozen years later with his Second Inaugural, which proclaimed that the Civil War was indeed God's punishment on both North and South for slavery.

The United States is ripe for another jeremiad, and it is looking for a new Jeremiah to deliver it. The religious right assumed the mantle in the last two decades of the last century, but it largely failed. Its leaders tried to suggest that American public virtue demanded Christianity, and Americans (thankfully) distrust anyone that tries to thrust religion too forcefully into public life. Its leaders also adopted an action agenda (anti-abortion, anti-gay, and anti-immigrant) that seemed too nasty, too narrow and, frankly, too un-Christian at the same time.

Meanwhile, the social activist left forgot that its greatest recent gains took place in the 1960s when it married moral values with public purposes. It chose to excise value conversations from political discourse, as if choosing among moral values had little or no place in governing, despite the fact that government is nothing if it is not a choice among moral values.

With both political parties lacking the ideas or leaders to justify the public's trust that they represent anything other than business as usual, the Tea Party Movement may well be the next effort to restore virtue to American public life. In righteous indignation, its leaders seem poised to claim the mantle of the modern-day Jeremiah.

It would be easy, and wrong, to cast this effort as merely the concoction of a bunch of angry, far-right conservatives who view Sarah Palin as the next Biblical prophet. There is currently no productive mass outlet for popular anger at the moral failures of government. Americans know that something is wrong, that the values and virtues they believe essential in public affairs are being violated with regularity. They also know that both political parties are proving themselves masters at alternatively winning elections and opposing those elected but misers at devising political solutions (or putting forward politicians) anchored in the values of integrity, thrift, government self-control, and moral character that Americans increasingly hunger to find in public life.

Tea Partiers may have neither the wisdom, self-restraint nor willingness to sacrifice for the common good to right the moral ship of state (how many of them, for example, would offer to give up the tax breaks they just got from Congress?). Their solutions and their leaders may be radical, even dangerous. But in the absence of alternatives that can capture and channel the public spirit, more Americans will lend them -- and others like them -- an ear. When reason and patience fail, the call for a Jeremiah to pronounce our sins and administer the call for repentance grows.