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Bowe Bergdahl And The Clash Of Moral Codes

Not surprisingly, the negotiated release of American POW Bowe Bergdahl has generated a significant amount of commentary from all over the political spectrum.  Some of it, of course, has been quite good, while some has been quite bad.  And some has been simply baffling.

Into this last category, we place a piece written for the website of Commentary magazine by Peter Wehner.  Wehner is unhappy about the exchange and the Obama administration’s bizarre celebration of it, but more than that he is confused by the whole matter.  He doesn’t understand the administration’s reaction – the patent falsehoods told on TV by National Security Adviser Susan Rice, the figurative and literal embrace of the Talib-sympathizer father, or Chuck Hagel’s victory lap.  And in trying to make sense of it all, he stumbles upon an explanation he considers revelatory.  He puts it this way:

The president’s decision may well endanger American lives down the road.  And his administration has elevated an apparent deserter – one whose actions were reported on in the past . . . and who is responsible for the death of fellow soldiers who tried to rescue him – into a hero.

This strikes me as morally grotesque.  Yet for Mr. Obama and some of those in the progressive movement, the events of the last few days count as a fantastic achievement, one worth venerating and exalting.

Years ago John Gray wrote a book called Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.  In this case, it’s the president and I who occupy different worlds, including different moral worlds.  Mr. Obama is proud of a series of acts that I would think he would, after careful reflection, feel regret for and even (when it comes to his administration lionizing Sgt. Bergdahl) some shame.

At times individuals interpret the same events at such different angles of vision that their actions are nearly incomprehensible one to another.  I will confess that more than I ever imagined, I have that feeling with my president.

Wehner, we should note, is a newcomer neither to politics nor the examination of morality in politics.  Among other things, he is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which is openly and proudly “dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy.”  Previously, he was the head speechwriter and then the director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives for President George W. Bush.  And before that, he was the executive director for policy at Empower America.  All of which is to say that morality in government and the Judeo-Christian tradition have been Wehner’s bread and butter for decades.

So why, then, is he surprised that he and Barack Obama occupy different moral worlds?  How is it possible that, after all these years, this is news to him?

The Progressive movement in this country was once a part, indeed, an aggressive and active part, of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  The idea was that society needed to be “reformed” in order to prepare the way for Christ’s return.

Some five decades ago, though, all of that began to change, as the progressives/liberals moved rather swiftly away from the religious interpretation of reform and embraced what can be called the “post-modern” ethic.  The Left, as an intellectual and popular movement, abandoned traditional beliefs about God, man, truth, justice, right, wrong, good, and evil, and chose to embrace a more “nuanced” or conditional approach to questions of morality.  Although it took some time for this ethic to filter through the political machine, it eventually did.  And by the time Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, the Left in this country was fully invested in a moral scheme than openly challenged the traditional Judeo-Christian code.

Consider, if you will, the issues that have stirred the most contentious political debate in this country over the last few decades: abortion, marriage, family, sex, freedom of religious expression, etc.  All of these issues point not just to disagreements between the parties, but to open and hostile conflict between competing moral systems, one of which embraces a traditional code and one of which embraces a code that is more “flexible” and “updated.”

The fact of the matter is that much of what divides the parties – indeed, much of what divides the country – these days is related directly to this clash of moral systems, this embrace of what Wehner calls “different moral worlds.”

In 2012, for example, Mitt Romney won roughly 6 in 10 votes of those who attend church services weekly.  Barack Obama, by contrast, won 6 in 10 votes of those who attend seldom or never.  None of this is to say that religiosity or church attendance is incompatible with voting Democratic.  Far from it.  But it is to say that traditional moral standards are more or less inconsistent with the contemporary progressive belief system and associated public policy agenda.

None of this is especially insightful or novel on our part.  This is standard culture-war stuff and has been so for at least twenty years, which is why Wehner’s declaration that he has only now discovered it is baffling.  We suspect that he is only being kind here, trying to appear as if he is giving the President of the United States the benefit of the doubt with respect to the moral nature of his previous decisions and policy goals.  But he needn’t be.  This clash of moral codes is hardly new.  It has defined American politics for decades.  And it explains the current disconnect between “red” and “blue” rather concisely.