We expect presidential elections to generate rhetoric that insults reason and reality in the service of a partisan agenda. We expect op-ed writers at liberal institutions such as the New York Times to participate in this vice. What surprises the reader, though, is the utter shamelessness of the effort -- and the attempt to conceal it under the cloak of "moderation."
Take the recent column by Thomas Friedman, "Why I am Pro-life." Friedman begins his redefinition of the pro-life position this way: "Respect for the sanctity of life, if you believe that it begins at conception, cannot end at birth. That radical narrowing of our concern for the sanctity of life is leading to terrible distortions in our society." What Mr. Friedman fails to mention is that the vast majority of those in the pro-life movement agree with him.
In liberalism's radically narrowed experience, the broad concerns of pro-life activists are invisible. There is no appreciation for the crisis pregnancy centers, clinics, churches and faith-based charities that are helping thousands of needy women and children every day in this country. There is no recognition of the culture of adoption -- preached from the pulpit and rooted in the Christian narrative of divine mercy -- that is rescuing countless children from lives of desperation and rejection.
Why the silence? Because in the liberal imagination, government is the only Good Samaritan that matters: compassion resides solely in the heart of the welfare state.
Thus, in liberalism's perverse logic, the most pro-life politician in America is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- not because he has lifted a finger to protect the unborn or reduce the number of abortions or promote a culture of caring and responsibility. No, Mr. Bloomberg, a pro-abortion champion, offers a model of pro-life advocacy because he worries about climate change and has outlawed giant soft drinks to combat obesity.
We are asked to believe, without a whiff of Orwellian irony, that a person can be "pro-life" while demanding that government subsidize the use of lethal violence against the unborn -- even as they are exiting the womb. To believe otherwise, we are told in the most sanctimonious tone imaginable, is to be a counterfeit pro-lifer. To think otherwise is to abandon moderation, to upset the "delicate balance" that exists between those who oppose abortion "in their own lives" and those who "want to make a different personal choice."
Now consider a recent column by David Brooks called "What Moderation Means." According to Brooks, moderates are not "ultimately committed to an abstract idea." This is another way of saying that moderates reject the concept of moral absolutes, because an attachment to ultimate and transcendent truths breeds fanaticism. Abstract ideas -- such as the ancient belief in a moral God who opposes slavery, for example -- have no place in the mental outlook of the moderate.
We are informed that the moderate voter "distrusts passionate intensity and bold simplicity" and instead "admires self-restraint, intellectual openness and equipoise." Quite a creature he is. Evidently, there is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- occurring in the cushioned, comfortable, shrimp-and-chardonnay world of the Manhattan moderate that offends his conscience or provokes his moral outrage. Nothing, it seems, except the willingness to make moral judgments.
Instead, we are told, the moderate "has a deep reverence for the way people live in her country and the animating principle behind that way of life." This means the moderate citizen could never act as a prophet. She could never challenge "the way people live" or the "animating principle" of her society -- principles such as misogyny, racism, xenophobia or anti-Semitism, to name a few. Yes, the moderate appreciates contrasting political visions. But she, in her infinite capacity for epistemological humility, remains morally neutral in the contest. "Rather, the moderate tries to preserve the tradition of conflict," Mr. Brooks intones, "keeping the opposing sides balanced."
Here is what passes for democratic citizenship in contemporary liberalism. It has a familiar ring. Historically speaking, this version of moderation is usually the voice of the oppressor, determined to rationalize his oppression and quash dissent.
It was the appeal for balance and moderation -- in effect, moral indifference -- that Abraham Lincoln found so offensive during his debates over slavery with Stephen Douglas. Lincoln denounced the "declared indifference" about the fundamental question of human equality as a betrayal of the nation's democratic ideals.
"I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself," Lincoln said.
"I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world, enables the enemies of free institutions with plausibility to taunt us as hypocrites, causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many good men among ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty, criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest."
The other voice of liberal moderation is the squeal of the moral coward, the man who knows in his conscience that moral truth is being assaulted -- and that the innocent face great harm -- but he is afraid to intervene. He has too much to lose: prestige, reputation, access to the inner rings of power.
Contrary to liberal revisionism, no leap forward toward a more just society was ever brought about by political or social moderates. The anti-slavery novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," the blockbuster which helped ignite the Civil War, was not written by a moderate. The daring conspiracy against Nazi Germany, the plot to risk all and "put a spoke in the wheel" by assassinating Hitler, was not attempted by moderates. The Letter from Birmingham Jail, a plea to "make real the promise of democracy" and to reject racist laws that "degrade human personality" was not conceived by a moderate. The Polish Solidarity Movement, which defied communist thuggery and created the first crack in the wall of Soviet totalitarianism, was not led by moderates.
No, there was not a moderate among them. Democracy and human rights cannot thrive in the gruel of moral indifference. A democratic culture cannot draw strength from the emaciated ethics of individuals whose "private" morality never intrudes upon their "public" lives. It depends rather on citizens who believe in a set of moral truths -- grounded in the character of a just and loving God -- and who act on their beliefs in political life.
"I agree with Dante," wrote the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., "that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a period of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality." On the great moral questions of our day -- such as the sacred worth of every member of the human family -- self-styled moderates should entertain the possibility that they're not on the side of the angels after all.
Joseph Loconte, Ph.D., is an associate professor of history at the King's College in New York City and the author of 'The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt.'